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Seeking disability support at university

Daniel Dipper provides a rundown of the different available outlets of support at Oxford.

Coming to Oxford with a disability may seem daunting, but I hope to signpost through this article where you can get further support and what you can potentially expect over the coming weeks and months.

Disability Advisory Service (DAS): The first port of call I would recommend is the Disability Advisory Service (DAS). If you disclosed as part of your application that you have a disability, when onboarding to the university you may have been automatically referred to the Service. It may be worth checking with your college directly if you do have any anxiety about onboarding with the team or want further information.

In my case there was an adviser assigned to my college, and a call was scheduled with them before term to discuss my needs and how they could best be supported in Oxford’s environment. I had a diagnosis for fibromyalgia and I had already applied for Disabled Students’ Allowance (which you apply for usually with your maintenance loan and student finance), though I would still advise reaching out to them even if you don’t have a diagnosis. That way, they can hopefully support you by explaining exactly what you may need to do to access further support, and potentially they may be able to make adjustments in the short-term.

The adviser will work with you to put together a Student Support Plan (SSP), which summarises usually on one or two pages what adjustments you need across the entirety of the Oxford experience. This may be anything from furniture that needs to be accommodated in college rooms, to teaching spaces, and any other helpful information that will allow tutors to support you best.

Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA): You usually need medical evidence when applying for Disabled Students’ Allowance, and the process can take a few months in total (I was lucky mine was completed within 6 weeks, though I have heard it can take 14 weeks and sometimes longer than that). If you haven’t applied just yet, I would advise not to panic, and to reach out to the Disability Advisory Service to see what can be put in place in the meantime.

By getting funding, it means you may be supported through your studies in a number of ways – in my case I received height-adjustable furniture, a laptop as I can’t write, and mentoring sessions to support me with the challenges I face with my disability. You may also get a printing allowance, or be provided with specialist software to support your university experience.

You usually receive an assessment which details what adjustments you need, both in terms of what funding needs to be provided and wider adjustments. For instance, in my case they have advised that teaching should generally not take place in the morning so I have the best chance of absorbing content, but they may also recommend tutors be particularly understanding that you may need extensions due to the variable nature of your disability.

College: Your college will be your central base for the length of your degree, and most colleges usually either have a tutor or member of staff who you can reach out to regarding accessibility requirements. It is particularly important if you have accessibility requirements to reach out in advance to ensure that your accommodation is suitable, and if your situation changes it is worth getting in contact with college so you can see if any further support can be provided. Your common room (called the JCR – Junior Common Room), which is designed to represent all students, should have a disability representative who can help to advocate on your behalf to college, or identify the best avenues to seek support.

Tutor: When starting tutorials with a new tutor, it is worth emailing your Student Support Plan to them so they have the full information available to them to make any necessary adjustments. Some colleges do check in each term to ask who your tutors are so they can share this on your behalf, though others may not, so it is always worth playing it safe by sharing it yourself. Do keep in mind that if you don’t want to disclose something to your tutors you absolutely do not have to, though whatever information tutors have they will use to try to adjust your teaching as best as possible.

Welfare: Some colleges have counsellors, Welfare Deans or mentors who may be able to support you in resolving specific problems, and there is also the University Counselling Service where further support can be provided. All of this is to say that there is a lot of support on offer, though I admit it can get very confusing as to whom to go to and for what reason; my advice is if they seem like the right person, just give it a go!

Careers Service: When looking for jobs, the University Careers Service runs workshops on declaring a disability, as well as individual one-to-one sessions of around 45 minutes in length to talk about a job search in this context. In addition, you can submit accessibility requirements when applying for internships through the Service to ensure they are accommodated.

Society leaders: Every student society should have somebody responsible for disabled members, and when hosting events it is best practice that they should let you know any accessibility information (for instance if the event is upstairs, or is not accessible by a lift). In smaller societies, this person is usually the President; in larger ones there may be a dedicated disability representative whom you can approach. Either way, while wanting to ensure you do as well in your degree as you can, you should definitely try to get involved in some student societies.

Strategies: Over time I have found I have gained a better understanding of what the symptoms of my disability are and how I can reduce flare-ups, as well as preventative steps I can take to try to avoid my disability making it challenging to work. For instance, I find naps during the day can help me to remain productive, as well as walking for at least 60 minutes a day and eating when I begin to feel my energy dropping.

Reflections: Having a disability at Oxford can be challenging at points, particularly when you have multiple competing deadlines and you may need to take time to rest. Because there are many different options as to the support you could seek it can feel overwhelming, and a further consequence is that at points communication between different institutions is not as smooth as it should be – having to give each tutor your SSP being one of those examples.

Sometimes the most helpful support for individuals may not be advertised from the beginning; while I have found I have coped with the demands of full-time study, some students with disabilities have gone for an elongated length of their degree where they can focus on half the number of modules each term. 

Every Faculty does things differently, meaning that particularly in a joint-honours course what one department can provide, the other may not – for instance, I very easily could access lecture recordings from the History Faculty, but had to have an extended dialogue with the Politics Faculty before I was also granted access.

I do not want to paint a rose-tinted picture that everything is perfect, but I would encourage you to seek support when you need it, and try to proactively reach out to institutions as best as possible so you can engage in a dialogue to get what you need. It is frustrating we sometimes have to do so much self-advocacy, a consequence of the more federal system of the university. Other tutors and faculties can be incredibly understanding though, and every disabled student does have a slightly different experience.

For those students looking for advice on a situation or who would like to meet students from across the university, you should look into joining DisCam, which is the Student Union’s Disability Campaign. I hope this helps, and you are also more than welcome to reach out to me if you ever have any questions!

Image credit: ChevronTango via Wikimedia Commons.

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