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My University Experience as a Disabled Student

13 October 2023

By Ciara Griffiths

My university experience was generally a positive one. That is not to say there were some negatives – namely the marking boycott, the fact that I had no proper first year to speak of as everything was online, and a dissertation crisis – but I also had great experiences. I made amazing friends, I was on the Writing Society Committee and I contributed to the history magazine (I still do as a graduate). However, while my three years of university is a story in itself, I thought I would share some anecdotes about my experiences as a disabled student.

I studied philosophy Royal Holloway University of London – how strange it is to put that in past tense! I am visually and hearing-impaired, which I informed the university DDS (disability and dyspraxia services) about before joining. Royal Holloway was once a woman’s university so making education inclusive is routed in its history. So, the university was keen to make sure I felt included and supported throughout my studies. I was in frequent contact with the DDS who were always quick to answer any queries or concerns. Through the DSA (Disabled Students Allowance), which comes under SFE, I was able to get hold of valuable equipment which supported my studies. These included a touchscreen, visibly accessible laptop and a microphone system which fed into my hearing aids while lecturers were talking.

One of the things the DDS did was enable me to stay in halls for another year. I had already made my accessibility requirements known, so my first-year room was on the ground floor and had a flashing fire alarm to accommodate my hearing impairment, so I could be alerted of a fire (though the fire alarm ended up being loud enough). When I requested to stay another year, the DDS booked the same room for my second year. Thanks to their efforts, I met two of my best friends who were staying in the flat opposite.

I was a member of the Archery Society for a year. Though I was an experienced archer (you can read my article on my archery journey), the club welcomed people of all ability, no matter years of experience. I had a friend in the society who was visually impaired and the club made sure we felt included. So, responding to our request, the Committee arranged for bigger target faces to be purchased, allowing archers with visual impairments to participate and access the sport. I love sharing this anecdote because it shows people’s understanding and natural instinct to help others.

In third year, I had a fall whilst on a walk. While most of the steps on campus were clearly marked, the old marble steps of the original building were not. They were all the same colour. My glaucoma has led me to having extreme short-sightedness which also means I have no depth perception. Steps are my biggest enemy, as they all appear on one level unless clearly marked. On this occasion, I was on my routinely weekend walk around campus. To get from the square to the woodland path which would take me back to my house, I had to walk down a long set of marble steps. I slipped and fell down five steps and managed to catch myself, but I got awful bruises on my knees. I was quite shaken by it. This is not a particularly positive anecdote, but it is the reality of living with glaucoma. A fellow student did ask me if I was ok, but typical me, I shrugged it off and walked on, embarrassed and shaken. When out on walks, or if you are accompanying someone with visual impairment, it is important to be mindful of change in surfaces. Even if you know the area, as I did, it is important to still be careful.

Growing up, I didn’t really see myself in education: that is, I come across very few people who were visually or hearing impaired. However, at university, that changed. I witnessed a diverse, thriving community. Indeed, one of my close friends had a cochlear implant and we bonded over our experiences with hearing loss. In turn, through meeting new people, I learnt about their experiences, which is part of the joy of university. I did not have that experience of community in secondary school or Sixth Form, so this was a welcomed comfort.

In my final year, the university wanted to hear from its disabled community to see how we faired on campus. I was kindly asked if I wished to be interviewed about my disability and experience at Holloway. This was part of a program to educate members of staff on the growing disabled community of Holloway and how to make the university more inclusive and accessible. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview which was conducted in a friendly, reassuring manner. I hope it will be a useful tool for people to learn more about the disabled community.

The best thing to come out of this was that I was never made to feel that I was a different student. I felt immersed in an already diverse community and was among likeminded people. I was a university student, and that was all I wanted.