August 3, 2011 9 Comments
I always had it in mind to write about my experiences as a disabled student at University but I wanted to wait until I’d totally finished my studying – which I now have.
I’ve been to three different universities. I want to talk about the first one, though – the University of Westminster. By far the worst experience of my life (for several reasons). I worked hard at my A Levels and was consequently awarded a highly sought-after scholarship to study journalism there. I moved to Harrow, North London, to live in halls as I thought this would be better for me in terms of a social life.
When I applied to go to Uni, I ticked the box that specified I wanted to be assessed for the Disabled Students’ Allowance. I’ll explain. I’m high frequency deaf and throughout school I never had any help other than massive hearing aids that used to get ripped out of my ears etc by other children. I was diagnosed when I was a lot older than kids normally are, because I made up for being deaf by learning to lip-read, learning to understand context and deduce meanings from facial expressions etc. Skills that everyone relies on anyway – I was honing them without knowing it. Being deaf was something I ‘just coped’ with. After I had them ripped out, turned up high, or turned off or down by other children, I rarely wore my hearing aids – which generally left me at a disadvantage.
I must explain here that there are hidden disadvantages that come with being deaf, that people don’t really think about or realise. Of course, you miss out on a lot of things. For me, group situations are the worst. I can’t cope with people talking over each other, I can’t hear anything and I find it extremely overwhelming. Being deaf is tiring. You’re constantly reading lips and body language or other signals, constantly trying to figure out what people are saying. I always visualise myself as one step behind other people. Instead of hearing > understanding > responding like normal, I feel like my brain goes hearing > no idea what they said > what did I actually hear > can I make sense of the missing part using context > understanding what they said (or not) > response. You have to concentrate really hard to try and hear and make sense of everything. So it gets exhausting, being in busy social situations, where I can’t let up for a second or I’ll totally miss a hilarious joke. It happens all the time, and then I have to ask, and then they have to explain, and it’s not funny, and everyone’s annoyed because I’m ‘too stupid’ to understand it. That’s the assumption that people make on my behalf when I don’t hear stuff. I’m stupid. I don’t have the energy to explain to every single person that I meet, that I’m deaf. Usually, people overcompensate and over-exaggerate the way they pronounce words. Let me tell you for future reference: exaggerating your lip movements whilst talking louder does not help someone who is mainly relying on reading your lips, because you distort the movements and make it more difficult. The way I live my life now is to just cope with the fact that people assume I am stupid all the time.
Anyway, I felt that by the time I got to University I was old enough to say “Look, I need help with this” and I felt I should be able to get as much help as possible to help get me through my degree. I had my needs assessment done nearby – it’s an interview where you talk to someone about what you’ll need at University (for example, note-takers, special software for your computer, and so on) – and that went well. I was pleased with the assessment, because I felt like the guy had covered all areas, but I remember him asking if I wanted a note-taker, and I did my usual thing of “Well, I don’t know that I’ll need it, and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time…” I was trying to do someone, somewhere, a favour – from my point of view, I wanted to (excuse the pun) play it by ear and see if I definitely needed it or not. I didn’t want special treatment if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. So he put down on my needs assessment something along the lines of “If Sophie feels that she needs anything else she will ask for it – please give her anything she needs”.
Fast forward a couple of months and I’m at Westminster. Without going too much into it, my circumstances at the University were not great. I was isolated, because I was surrounded by overseas students in my halls, and in my classes. I couldn’t really connect with anyone. I started missing classes, struggling to do work, not going to lectures. I rarely spoke to people. Eventually I stopped eating. Somewhere, in the middle of this spiral into what was later diagnosed as severe clinical depression, I realised that I needed note-takers for the lectures. In part because I found them difficult to hear and follow, and in part because I was getting to the point where I just could not physically bring myself to go. Anyone who has experienced depression will realise it is not laziness, it is not unwillingness to work – but when you’re in a bad patch, sometimes getting out of bed is a genuine achievement for you.
I went to the people who dealt with disabilities, and I said to them I needed to have a note-taker because I was struggling to hear in my lectures. I explained everything to them, and I knew they had a copy of my needs assessment so it should be fine. So it went something like:
“Well, it doesn’t say here that you need a note-taker.”
“Oh, I know it doesn’t, but I wasn’t sure that I would definitely need one, because I didn’t really want to waste anyone’s time. I am really struggling at the moment though, I can’t really hear or understand what’s going on and they don’t have hand-outs for some of the lectures.”
“It doesn’t explicitly say that you need a note-taker.”
“Yes but that was before I started University, and I was hoping I would be okay and wouldn’t need one.”
“We can’t give you a note-taker if your needs assessment doesn’t explicitly say that you need one. It doesn’t explicitly say here that you need one.”
“But it also EXPLICITLY SAYS that if I need help, to give me what I ask for! I am asking you for help, because I desperately need it – and it says if I ask, to give me it. I was hoping that I would be okay when I came here but I’m really not, I can’t hear lectures, I am struggling to understand what they’re saying, and my work is suffering as a consequence.”
“We can’t help you.”
After that conversation, I went back to my room and cried in despair. No help whatsoever. And this rejection actually actively contributed to the decline in my mental state. Eventually I left the University of Westminster and got a full-time job. I was on anti-depressants for two years after that, when it eventually was diagnosed (more about that later).
My point with this is that a lot of people who work in those areas – ‘Additional Learning Needs’ departments and all that – don’t actually understand enough about the different disabilities, or the different ways that disabilities can affect people. Why on earth would someone working in a department like that refuse to even consider giving someone help when that person has come to you, almost in tears? I don’t understand. And this is what really concerns me about the current political climate. People with disabilities are generally ignored. They cope, like I did, in their own ways, and people don’t really understand how the smallest things can affect them in a totally different way. Or how they experience life differently. They just get on with living, because that’s all you can do. But when they desperately need the help that they, by rights, should get – the people they go to aren’t trained, or due to cuts, the departments are short-staffed, or perhaps they have been shut altogether. The disabled are among the most vulnerable in society; the most overlooked and misunderstood. It really worries me that the current government seems to have an agenda that seeks to alienate them and cut them off from the help they need the most.
We are failing them.