University life with cerebral palsy – the challenges of higher education with a disability
Cerebral palsy affects everyone differently, varying from mild to severe. For some people, cerebral palsy will affect them physically, making muscle movements more difficult and affect balance and coordination. Others may also be affected by seizures, epilepsy, difficulties with speech and language or hearing problems.
These conditions should not stop anyone from attending university, but they will undoubtedly mean that a little more planning and thought will need to go into things. There are practical points that will need to be considered but also hidden feelings and emotions that are experienced. The extent to which these are relevant are obviously dependent on the nature and extent of the disability.
The disability should absolutely not be the deciding factor regarding which university to go to. However, there are some physical issues that will need to be considered.
What physical issues might present themselves, and how can they be solved?
Size of campus
- A small campus can mean that it is easier to get around if in a wheelchair or on foot;
- Factors such as whether cars are allowed on site are also worth considering, as it may be possible to drive within the campus, especially if it is larger;
- On the flip side, it may also be worth considering the impact driving a car to and from lectures may have on socialising. For example, it may not be possible to go for a drink with friends after a lecture if the car needs to be moved.
- Living in halls of residence on campus can mean that classes are more accessible, reducing travel time and so helping with fatigue;
- More careful consideration and planning may be needed if you decide to rent privately with friends in the second year, in order to ensure appropriate accommodation;
- Many universities allow students with disabilities to stay on in halls of residence past the first year if required;
- Consideration should be given to whether there is adequate storage facilities for equipment and that the rooms are big enough to manoeuvre a wheelchair.
What support can universities and others offer?
We appreciate that some people do not like to disclose their disabilities to lecturers and university staff and that they’re worried they may be treated differently as a result of their disabilities. We would however encourage openness and frankness as there can be a lot of help and support available from universities, which could make the degree run a lot more smoothly. Preparation and planning is also key and it is useful to make contact with the desired university as soon as possible, so that all of the relevant support measures can be put in place. For example:
- financial support and assistance is available via the Disabled Students Allowance although this is arguably relatively limited;
- university Support workers are a useful resource – arrangements can be informal such as meetings in a coffee shop and chats via email about any concerns;
- people can be employed to take notes in lectures and act as scribes so that the focus can be on what is being said rather than worrying about the notes;
- bespoke notes/ handouts can be provided e.g. larger text, electronic;
- notes and resources can be provided in advance of lectures to aid familiarisation with a topic;
- additional time for examinations and assessments;
- assistive technology can be put in place such as:
- systems to assist with hearing issues e.g. FM systems and microphones;
- dictation programmes;
- lightweight computers
- it may also an option to study on a part-time basis. For some people this may be preferable from the perspective of learning and minimising fatigue. This in turn could allow more time for socialisation which is a major element of University life to be embraced.
Coping with emotional issues
In our experience people often assume that if a young adult with cerebral palsy is able to go to university then their injury has not really affected them. In reality however there can be ongoing difficulties under the surface that are hard to see.
Young people with cerebral palsy have often had to face a lot of difficulties, and given up a lot that other people the same age would automatically take for granted to get to the stage of starting university. For example, they may not have been able to take part in the same extra-curricular activities and had the same opportunities to socialise due to fatigue. They might have achieved academically, but this may have been a lot harder to maintain than others due to extreme tiredness and fatigue.
Young people with cerebral palsy could struggle to interact with other people on an everyday basis which could lead to them becoming isolated. This could be due to issues such as speech difficulties or auditory processing issues. In addition, university may lead to a realisation of how different they are to other people their age, which in turn could make it very difficult for them to make friends and have a social life.
University life is not all about the academics. Emphasis should be put on making sure the young person is able to enjoy the social side of university too, which can be hard. Again there is help and support available for these emotional issues in the form of counselling or other psychological help.
University with cerebral palsy – a success story
Whilst thought should of course be given to the practical and emotional difficulties that are associated with University it is also worth remembering that there are so many success stories too.
For example, Daniel Holt has gained a law degree and is studying to become a barrister (and also has cerebral palsy). He has been in the news voicing his determination to qualify as a barrister despite his speech impediment.
He described his time studying law at Queen Mary University in London as “awesome”, but admits that it was challenging. He recounts that it took him twice as long to prepare for exams and, in his first two years, he sat assessments over eight hours instead of the usual three so he could have breaks which he describes as “exhausting”.
He worked with his university regarding the issues he faces and it was agreed that in his third year he could sit shorter exams. He did much better that year and went back to complete a masters degree in human rights.
Daniel has explained how he has not let his disability hold him back in his personal life, either. He relocated to London from Manchester and now lives away from family. He is the founding director of Being Disabled in a Normal Society and a trustee at Disability Rights UK.
University can be daunting even for those of us without a disability, but it is important for everyone to understand the challenges that those with cerebral palsy face when going into higher education. We hope that, as part of World Cerebral Palsy Day's efforts, information like this helps all of us consider what it is like for others who find daily life more challenging.