This is in response to the article in sick Magazine and the #Whydisabledpeopledropout here’s my own horrid experience of discrimination in higher education.
In 2018 I got accepted to study creative writing at my local university. I was given an accessible room, hoists and adapted kitchen, even a note taker and automatic doors to my flat but that’s where the help stopped.
One day I desperately needed the toilet and my Carers weren’t due to arrive for another three hours so I transferred my self (I have a phobia of shitting myself.) (in hindsight I knew I should’ve pressed my car is lifeline but I thought they would just call the emergency services and I thought that holy unnecessary so I shouted for my flat mates to ask for a member of staff to help me back in my chair. They’d gone and told the disabilities officer, even though I explained that this was an emergency and a very rare occurrence for me, she’d rang my social worker to complain that they didn’t think my package of care was adequate enough despite having carers four times a day, they wanted me to have someone 24 seven which both social services and my family didn’t think I needed. I explained the situation to the disabilities officer and that yes I knew that staff really weren’t supposed to help me except in an emergency but as I explained above I thought this warranted that, she disagreed. I apologised and said that it would not happen again bearing in mind this was my first time living on my own and only two days into my stay on the campus. The disabilities officer suggested that until the social workers reviewed my care package that it would be in my best interests for the safety of myself and the other students. If I commuted back and forth to the campus during freshers week, bearing in mind both my parents work full time. When my mum defended my actions the officer said to her, ‘Well it seems that you don’t care for Rachel’s well-being”. Which I was appalled at. That night my parents came to pick me up to take me home where I would miss freshers week until my care package was reviewed and the University agreed that I could go back full time.
My social worker was appalled and scheduled an emergency meeting after the weekend where she argued that I wasn’t a danger to myself and other students, that I had missed out on many new freshers students experiences and bonding with my flatmates. They thought I could be a danger to the other students as if I would really say in a lecture ‘Excuse me, I need to go to the toilet and my carers aren’t due for hours can someone come to the toilet with me and lift me on and off the toilet!? Eventually it was agreed between myself and the university that I could go back and live on the campus but the disability advisor said that perhaps I should review my own limitations of my disabilities and that I overestimated my capabilities.
Into about my third week I get a call from my social worker to say that the disabilities officer is concerned about my well-being and personal hygiene after the lecturers raised the concern that I had let my appearance slide. My care company did admit that they were at fault for not doing any manual handling assessment for two carers quick enough so that I could shower every day but what annoyed me the most was that I am a 20-year-old young woman older than most students and dare I say it, brighter that the lecturers felt that they couldn’t speak to me directly about these issues and immediately infantilised me by simply telling tales. I always make sure my teeth, brushed, clean clothes put on each day makeup and perfume applied.
I wish I could say that was the end of my problems with the University but it steadily got worse as time went on. The lecturers again raised a concern with the disabilities officer and not myself that I was taking too many bags to my lectures (a handbag and rucksack) They then raised the issue that I was getting to my seminars and lectures to early (due to my carers coming in at 7 am every morning to be ready for a 10 am lecture) and that because on one occasion I had asked a friend to help me get a pen out of my bag when I dropped my own they thought I wasn’t coping. Please bear in mind that even though my campus was relatively accessible they were still the matter of doors needing to be opened and having lectures in buildings far away and even in one instance a seminar was in an inaccessible classroom from one another so I often would take a friend with me for company The university demanded I have 24/7 support assistance which again I did not want or need. I did have a notetaker but legally the person did not have to accompany me to lectures or help me get things from my bag. I just felt like the university staff just saw me as a problem and that they were picking on little things. Even common sense things weren’t in place like wider desks or disabled spaces in lecture theatres!! When I complained I was told that these basic things weren’t in place because I had not had my disabled students allowance application yet.
The last straw that broke the camels back was when I was denied a button to be placed by my bed so I could let friends and flatmates in my room once the carers had put me to bed at 7pm. They thought that this could pose a risk to the other students even though I knew people in my flat who let random strangers in all the time when they would have parties and gatherings.
The University made me feel like shit and I wasn’t enjoying being there anymore because I was constantly feeling like people waiting for me to mess up so rather than be pushed I made the decision to jump ship. The funny thing was when I brought this up in a meeting they said “perhaps if you decide your degree for another year and we can review your care package then” to which my mum made the very valid point that my disability wasn’t going to change in a years time and no amount of reviews or requests was going to change that. So I left.
I was at the University for a total of five weeks and it was the worst five weeks of my life I have never felt more belittled in my life. Not even when I was bullied by a teaching assistant in secondary school and told when I could go to the bathroom (which was twice a day) and that I couldn’t access the library or upper six form dining area which was upstairs due to lack of staff trained in evacuation purposes.
Looking back I kind of wish I took things further with the university and didn’t sit back and let them dictate to me what I could and could not do but I was so depressed and repressed that I could just not to the point. Now however, when ever I talk to one of my many disabled friends about university are use my experiences as a warning for them, that even though we have made such great strides when it comes to the quality of disabled people this has not been reflected in higher education in terms of accessibility and inclusion.