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The 3 Rs of Attending University With a Disability


Attending university is an exciting time for students, young or older, but when a disability or chronic illness is a factor there are three Rs worth knowing about ahead of time.

My university years are long behind me, but they are certainly still fresh in my memory. I experience my life with a high level of physical disability; mine is a progressive neuromuscular disease that changes from year to year (I don’t like to say worsens).

Even though I worked for several years before embarking in university studies, I fell into the same pitfalls as other students with disabilities. I took on too much and tried to do everything without help. I discovered that attending university is not like upholding a job where structure and expectations are fairly clear. My mistakes took a toll on my health, and as a result it took me a year and a half longer to complete my degree.

Upon graduation, I assumed the position of Special Needs Coordinator for a Canadian university. There, I had the privilege of designing programs and arranging support services for students with a wide range of disabilities. I noticed that many students caused unnecessary stress and setbacks for themselves, just as I had. I realized there is great value in learning from others; that way we can avoid self-sabotaging what is meant to be an enriching life experience. Over the years, a pattern emerged and this led me to outline a “three Rs” approach to attending university with a disability.

Reduced course load.

Many students with health / ability challenges try to carry a full course load. Why? Simple — they want to be like everyone else. But dealing with health challenges takes time and energy. Attending physiotherapy, managing treatment protocols, needing care assistance, maneuvering across a large campus, coping with frequent illness due to a compromised immune system and more can seriously impact the focus needed to learn.

Reduce your course load in the first year. By taking one course less than what is considered full-time, you’ll be allowing time for important self-care. This will also enable you to learn how to manage this new environment in a manner that will fit with your special needs. If nothing else, your marks will better reflect your effort. Earning four good grades is better than five poor ones!

Regulate activities.

As a university student, you are expected to make your own schedule. Beyond the requirement to attend lectures, it’s up to you to discipline yourself to review, read and research (hey, another 3Rs!) in order to complete assignments. When your time is your own, it can be tempting to put things off, stay up late, and indulge in food and alcohol that are less than healthy.

Maintain a balanced weekly schedule. Weekends quickly lose their luster if they are seven days long. Eat a healthy diet, exercise wisely, rest and adhere to a sleep pattern that suits your needs. Keeping your body at its optimum will enable your mind to function at its best, too. Monitor your indulgence in caffeine, pizza, alcohol and late nights. Moderation rules.

Resources are available.

For many students with and without disabilities, attending university provides a first taste of independence. It’s a time to spread metaphorical wings and pursue tools needed to fulfill future career aspirations. But sometimes it’s easy to have a misconstrued understanding of the term independence. Independence does not mean you must do things alone, without assistance. Accepting help does not equate to being dependent. This concept can be especially difficult for young people with disabilities to grasp because the pursuit of independence on a societal level is strong.

Resources are available, and they exist to balance the educational playing field. If you have dexterity, visual, hearing or other difficulties, note taking services may help. If you require extra time during exams because of your physical or cognitive challenges, it’s OK to have it. If you need to defer a course past the no-penalty drop date due to illness associated with your existing condition, this can be advocated. If you need assistance in the library, living on campus, and more… services are available. University staff and faculty members are dedicated to helping all students succeed.

Attending university is an important life experience. Implementing these 3 Rs will help to ensure those with disabilities have an equal opportunity to fulfill their potential.

Read more on Susan’s website.