My Advice for Starting University With a Disability


I love back to school season! I’m starting my fourth year of university in the fall, but I remember clearly what it was like to be a first year: those first few weeks are a lot to take in. There’s not a place on campus which isn’t filled with activity. It’s exciting and scary. Lectures can be an adjustment. Even for the academically- minded, it’s easy to feel small on a campus of thousands. If you have a disability, like me, you’ve got a few other things to think about. Here are my top five tips to help first years adjust to life on campus:

1. Get in touch with your campus disability services for students. On my campus this is called DSS, but it might be different for you. These fabulous folks will be an irreplaceable ally for you over the course of your studies. They supply resources, can help with academic appeals, and offer volunteer opportunities, as well as a myriad of other services! Talk to them about your needs and abilities.

2. Get involved. I say this to everyone who asks! You’ve got an interest in something, be it video games, acting, visual art and design, social justice, religious organizations, sports: you name it, there’s probably a club for it! Many campuses have booths set up advertising clubs during Welcome Week, so make some time to check them out and find something that meets your interests. These clubs are a great way to meet new people, make friends, de-stress after a difficult class, and may even help you choose your major! Don’t hesitate to get involved, but be sure to take care, which leads me to my next point…

3. Don’t overextend yourself. The beauty of a university program is that you are in charge of your scheduling. Don’t schedule an 8:30 a.m. class if you’re not a morning person. Don’t schedule night classes if you know you’ll be exhausted. Don’t get a job (or second, third or fourth job) if you don’t have the time / transportation abilities / energy to make it work. Don’t join a bunch of clubs if you don’t have time for them all. Leave enough time in the day to do homework and reading, and enough time between classes to get from place to place. My campus is huge, and the winters are cold. The worst part of the student experience is having to dash across campus in 10 minutes in the middle of winter to get to class on time, and my cerebral palsy throws a figurative wrench into an already not ideal situation. You can control how many classes you take each term, so don’t pressure yourself into taking a full course load every term if you don’t think you can handle it. The whole “4 year degree program” thing is just a guideline. There’s no rush.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Professors and TAs are reasonable people most of the time. They shouldn’t have a problem accommodating the needs of their students; it’s part of the job. If you find your prof isn’t accommodating, that is where one of the areas Disability Services can step in — but when in doubt, ask for help!

5. Stay healthy. This will differ for everyone, depending on your condition and its severity, but here’s what I can recommend. Drink water, not just coffee or energy drinks. Eat healthy food, and eat when you are hungry. You’re not constricted to set lunch times in college — you can even sometimes eat during your lectures! (Just as long as the class in question is a lecture, not a lab, and please save particularly crunchy or smelly foods for another time — your classmates will thank you!) Take medications and try to go to appointments. Don’t use all your spoons in one go before your 8:30 a.m. lecture. Work out if you can, but do what’s right for you. Get enough sleep. Mental health is important too, even if you don’t have a mental health condition: find ways to de-stress, and practice self-care. Find a couple of “long ways,” like taking a bath or watching movies, and a couple of “short ways,” like meditation and breathing exercises. There will be stress, and you’ll need to begin to practice healthy ways to deal with it. There are people out there who talk about self care better than I do, so keep an ear to the ground and remember that self-care isn’t one size fits all. Find what works for you. Above all, listen to your body — working with it instead of against it will give you more energy in the long run.

Congratulations on your acceptance to your program. Best of luck with your year! Bring what makes you unique to the forefront — that’s what makes you strong!

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