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Tips for Returning to College With a Physical Disability

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This time last year I was someone who had Crohn’s disease and adrenal insufficiency. I was recovering from a bowel resection and going back to college to do exams and enter my final year in medical school. It was a challenge to both recover and try to get back to being like everyone else. I managed to get through my exams and continue my studies. After a tough year things were beginning to improve, and an end of both illness and college was in sight.

Until a few weeks later. I was out for a walk one evening when I was hit by a car. I was fortunate that it happened around the corner from the hospital, as I sustained a serious pelvic fracture and adrenal crisis. This resulted in emergency surgery and a year of rehabilitation and recovery.

I’m almost a year into my recovery now and I’m back in college. I need further revision surgery and I walk with crutches, but I’m massively improved. Life as a student with mobility issues is a daily challenge and requires a lot of creative thinking! There are a lot of things I’ve learnt and am still learning with how to cope with joining a new year group in college and how to manage on a day to day basis.

I’d like to share some of my thoughts on what it is like for a future doctor, and indeed any student trying to negotiate college life, along with some thoughts and insights for others who may see people with physical and health issues.

How to Support Students With Disabilities

1. Open doors.

Accessible buildings are not always accessible for those with disabilities. Every day I meet multiple doors which require a swipe card to enter and then a handle to open. With two crutches this is an extreme physio balance challenge, and not in a good way! Some people are beyond kind and open doors when they see me. I’ve been on the verge of crying with frustration trying to open doors, but the kind person who held the door open for me did more than they know. As a life rule, open doors for the person behind you. You never know if that person is struggling, even if they don’t have a mobility aid.

2. Smile and say hello.

It can be extremely difficult being on your own and knowing very few people, especially when you have to sit away from everyone in lectures if you are in a wheelchair or special seating area. It really hit home to me how important it is to talk to people who are on their own. It can be extremely isolating having a disability and feeling removed from everyone. Sometimes you can’t get up and walk around to chat with people. Be kind and talk to that person on their own — you could be the only person who does!

3. Don’t park in disability/accessible spaces.

I long for the day I can walk from the back of the car park to the door. By parking in a disability space incorrectly, the person with a disability can’t open their car door and get in to their car. This space may be their independence. Do not take that from someone else, it’s selfish.

Tips for Getting Through College With a Disability

1. Plan and fail and plan again.

Be prepared to try something and for it not to work, and to try again. I had to park in a different location every day for a week until I found the best solution to minimize walking and carrying things. Don’t give up; persevere until you find a way! Do not beat yourself up if something doesn’t work. It took me some time to realize this. I was frustrated and angry at myself for not being able to do things a certain way. This is something I’m still working on. There is a saying — fall six times and get up seven. Let this be your motto!

2. Comparison is the mother of all evil.

When I started back at college I was delighted with my improvements in the past year. I compared myself to where I had come from — from not being able to walk, to sweating my entire body weight to get to the bathroom on a Zimmer frame, to now walking with crutches. But I started to try to keep up with everyone else, and I became increasingly frustrated with myself. All I could see was what I couldn’t do, not what I could do. It took me a while to realize the problem was comparing myself with others. I was thrust into an environment where I had minimal support and had to behave like everyone else. Coming from a supportive environment where I was encouraged by my doctors and physiotherapists, this was more difficult than I anticipated. Everyone is on their own journey. Stay on your own path, don’t try to join the path of others.

3. Be grateful.

As I was on ward rounds I saw patients who had been through major life events. When I saw them lying in their beds, I began to feel I’m extremely lucky. Things have improved for me; I’ve come a long way. By being more grateful for where I am now, I’ve began to regain momentum to keep going. No matter how bad things seem, they could be much worse.

4. Make time for yourself.

Do something every day for you that you like. Block off the time, no matter what happens. Listen to a motivating audiobook, podcast or watch a TV show on Netflix. Relax and enjoy it! You deserve it, and no one can do it for you.

5. Rest, rest, rest.

The temptation to keep going full throttle can be there. I often feel like I have something to prove, that others are expecting me to fail because of what I’m coping with. I’ve burned myself out in the past by doing this. I’ve learned to be smart with my energy levels, and conserve them at all costs. Beware of energy vampires! A good night’s sleep is more important than any prescription medication I take. Resting during the day is vital too, if you feel it’s getting to be too much. I found a corner in the library with a comfy chair where I can put my feet up and sit and have a cup of tea and relax for a while. Get your shopping delivered to the house; the energy wasted in a supermarket is astronomical. Online shopping has changed my life.

6. Study.

Yes, that thing we have to do at some point. Be very smart about how you do your studying. Rest if you need to; as an exhausted brain will retain zero facts. I’ve learnt this the hard way! You end up in a cycle of guilt and exhaustion, then illness can ramp up. Pace yourself — do an hour of studying, then take a break. Use tools where you can. I find reading difficult when I’m tired, so I watch a lot of video lectures — this really conserves my energy levels on a bad day and still allows me to do some studying.

I need to avoid carrying books, so I have an iPad and keep my notes and books on it. I use flash cards on the iPad which transfer to my iPhone. When I’m waiting at doctors’ appointments and traveling I glance over them for a few minutes. Use any dead time you have like this as it makes things much easier in the long run. Play audio lectures or notes in your car when traveling too. Space studying out over the day. I’ve learned to find my own way of studying and not to be influenced by what others are doing. I’m on my path, I’ll get there!

7. Lists.

I have a little notebook and write a few things I want to do that day, even if it’s something simple like doing my laundry. By ticking off things I feel a sense of achievement. I make my lists small — less than five things a day; otherwise it can be overwhelming. Tony Robbins advocates that the momentum of doing things keeps you going onwards. I try to do things early in the morning, and I totally agree with him on this one!

8. Gratitude diary.

Credit to the wonderful Oprah for this one! I was getting extremely frustrated with what I couldn’t do and what was going wrong every day when I decided to make an effort to focus on what I could do and what was good in the day. Before I go to bed, I write down five things I’m grateful for that day. Along with this I write down five things I’ve done or achieved for the day, even if it is something as simple as managing to get though a lecture. When I look at it I realize I’m making progress, and the little things add up over the week!

The insights I’ve gained from having mobility challenges are things I would never learn in a medical textbook. Hopefully they are things I will be able to use in the future to help people with similar challenges, and show them these things can be overcome with some help from others and determination on their part.

Someone once told me the story of the tortoise and the hare. They were in a race, and which won? The hare thought he had plenty of time, so he got easily distracted. The tortoise kept going, slowly plodding along, and he ended up winning the race. Be the tortoise!

Originally published: August 22, 2018
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