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What you need to know about going to university if you have a chronic illness

2021-04-08
Group of students in a university class

Introduction

Going to university can be one of the most exciting times in a person’s life. The additional freedoms, ability to start studying a subject area that you love, and the new friends that you meet all make this period in your life full of new and interesting experiences.

But for a person with a chronic illness or disability, thinking about being away from home can be a cause for concern. You may wonder if you will be able to live independently, or if you will have additional challenges to think about.

These are very natural fears, and it’s normal to be apprehensive about the unknown. However, it’s important to be aware that universities are required by law to make reasonable adjustments so that your experience is the same as students without disabilities.

The Equality Act 2010 covers the adjustments that must be made so that universities are inclusive spaces and people with different abilities are supported in their learning. It also states that people with disabilities must not be placed at a disadvantage because of their illness or disability.

If you have questions for your individual university, your first course of action should be to contact their admissions office for further information. As well as this, be aware that different regions in the UK have different requirements and structures.

Getting into university with a chronic illness or disability

Prospective university students have lots of different worries and anxieties when it comes to applying for uni. But for students with chronic illnesses or disabilities, these worries can be compounded by the thoughts of whether they will be able to access the services or supports they need.

When deciding the course and university that best fits your needs, it’s recommended to consider the level of accessibility in the institution. It’s a good idea if you compile a list of things you currently struggle with and what you may struggle with at university. Communicating with your chosen university in advance is a good idea – don’t assume that they will know how to cater to or support your specific needs, but the earlier that you can have the conversation with them, the easier the process will be.

Most universities have learning support processes known as Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) or Learning Support Plans (LSPs) which outline what you can expect from the institution and how they intend to support you, including adjustments to formal processes such as exams or lectures.

The most important consideration is to open a consistent dialogue with your university about your needs and the support you need, and not to assume that the support will be provided if you don’t request it.

Financial support/ Disabled Students’ Allowance

If you meet the eligibility requirements, you may be able to apply for special funding to attend university, known as the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA).

If you are an undergraduate or postgraduate student, you qualify for student finance from Student Finance England and you are enrolled on a valid course lasting for at least one year, you may be eligible.

The specific qualifying illnesses or disabilities that this fund is intended for includes:

  • People with specific learning difficulties
  • People with mental health conditions
  • People with physical disabilities
  • People with sensory disabilities
  • People with long-term health conditions

Please note that this allowance is not open to students who can receive the NHS Disabled Students’ Allowance, or if you are in receipt of equivalent support from another funding source.

The proof required to receive the DSA can include a report or letter from a doctor or health consultant on your condition, or a diagnostic assessment where appropriate.

This Gov.uk link provides further information on what’s involved in applying for a DSA.

Student finance

When applying for student finance, you will be asked if you need to choose the DSA option. The online form will prompt you to fill out an application form.

If you haven’t applied for student finance or you don’t need student finance, you can just fill out form DSA1 to apply just for the DSA. Please note that the forms are different depending on whether you are based in England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland.

Your application will take approximately 6 weeks to be processed and you will be provided with an official notice of whether your application was successful. If you are accepted, you can be waiting for up to 14 weeks to get your DSA support.

Person in a graduate cap

What support is there for students with chronic illness or disability?

There are multiple different forms of support that a student can expect to receive to support with their individual needs. Every case is unique and the support that you need, and that the university can provide will vary based on the individual’s circumstances.

This support can include:

  • Specific arrangements to help with your individual needs in the classroom
  • Being provided with specialist technologies or equipment to help you with your course and any exams or assignments
  • Support from specialists, for example, sign-language interpreters, support workers, subject-specific tutors, etc.
  • The ability to record lectures or take notes in a particular way
  • Changes to the physical environment in the university, e.g., desk height, access to communal areas, etc.
  • Additional time to submit assignments or exams
  • Support in studying and using a range of different study skills based on your needs
  • Accessible and appropriate accommodation arrangements
  • Ability to access the supports from the Students’ Union and any student disability union representatives
  • Lecturers using different colour paper or more accessible fonts on physical documents
  • Preparing plans for how you can travel between your classes and accommodation

In most cases, universities will have a dedicated additional learning support adviser or dedicated disability support coordinator whose role is to help you get the arrangements or adjustments in place so that your focus can be on learning and enjoying your university experience.

For most students, they will have a needs assessment with a qualified assessor who will prepare a report based on the needs you have identified.

Accessibility support when starting university

The transition to higher education is undoubtedly a major one and it involves a lot of research, planning, preparation, and organisation. But again, many universities anticipate this and will make the process as easy as possible for you.

Some universities hold summer schools where you can attend courses or workshops to outline what you can expect and give you practical preparation tips.

When preparing for the transition to university, you should know that you will have to get in touch with lots of different services, including admissions staff, support staff, course coordinators, tutors, student buddies, or other staff involved in helping you plan your transition to university life.

Don’t be afraid to ask for the help you need from anyone – you are entitled to have the same university experience as everyone else and never worry that you are bothering anyone by stating what you need. If you feel overwhelmed with how much administration you have to manage, consider asking a family member or friend to support you with the communication.

Aside from the specific accessibility support that you can benefit from, there are multiple other considerations to think about, including dealing with homesickness, how to approach new forms of learning, and encountering new types of relationships. The Students’ Minds website has a great guide on the general transition to university life here.

Group of four university students sitting on a lawn in front of a building

How to research accessible universities

In the past, you had to request a physical copy of a university prospectus and research university facilities in this way, or by phoning them individually. Of course, today, with the internet, there are lots more accessible forms of information, including chat functions on university websites, or being able to adjust the settings on the website to help you access the information more easily.

Doing research and finding out information about your chosen institution is a really important stage of the process, but how do you know where to begin? The first port of call is usually the university website. It will usually have a dedicated section with information for students who have a disability or chronic illness.

It will also outline information about approaches to learning and assessment, the support they provide, and the designated people who are available if you have further questions.

It’s advisable to look into the information provided on accommodation and lifestyle while attending university. This is especially the case for students who will be living away from home while at uni. The institution should have a section outlining the support they provide for people with disabilities in terms of living arrangements and how you can expect to integrate fully into the university lifestyle.

Most schools will hold open days where you can physically visit the buildings and see whether there are additional questions you have that aren’t answered online. On these days, many universities will also have student representatives available who can answer any questions you have about what the experience has been like for them. Student testimonials can often be found online as well.

Of course, if you have a personal connection to someone who has attended a particular university, it’s worth speaking to them directly about what they think about the university and ask additional questions.

Medical support when you have a chronic illness

It is really important that you make plans for how you can access the medical support you need when attending university.

The first consideration for many students who have moved away from home will be to register with a local GP (if you will be spending more time in your university accommodation than your home). Make sure that your GP surgery is given all your medical history and a full account of your needs to ensure there is no disruption to the supply of any medicines or treatment you have on prescription.

There will probably be a doctor based in your university and this may be the most convenient option for you. Universities often have a plethora of additional health services, including therapists, counsellors, and health advisers to support students.

The most important thing is that you find a GP who understands your condition and needs and is a good fit for you. Don’t be afraid to change your GP if you feel that you would benefit from a different care provider.

When considering which university will be your first choice, it’s a good idea to research online where your nearest pharmacy service will be, and whether it would be more convenient to get an at-home delivery service for any medicines you take.

Use the NHS website to find out more information on what you need to know as a student.

Man reading a book in a wheelchair

COVID-19 and attending university

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted normal life in numerous ways. In some instances, the move to online classes will be of benefit to students with a chronic disability of illness as it means that they can now access courses more easily.

However, in other ways, the pandemic has made attending university more difficult. This regularly updated government guidance for students in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland outlines a number of questions that students have about attending university.

This includes questions about student finance arrangements, needs assessments, the move to online learning, questions about travelling, childcare, and the work of support workers.

Because the COVID-19 situation is new and unprecedented, there may be delays in accessing information and getting the support that you need. There may be changes to the adjustments put in place to support you, but you should be able to get this information from your university in a timely manner.

You can find further information on this topic from Disability Rights UK.

Another great resource is the UCAS (Universities and College Admissions Service). Their page and resources for students with disabilities should be one of the first places you visit for support. 

Conclusion

At Burning Nights CRPS, we are mindful of how young people experience chronic illnesses like complex regional pain syndrome. If you are a person who uses a car or vehicle for transport, you might be interested in our post on how to obtain a Blue Badge

Do you have any questions or comments about attending university with a chronic illness or disability? Let us know in the comments below or you can contact us here. If this article was helpful to you, we’d love you to share it using any of your social networks.

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