Talking about tomorrow


Starting university – a student’s view

Emma has severe hearing loss. Without hearing aids she can’t process sound and hears no speech. Learning to speak herself took intensive speech therapy to age 6 and on and off to age 11. She is in her final year at university studying German and Applied Language Studies, and has just returned from a year as an English language assistant in a German secondary school

I’m a very firm believer that any kind of disability or additional support need shouldn’t directly dictate where you should go and what you should do. You should be able to choose any course you want, and if it needs to be made more accessible to you then hopefully it will be. So don’t cut yourself off from doing something just because you “shouldn’t” be able to – look at how it can be made possible for you.

My first year entailed a range of language courses and I had tech provided so I could take part – especially the aural classes. I’d used a radio aid in school so the university helped find one that was more modern. I had headphones provided for the language lab, where they set up software on one of the computers to direct to my personal headphones rather than the general ones anyone can use.

There was lots of additional technology to make my hearing aids work with the technology the university already had. I was also issued a university printer and a laptop that came with recording software and a digital recorder so I could record my lectures, get the slides from the lecturers and make my notes from them all in one place. All that was paid for and insured by the university through the Disabled Students Allowance.

I’d advise someone with a disability to find a university where they feel comfortable. It’s important to get a head start by talking to various departments, making sure it’s a place where you’ll feel supported.

It goes beyond the course being a good fit – find out if the campus is a good fit for you, if the support department are accepting of you, if they seem to have everything in order so they can assist you. Be aware they are going to be there to help, as long as you ask them. There will be stuff out there, but you may need to go and find it. The responsibility is a bit on you.

I lived on campus for the first year and it was my first time living and working away from home. We talked to them very early on, at the beginning of the summer before I started the course.

I very much wanted to live away from home, and I think it’s good not to be afraid of wanting to do that, because you’re going into a kind of intermediary stage in halls – you still have support from the university staff.

I was lucky because mum and dad were just down the road, but it means you can get used to living by yourself, cooking for yourself, not necessarily doing washing for yourself because washing machines are complicated!

The person responsible for DSA helped organise the tech needs, and we sorted out accommodation with her too. She asked questions like what kind of location would be good? How many people do you want to live with? What extra support might you need?

I needed an extra fire alarm unit linked into the university system, which made the alarm louder in my room and also had a red flashing light. After the first few weeks the support team spoke to the janitor and arranged that if there was an alarm they would also come and check my room if possible, especially during a drill, to make sure I had got out of the building. That was a very doable arrangement because I was on campus. And of course my flatmates were also aware, so they would also knock on my door.

Lots of things are common to everyone in the first few days, regardless of if you have special needs. Most people are living away from home for the first time so everyone’s a bit confused. Even if you feel completely removed from everyone else’s experiences because you need X piece of tech or Y arrangement, actually pretty much everyone is in the same boat, trying to work things out.

With my course, because it’s languages, there was listening and speaking, so it was very important to get the lecturers and to some extent peers in the class to understand I could do the work, I just needed a bit more time to respond because of the things I need to do to make that happen. That’s probably the main difference.

In terms of making friends, it can be quite lonely at first. There were a lot of Freshers’ events which usually involved some kind of party, an enormous gathering of people. And for me, I don’t do well in noisy situations. On the first weekend there was a massive halls party, and a lot of people got to know each other through that. For me that wasn’t an option because it was just too noisy. But through the week they had things like an afternoon tea in the support centre, and arts and cultural stuff in the postgraduate centre. If you seek out the clubs and festivities you’re interested in you will eventually find like minded people, or they will find you, and you just stick together.

It’s not a simple thing, especially when you’re not great at socialising, but you will find people to hang out with – also, they won’t necessarily be on your course, that’s the other thing. I hardly socialise with anyone on my course, but because someone isn’t doing the same thing as you it doesn’t mean you can’t spend time with them if you want to.