My thoughts about applying to university were conflicting. The barriers I faced were trying to navigate the fact that services really needed me to be speaking about myself in the language of disability and barriers.
Zoe Maggs, graduate in English at Bristol UWE and at Master’s level in Inequalities and Social Science at the University of Leeds
I wasn’t particularly encouraged to apply to university
I grew up in a very poor area, with very few people going to university from there. I distinctly remember there being sessions in my secondary school, but they weren't compulsory, and I had other commitments to worry about, including caring for family members. In my opinion, it was assumed that 'someone like me' wouldn't be interested in going, and so no one made an effort to run any sessions around my commitments.
I would be the first person in my family to go to university
That meant that I didn't have anyone to turn to in my support network for advice on this stuff. I wondered if I would be able to handle my wellbeing, especially because it was necessary for me to work alongside studying a full-time degree.
The barriers in the application process
I was trying to navigate the fact that services really needed me to be speaking about myself in the language of disability and barriers!
I was diagnosed with mental health related conditions at the age of 14, and yet when applying to university, the idea that I would tick ‘yes’ to ‘I have a disability' was very new to me. I had never been offered substantial support before – at school, I got some extra time in exams, but that was it, so I really had no idea about what kind of help was available to me.
So, I didn't share my conditions on my application. It wasn't until I had a decline in my mental health in my second year that the university counselling service asked me why I wasn't receiving a Disabled Students Allowance (DSA).
You should absolutely share your disability
I encourage you to look past the word ‘disability’. You may not feel that you come under that label – often people with invisible conditions feel that they cannot legitimately say that their situation is disabling. But the difference between disability, impairment, condition, and concern is like a friend telling you that someone has dirty-blonde hair, and you think it’s brown – you are both still talking about hair!
Don't let unfamiliar language put you off – you deserve the funding that has been put aside for you. And if it isn’t spent, the government take it back, and that suggests to the government that it wasn’t needed, reducing funding for future students too.
You’ll get support at university
I studied English at Bristol UWE, and I’m now studying for a Master’s in Inequalities and Social Science at the University of Leeds. At both universities I’ve received support, including a personal academic mentor, a laptop, taxi journeys, and specialist software. At first, I felt that much of this wasn't that necessary for mental health conditions. However, when I went through my worst periods, and the prospect of leaving my house was too much, taxis were pivotal in me bouncing back after these periods of agoraphobia. The academic mentor has also been invaluable.
I enjoy the freedom of being able to apply critical thinking to big concepts, and to question ideas where academics seriously consider my point of view. I feel like everyone else at university, and hope to be the inspiration for other people wanting to study with mental health difficulties, to show that they can do this too.
You’ll get to explore things that are important to you
My favourite assignment during my time at Leeds has been my applied project on the experiences of people with learning disabilities engaging with universal credit. I enjoyed this work because the outcomes will genuinely inform how the Citizens Advice Bureau go about supporting this demographic, as the charity replaced local council provision of 'help to claim' under Universal Credit. It was also incredibly harrowing to hear first-hand accounts of people with disabilities who are being let down by an incredibly callous system – my recommendations that the government should provide easy-read applications of Universal Credit may not be new, but I hope that another voice making the same demand goes some way to making sure that this demographic accesses the rights they deserve.
I also did a summer internship with Student Minds while I finished my applied project for my master's degree, and I now work at Student Minds full time.