By Danni Watts
Danni is a Law undergraduate student at Oxford University. After being diagnosed with M.E in her first year of university she realised there was a need for a platform to discuss disability and student life. She is now the founder and chief editor of TABOU Disability Magazine (www.taboudisabilitymag.co.uk) which aims to increase the access and inclusion of disabled students in higher education. You can follow TABOU on instagram and twitter @TabouMagazine. In this piece Danni talks through her 5 top tips for managing a chronic illness at Oxford.
Learning to live with M.E (a complex illness causing chronic fatigue and pain amongst other symptoms) has been a challenging journey. Learning to manage the illness at Oxford has been particularly difficult and I still am learning how to manage my workload as a disabled student. When I was diagnosed in my first year I had no idea about the support which was on offer and various things which would help me be happy at university. For students who have recently been diagnosed with a chronic illness, or for prospective disabled university students, I have compiled a list of five things I wish I knew when I was first diagnosed.
You Do Deserve To Be At Oxford
Lots of people who study at Oxford suffer from imposter syndrome: the idea that you are not clever enough to study here or don’t deserve your place. When I was diagnosed with M.E I became increasingly anxious about how I was viewed by my tutors and peers. I missed essay deadlines and I panicked that I would be thrown out of Oxford. In reality, once I explained my disability to my tutors and we came up with strategies (such as creating essay plans instead of essays) to get the work done, things got easier. I also think that being disabled has given me an outlook and life experience which makes me better at parts of my degree. For example, I have learnt a lot about public law through M.E advocacy work and my writing has become more concise and clear because I find it easier with brain fog to understand things if they are very structured.
2. Make Your Degree Work For You
Under the Equality Act 2010 universities have a legal duty to ensure they make reasonable adjustments for disabled students. This can take many different forms and one of the most well-known about adjustments is extra-time and the use of a laptop in exams. Whilst disabled students may feel awkward about asking for adjustments it is definitely worth asking for things you think could help. For me, switching my degree so I completed it part time has completely changed my university experience for the better. I also have asked for an ensuite room which is really helpful when I am having a flare up. Chat to your disability service and find about what support is there. If you think of something that would be useful (even if it hasn't been done before) ask about it and ask different people (because unfortunately some tutors may be more willing to make reasonable adjustments than others).
3. Know Who Your Real Friends Are
University can be challenging for lots of reasons and managing a disability might be one of them. My real friends are the ones who have spent evenings in my room instead of going out because I have been too ill to do so, or thought ahead about whether I can participate in an activity. A support network has been vital for me whilst at university, and having friends I can be open with has been really important.
4. Get involved!
At first I was nervous to get involved in disability activism, partly because of internalised ableism and the idea that I wasn’t ‘disabled enough’ to join in. But meeting people through the Oxford Disability Campaign has been a great way to meet other students who have similar experiences to my own and I have also made plenty of friends through the Campaign group. Running TABOU has also been incredibly rewarding and it still amazes me how many students have messaged me to say they found an article useful or shifted their perspective on an issue.
5. You can still have the ‘real’ University experience
My biggest worry has been that because I am ill I am missing out on the ‘real’ university experience. University has been a very different experience to what I thought it would be, but I have still had a rewarding experience so far and I have met a variety of really interesting people along the way from my involvement in disability activism. From running TABOU, to talking to university research groups about M.E I am proud of all I have achieved so far. It might not have been the clubbing three times a week I imagined but I have still had a very fulfilling university experience.