Disability at a Russell Group University

According to the latest statistics, people with disabilities or long-term health conditions make up almost 10% of the student population (they also make up only 2% of those applying to graduate-level jobs, sadly, but that’s a story for another time). And evidence shows that disabled students who receive Disabled Students Allowance perform just as well as students without disabilities; indeed, in 2011 9.5% of first class degrees were awarded to disabled students. And though it’s true that Russell Group unis take on less students with disabilities than others, disabled students still make up over 6% of the intake. So it’s a near certainty that a large proportion of Bright Network members have a disability (or multiple disabilities); and of those that don’t, the vast majority likely have close family members or friends with disabilities, or at least know somebody at university who does.

Yet I know from experience that people at Russell Group universities tend to be more cautious about revealing their disabilities (assuming they’re hidden), since they feel that, in the competitive environment of an elite university, they’ll be discriminated against because of it. In a bubble where academic achievement can seem like the be-all-and-end-all, this is especially true of people with mental health problems or neurological disorders, like dyslexia, dyspraxia, depression, anxiety or autism – there’s a fear that revealing you have such a disability will make you appear less intelligent, and ‘lose status’.

The practical benefits to disclosure are greater at a Russell Group university than at others

But take it from me – such a fear is (usually) almost totally unfounded. True, there might be a few students who’d think less of you for it. But if they’re the kind of people who’ll dislike you for something you can’t help, they’re probably not very nice people anyway, and hardly worth caring about. Besides, in my experience, everyone has been very understanding and considerate. In fact, when I reached the finals for an international poetry competition, ‘Create! Art For Autism 2014’, earlier this year, fellow staff and students were only too happy to help share my poem online – and thanks to this, it won the popular vote! Likewise, I’ve no doubt students at other universities would be just as accepting of you, should you choose to disclose.

And as well as the social benefits to being open – research, after all, shows that people work better when they don’t have to hide facts about themselves and can be who they really are – I’d also argue that the practical benefits to disclosure are greater at a Russell Group university than at others. Firstly, the Russell Group unis receive a bigger grant from the government – so they can spend more on disability services. And they’ve got a practical reason to make sure their services are up to scratch, too – since they’re the best of the best, they genuinely want you to perform to the best of your ability. It doesn’t help them if you miss out on a degree class you could have achieved because you weren’t supported, after all. They’ve got an incentive to help.

Most careers offices have somebody trained to be ‘disability-confident’

So, what’s on offer? Well, I can only speak from personal experience, but at King’s, at least, the disability service is really helpful. Despite only having mild autism, a lot of effort was made to ensure I fit in well and could work to the best of my ability – I was allocated a mentor for my first year under a partnership with the National Autistic Society, and when I recently needed a short extension to complete a piece of work, both the disability service and English office were totally understanding. Disabled Students Allowance helps a great deal, too; as well as a monthly allowance, I’ve received a free laptop and printer and £200 per year to spend on books, which has been an absolutely enormous help. And any disabled student can claim it. Friends of mine with dyslexia have received extra time in exams to help with word processing difficulties and time management, as well as MP3 players to record lectures on, so they’ve plenty of time to make notes. Lots of universities also have Disabled Students Societies – they’re worth joining, whether you want to advocate for disabled students or just meet new people.

And last but not least – don’t be afraid to speak to the university careers service about your disability or disabilities, and your concerns about the workplace. Most careers offices have somebody trained to be ‘disability-confident’ – they can give you tips on whether or not to disclose your disability, and should you choose to, how and when to do so.

There’s a fear that revealing you have such a disability will make you appear less intelligent, and ‘lose status’ - such a fear is unfounded

They’ll discuss the sort of adjustments available in the workplace, how best to request these, and how to effectively market any unique skills you may have as a result of a disability (e.g. for Autism Spectrum Disorder, being punctual and thorough). You can take it from me that such advice is invaluable, and given by real professionals – many careers advisers were once graduate recruiters, and know exactly what they’re looking for.

So, while it’s perfectly understandable to be apprehensive of disclosing your disability at university, you shouldn’t feel that a disability – especially a mental health condition – means you’re not bright. You’re at a Russell Group university, after all, and in all likelihood, your fellow students will be totally supportive.