Disabled. It’s a loaded word, and it’s not one all disabled people identify with. But ultimately, if you want to get off to a good start at college or university, it can pay to make peace with that word and tick the disability box on your application form. In my job running a helpline for disabled students’, it’s a bit of a paradox.
Students get in touch with the helpline for different reasons, but one we hear about around exam results time relates to the fact they didn’t tick that box. They didn’t tick the box because they didn’t think of themselves as disabled; they didn’t think they would need to or that it would make a difference. Or that it was anybody’s business quite frankly. And considering the fact you go through the whole of school in Scotland being referred to as having ‘additional support needs’, with nobody expecting you to be the one telling professionals what those needs are, it’s really no surprise that when you get presented with a form with potentially alienating language, you don’t tick the box. If you’re not sure whether you meet the official ‘legal’ term of being disabled, read this great factsheet from Disability Rights UK, you might be surprised by what’s included.
Anyway, back to the helpline callers. Because they didn’t tick the box, they didn’t ever tell anyone on their course they might have learning support needs. And without talking to people about what extra support you might need on your course – or indeed what kind of support helped you at school, it’s difficult for your college or university to make sure they’re fulfilling their legal duties to put you on a level playing field, when compared to your fellow non-disabled classmates.
So, come exam results time, students get in touch and ask if they can appeal the decision of their marks because they didn’t disclose the fact they were disabled, and therefore they didn’t get the extra learning support they might have benefited from. But it’s too late by that point. The college or university would need to have known you were disabled at the time in order to provide that personalised support.
That of course doesn’t let colleges and universities off the hook entirely. Yes, the expectation is on you to disclose and tick that box at the start, but colleges and universities should still try their best to find out which of their students are disabled. They could use their website, marketing information and social media platforms to encourage students to disclose. They could use posters or open days or Freshers’ Week to let students know what support is available and who to talk to. There should be clear and obvious ways to disclose at a later point, because after all, you might not have even been disabled when you applied, or realised your impairment would affect your learning.
That box isn’t the ONLY chance to tell someone, it’s not the ONE TIME you were allowed to disclose. In fact that box is just the first step in the process – it’s like a key to opening a gate, leading to a whole array of support options. Extra time in your exams, adapted software and assistive technology to support your reading and writing. A mentor to support you to organise your studies and plan ahead for your course work. There are so many different types of support available. Just check out this long list of support options Disability Rights UK have put together.
So, don’t worry if you’ve already applied for your course and you didn’t tick the disability box on your UCAS or college application form. It’s not too late! You can tell someone at your college or university at ANY time, although the earlier the better and a good few months in advance of exams is recommended. You can tell your lecturers, your personal tutor, your supervisor or a member of the student support team or disability service. Go on to your college or university’s website and look up the email addresses of these teams and get in touch now.
But, if you haven’t made your choice yet, or you’re not thinking about going to college or university until next year, then do yourself a favour and save some time in the future. When you’re completing your application form, tick the box.