Disability on Campus


By Samantha Orr


I’m Sam, an Honours history student, and a lot of you will have seen me get the lift up one floor on campus. Some of you might have scowled and a lot of you will have thought me lazy. The truth is that I have an invisible disability. Well, actually, I have several. Type 1 diabetes is the most severe but that triggered a condition known as hypothyroidism and, consequently, chronic fatigue syndrome. Many mornings I will look able bodied, happy and even bright eyed but the task of even one flight of stairs is beyond me. Remember, our campus is a maze of outrageously steep hills. By the time I get to Colville, I’m done.

Being disabled in any way is hard. It is made even harder by scowls. I had to leave university for three, long years due to my disability. Unless you really knew what to look for, I looked fine – maybe a 9am hung-over fine, but fine nonetheless. The truth was I had a team of seven doctors over several departments and places balancing my condition to keep me out of hospital, and alive. And yet, I looked as average as can be. Many disabilities don’t come with sticks or wheelchairs, limps or assistance animals. You cannot see them but we are just as disabled. Many of us are constantly told to prove ourselves. Why are you in that seat on the bus? Why are you using that toilet? Why are you getting more time to do an assignment? Verbal speech is a fraction of human communication. You don’t need to say a word for disabled people to hear what you are thinking.

To answer some of those questions, though, I am in that seat because my blood sugar is either too low or high and I am unsteady on my feet and I can’t see properly and I feel like I will collapse at any moment. I’m using that toilet because I’m too tired to climb the flight of stairs or even go to the lift to get the other one.  Or, I’m changing medical supplies you cannot see and which society says I need to hide away from public view. I get more time because I cannot focus as long as you can and I could go hypo or hyper at any second which means my brain is too scrambled to work for the rest of the day. You simply do not know. You should always assume that a person using facilities marked disabled is disabled and never assume that one floor lift user is simply lazy.

No one wants to live in a circle of suspicion. It is that sort of suspicion that makes me pull my tired and weary body up the stairs at the library and scan myself in rather than use the lift. It is the reason I feel guilty for trying to find the lifts on each floor of the library because they are hidden in corners, and when you are disabled but able to walk it can feel like a guilty secret.  That is not right.  I have had students laugh at me for taking a break on the long road from Livingstone Tower to the Library. I’ve had students shout that I need to ‘get it together’.  Mostly they glare or laugh at me. I’d love to climb without a break. I’d love to but I can’t.

Telling a lecturer that you are disabled is difficult. Personally, I always cringe at the idea that they will pity me and I don’t want that. I’m not asking for more. I’m asking to be equal. It is important for them to know so they don’t panic when I flee from the room, to know where the nearest first aider is. Our experiences  can be made so much easier by just a little more support in the way of fellow students just being more aware that just because you cannot see an illness or disability when you look at someone does not mean it is not there. A little open mindedness can go a long way

We, as disabled people, are not trying to get one up on you. We just want to stand shoulder to shoulder with you and get our degree like you do.

I blog about my various challenges with my tattered immune system at endocrinegremlin.wordpress.com. Feel free to come and say hello.