Value me as I am: Life as a University student living with a disability

By Lauren Hunter (she/her)

University is undoubtedly a diverse place – the opportunity to meet new people from all walks of life is probably what appealed to most of us when we applied. This comes with a greater appreciation for the fact that higher education is no longer just for the elites.

Modern students have so many different lived experiences, which is as it should be. Yet even still, those with disabilities still remain significantly underrepresented within the student community and are often stigmatised at this level.

An equality and diversity report by the University of St. Andrews in 2019 found that approximately 13.4% of the Scottish student population had disclosed some form of disability, which is comparatively low against other minority groups. This feeds into the rhetoric that disabled university students aren’t actually considered the norm, which further emphasises the notion that the world of education and employment is exclusively for the able-bodied.

The International Day of People with Disabilities held yearly on the third of December, is all about celebration and empowerment. However unfortunately, disabled university students don’t feel celebrated nor empowered.

As a disabled student myself, I can speak from experience. I’ve found issues not so much with staff or my peers, but in general conversation in everyday life.

Often, people simply can’t believe that I’m even at university. I’ve had some mind-blowing conversations that go along the lines of: ‘What do you do at college?’, ‘oh, no, I’m actually at uni.’, ‘so, when you’re at college…’.

This is not a critique of colleges or college students; my point is that societal expectations deem disabled people incapable of achieving a university level education when that barrier wouldn’t necessarily be placed on anyone else.

I suppose it’s a pressure I’ve felt for a long time. I got good grades in school, but I always felt this greater expectation to achieve highly because sometimes teachers and pupils would be surprised by my results and I wanted to prove myself to them.

However, the negative side of this for disabled people is that those around you go from thinking you’re practically braindead to viewing you as the next Stephen Hawking – which I absolutely am not. It would be nice just to be seen as a normal person with a fairly average level of intelligence.  

Also, just to mention, I’m at university to get a degree not just to be a statistic or to fill a quota on the number of diverse students. I went through the same application as everyone else and have earned my right to be here as much as them – that doesn’t render me somehow tokenistic or an inspiration.

There is so much that needs change surrounding the concept of disabled students and disabled young adults in general, but the least I would like is for people to value me as I am; nothing more, nothing less.

Part of the exclusionary language towards disabled students boils down to the fact that disabled people are viewed as eternal children. That’s why people think university is beyond my comprehension, why they feel the irritating need to be patronising or talk to my friends above me.

But believe it or not, I am no longer a child. I am a young adult trying to make my way in this world, trying to achieve as much as anyone else, trying to have fun. I might be doing it while sitting in a wheelchair, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I absolutely will get it done – I just might have to prove a few people wrong along the way.