Accommodating disability: one size doesn’t fit all

April 27, 2011

Back in the summer of 2005, I spent a lot of time travelling back and forth to visit the university I was to join in September. I had already had a good look at the place, and worked out all the stuff I would need to take, but there was one other thing I needed to sort out: what I would need to help make life easier at university owing to my disability – dwarfism.

I spent the summer filling in forms, and turning up for disability assessments intended to establish what equipment and adjustments would need to be in place before I started. Given my disability, I thought my needs would be easy to assess: a footstool, some adjustments to my room and some help on field trips. But looking back, the assessment process seems to have been a waste of time for everyone.

Half of the adjustments that we talked about were not in place when I arrived, and the equipment I was given didn’t really help me at all. It felt as if most of it was meant for somebody with a different disability.

I was given a laptop, for example, and various other bits of kit. While I was grateful (after all, what student wouldn’t be grateful for a free laptop?), much of what I was given did not suit my specific needs. I was supplied with a Dictaphone to record my lectures, but that was never used – it was like giving a dyslexic student a footstool. You get asked what your needs are, but you end up getting the same equipment as everybody else. And if you don’t have the disability they expect you to have, then you end up having to fight for what you need.

Despite the fact that people with all sorts of disabilities go to university and they all require different types of support, it seems like the able-bodied person thinks all of our needs can be met with the same equipment. How is a laptop meant to help me? What am I meant to do with it – use it to reach high light switches? Nearly every disabled student I know has been given a Dictaphone, and many have no need for it. I can imagine this equipment doesn’t come cheap, and it ends up being a waste of money when it is not used and the student is left to struggle.

Universities need to do more to accommodate their students’ wide range of disabilities. By listening to the needs of individual students and by asking them what is best for them, institutions save money at the same time as making university life easier for disabled people. At the end of the day it is the people who live with disabilities who best know their own needs. In my case, some people struggle even to accept that I am disabled, because as someone with dwarfism I do not fit the stereotypical image of a disabled person.

Not being properly recognised as disabled can also affect how much consideration is put into providing you with the necessary adjustments, and it can delay the delivery of the help you need, or even prevent you from getting it at all. This in turn affects your study, and can even influence the course you choose. I started off studying physical geography but transferred to human geography because I was unable to participate in field trips when my disability was not taken into consideration. It is assumed that because you are not in a wheelchair – and are “only small” – that you can do what all the other students do, when this is not the case.

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