Attending University with a Physical Disability

Last week marked the start of semester 2 and it was weird being back on campus. To mark the occasion, I thought I’d give you an insight into what it’s like to go to university with a physical disability.

I’m studying a Bachelor of Commerce, majoring in marketing and advertising at Curtin University. For those of you who don’t know, I have a twin sister, Rebecca, who has the same disability as me and is also studying at Curtin, but a Bachelor of Psychology. So, between the two of us, we have some interesting stories to tell, though surprisingly she has a lot more than me!

Let’s start off with a few fun facts! I quote this statistic a lot, but 1 in 5 Australians have a disability of some type. 4 in 5 of those Australians have a physical disability, but only 4% of Australians with a disability actually use a wheelchair. You’d think with those disabilities statistic, people at Curtin would know how to act around people with disabilities. However, based on actual research, while disability statistics include all forms of disabilities, (making it hard to tell how many people with disabilities attended university), only 16.1% of people with disabilities have a Bachelor’s degree or above.

My university experience isn’t all doom and gloom though, so let’s start with some positives. Curtin’s AcessAbility Services has been wonderful, though my process was certainly made easier with Rebecca going before me. Curtin was very accommodating, and my CAP plan was put together with no dramas. I’ve also made great friends through some of my classes and by joining club committees along the way. Often my unit coordinators and tutors have been amazing and very nice to work with. However, things don’t always run as smoothly in class!

Let’s begin with physical access. Curtin is a lot better than UWA with its old buildings, but Curtin still isn’t perfect. On a fine day, it’s pretty easy to get around campus, though you do have to learn the accessible routes and where all the lifts are, but when it’s raining it’s a totally different story! There is no undercover parking for students with direct access to key buildings, which makes it very difficult to get out of the car. Often there’s no cover between buildings, so getting from class to class can also be difficult, especially if you’re a manual wheelchair user trying to hold an umbrella while pushing your chair.

When you get into some classrooms it’s not much better. A few classrooms in building 402 have the pod desk/chair combinations. There is absolutely no way someone in a wheelchair can use them, so we have to request a table from the disability services. It’s a similar situation for small lecture theatres, which actually don’t have desk spaces for wheelchair users. The worst culprits are computer labs, especially those in building 402. The space between rows (which all face to the front of the room) are incredibly narrow and certainly don’t have enough room for an electric wheelchair to pull in straight. Plus, once I’m parked, there’s no way anyone else can fit passed me to use the rest of the computers in that row! Yes, it’s an older building, but it’s little things like that which just make university that extra bit harder for me.

People sometimes can’t fix buildings, but they can certainly fix how they act. Often they’re coming from a good place but just don’t think what this sounds like to someone with a disability. So, let’s count down the top 5 ways not to act, based on personal experience (either my sister or I)!

5.Squish onto a table when there’s clearer room on mine

Literally, I’ve lost count how many times this has happened. It’s not uncommon in my first class for a particular unit to have a whole table to myself if I don’t know anyone in that class. It’s like people think they’re going to catch my disability or something? Yes, I’m in a wheelchair and I wear my ventilator mask, but I’m probably one of the most hard-working students and someone you would want in your group. Last semester was the funniest though (before we went all online because of COVID). In this particular classroom, there were 5 tables, 1 of which was incredibly low. People started coming in late and they decided to either squish onto a table that was already full or sit at the very low table rather than mine.

4.People talking to my support worker not me

Often, it’s random people doing this but it really is offensive as you’re assuming that the person in the wheelchair can’t understand you. News flash, if they’re at university they’re probably intelligent, we don’t just go there for fun! Once my sister was even stopped for the person to ask her support worker “What’s her name?”. This is just wrong on so many levels and probably an article topic for another time!

3.Support workers getting singled out in class in front of everyone

This one makes us laugh but it’s still not very appropriate. Just to give you some background context though, in my CAP Plan it mentions that I have a support worker with me at all times. This plan is then sent to my unit coordinators at the start of each semester and they’ll email it to my tutors. Well, clearly that didn’t happen one semester because the tutor asked the class to form groups and then asked my support worker, who was just sitting quietly in the corner not engaging in the class at all, why she wasn’t getting into a group. Twice my support worker had to say she was my support worker because the tutor didn’t seem to get it the first time.

2.Being a teachable moment for everyone

Here those words “I’m not your inspiration” come up again! If someone with a disability is at university, we’re just trying to get our degree so we can get a job. Once group members thanked my sister for being part of their group, stating they’d never worked with a disabled person before and she’d now changed their views of disability. Seems like a nice thing to say but do you thank other people for people in your group because of their physical differences and now they’ve changed your views? No, I don’t think so. A similar thing happened at the end of a semester, when my sister’s tutor asked her if she could thank her in front of the class for turning up to the tutorials. My sister asked if she would be thanking everyone who turned up, but no, she only wanted to thank her. Going to university is not inspiring people! Top tip, if you wouldn’t say/ask that to an abled-bodied person, don’t say/ask that to someone with a physical disability.

1.People just don’t even thinking

This story absolutely takes the cake! Some people who’ve never been around someone with a disability simply don’t know how to react and common sense just seems to go out the window. Early in her degree, a tutor of a class pulled my sister’s support worker out on two separate occasions. Firstly, to ask how to communicate with her. Sure, if an alternative was stated in her CAP Plan it would be different but talking to us is just fine. Secondly, the tutor wanted to ask if my sister would be emotionally ok if he asked the class to stand up. I hate to break it to you, but we haven’t just realised that we’re different from everyone else and can’t stand.

So, as you can see, attending university certainly brings with it different experiences if you’re someone with a physical disability. Mostly it’s because people don’t know how to react to someone with a physical disability, but in reality, that’s a poor reflection on society and clearly children need to spend more time with people who are different from them so that they never think anything of it. So, if you’re at university, next time you’re in a class either as a student or teacher, just treat someone with a disability as you would anyone else; sit with them and talk to them, you’ll be surprised just how normally we are!

More and more people with physical disabilities are attending university, but it's surprising just how many times people don't know how to act around someone with a physical disability!

One Comment

  • Sarah

    definitely comes challenges and agree with most of the above.
    I hope that awareness and acceptance improves for generations to come.
    just because you go to uni with a disability doesnt make you an inspo!!! <3

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