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Lighthouse on the rocks

 by Chantelle Francis
, posted on 26 Oct '16

Managing Postgraduate study with a Chronic Illness, Disability, or Learning Difficulty

Postgraduate study can be challenging at the best of times, and even more so if you are also managing long-term illness, a learning difficulty, or disability.

But fret not!

If one or more of the criteria above applies to you, you are not alone.

Around 6% of students in higher education receive Disabled Students Allowance (DSA), including for Masters and PhDs. This means there are many students just like you who successfully complete their degrees year on year.

This blog will provide some top tips and cover frequently asked questions surrounding postgraduate study with a learning difficulty, disability, or chronic illness, with a little note of experience from the author.

To disclose or not to disclose? That is the question

Disclosing personal information can seem a daunting process.

If you feel your disability or illness will have a minor impact on your studies, you may not feel it necessary to disclose.

However, not only will disclosing provide you with a safety net for any future problems you may encounter, it also opens up a realm of possibilities with regards to extra help and services specifically designed for disabled postgraduates.

Most importantly, if you do choose to disclose, your university cannot discriminate against you for any learning difficulty, disability, or illness you may have.

What to do if you think you may have a disability, but haven’t been diagnosed

Not all students know they have a disability or learning difficulty prior to starting university.

As was my case, I had suspected for a long time that I had a learning difficulty, but had been too scared to find out.

Many students feel there is a lot of stigma surrounding disability, and often feel that others may feel differently towards them if a disability is confirmed.

However, once I had received my diagnosis, many of the worries which I had kept to myself soon melted away as I learned that my situation was not a new one.

My friends didn’t see me any differently, and staff were extremely supportive and determined to see me succeed.

If you think you may have a disability, contact your student services for guidance.

Your university will be extremely supportive in helping you to diagnose a suspected learning difficulty, and to manage it throughout your studies.

What support could I receive from my university?

Universities offer a variety of services when it comes to supporting students with a disability or chronic illness.

The kind of support you receive is completely tailored to you, so it varies from student to student.

Generally, however, your university may be able to offer you:

  • Equipment and software to aid your learning, such as digital recorders and assistive computer software
  • A personal note-taker to assist you in lectures and seminar if your illness or disability affects your writing and/or comprehension
  • A study support assistant to help you manage your work by providing study tips and learning support
  • A proof-reader who will ensure spelling and grammatical mistakes are flagged up in your work before you submit it
  • Extended book loans from your University library
  • Extended exam time or more suitable examination conditions (i.e. examination via a computer)

If you’re concerned about a health problem, some universities have their own medical centres where you can register with a regular doctor.

Doctors at university health centres specialise in providing help and advice to students. Therefore, they may have a better understanding of how you might be expected to cope with your studies compared with your home GP.

Registering with a university doctor also means your treatment is more easily accessible. And, if you need time off, these GPs are also more likely to be familiar with your institution’s absence procedures.

How can I manage my own learning?

As noted above, university life can be made much easier when you access support.

However, there are many ways you can manage your own learning to ease some of the difficulties you may face.

Below are some tips to help you get through postgraduate study when managing a disability or illness.

#1 – Talk to your supervisor or tutor

Your supervisor or course tutor doesn’t necessarily need to know all the details of your illness or disability.

But, assessing the impact your situation may have on your studies, and the ways in which academic staff can help you to combat these issues, will make your studies run much more smoothly.

Their assistance may involve simple things like providing slides prior to a lecture or materials for a seminar earlier in the week. Your university can also discourage your lecturers from bunching together deadlines in order to help you manage your time better.

Finding a mutual agreement on how best to go about achieving your academic targets will mean minimal stress for both parties.

#2 – Find a learning style that suits you best

Certain aspects of university learning are essential. You’ll need to access seminars, lectures, lab sessions, workshops, even conferences (particularly at PhD level). But ‘access’ can take different forms and there are often alternative ways to engage with learning activities.

For example, it is common practise for many students to write linear notes when attending lectures. However, for other this may not be so simple.

If you struggle to multitask, engaging with the lecture directly through simply listening may be better than juggling note-taking as well.

Or, if you want to get some material down, try using mind-maps or other visual diagrams to jot down the main points and themes.

You may even be able to access recorded versions of lectures to review with more time available – or to replace any sessions you’re prevented from attending.

The way you study outside your core hours can also be a lot more flexible.

Don’t feel you have to work at the library just because your friends are. If you feel more comfortable carrying out work at home, then do so. You will be more productive this way.

Universities often have set areas for disabled students to work in. These environments are usually quieter, more accessible, and may also contain computers with assistive software which you might otherwise only access on your laptop.

#3 - Give yourself plenty of time to complete tasks

As a postgraduate student, you probably understand that leaving things to the last minute and pulling all-nighters is a no-go.

As a student with a learning difficulty or illness, it is quite likely that tasks such as reading and writing may take you longer than the average student.

Make sure you can manage your workload by giving yourself plenty of time to complete your academic work.

During my studies, I noticed that tasks such as reading a journal article for a seminar took me twice as long as it did my peers. Understanding how your illness or disability can affect your concentration and academic stamina will really help you to manage your time effectively.

One means you may do this is to set aside an extra hour than the amount of time you feel you might actually be able to complete the work. This allows you time to really mull over your thoughts and the material you are studying.

#4 – If you are struggling, be honest

Having an illness, disability, or learning difficulty can be very tiring and mentally draining.

It is okay to admit if you are struggling – your university will know how best to support you.

Just like any other student, seeking extra support such as counselling is always advisable if any part of your academic experience is getting you down.

Knowing your limits and recognising when you need to rest will make your study much more effective than simply powering through.

Seeking advice and companionship from other students in your position is also an excellent way of getting through the hard times.

Your students’ union is an excellent place to meet other students, and you will often find that unions have their own societies specifically for disabled students.

#5 – Stay positive

As awareness around disabilities and illnesses grows, the understanding around them does, too.

Don’t ever feel that having a disability or illness will impede your studies in any major way.

There is no good reason why you cannot achieve your dreams and have an excellent university experience just like any other student.

Other sources of information

You can read about how other students faced the challenges of illness and disability during their postgraduate studies on our website.

Disability Rights UK is a charity which also provides support, advocacy, and resources to disabled students.

NadineMuller.org.uk is an academic blog by Dr Nadine Muller, with information on managing postgraduate study with chronic illness and disability. The blog contains many contributions from individuals with a variety of illnesses and disabilities, so it makes for an excellent resource.