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Masters Study with a Learning Difficulty, Disability, or Chronic Illness

Deciding whether to pursue a Masters degree with a learning difficulty, disability, or chronic illness can be a difficult task.

However, there are many students who take on this challenge and have as much of a successful and rewarding postgraduate study experience as their peers.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether to inform your university about a disability or illness. But it’s important to note that many institutions have excellent support networks for chronically ill or disabled students.

This page highlights the benefits of informing your university about your personal needs, the ways in which they are able to support you, and ways in which you yourself can manage a chronic illness, learning difficulty, or disability.

Approaching postgraduate study

When considering moving on to a Masters degree, it is important to consider how your disability, learning difficulty, or illness may affect your studies. Below are a few of the things you may wish to think through.

Preparing for Masters study

When researching different places to study, you should think about how the location, area, and university itself can accommodate your needs. For example, you may want to consider:

  • Where you’ll be studying – will you be able to travel there conveniently?
  • Could the area you move to affect your health?
  • Accessing health services – can you be treated locally?

As of the UK Equality Act (2010), all buildings should be accessible through providing lifts, escalators, or other means of mobility for those less able.

However, you may still want to ensure that buildings for different modules are a manageable distance from each other, and notify the university of any issues.

Applying for a Masters degree

You do not have to disclose any disability or illness when applying for a Masters degree.

Do note, however, that a university cannot discriminate against you for anything you do disclose.

Making your disability clear on your application can also be beneficial if you suffer with a physical disability such as visual impairment, or a hidden disability such as dyslexia.

For example, minor grammatical errors or spelling mistakes may be forgiven - but your application will have to fulfil all the relevant criteria just like any other student.

Should I disclose?

When deciding whether or not to inform your university about your disability or illness, it is worth considering some important factors:

  • Discrimination: your university cannot discriminate against you on the basis of a disability or health condition. Therefore, you should not worry that disclosing this information will have a negative impact on you. On the same hand, however, your university cannot be held liable for discrimination if you have not disclosed an illness or disability which may affect your studies.
  • Impact: if your disability or illness will have little impact on your studies, you may not feel it necessary to disclose. Bear in mind though, that some illnesses and disabilities can be unpredictable. Disclosing your situation to your university will provide a safety net for any future problem you may encounter.
  • Benefits: there are many benefits to disclosing your situation to your university. Lots of procedures have been put in place for disabled students, meaning university life could me made easier for you. Letting your university know that you have a disability or illness means they can support you throughout your studies, and ensure you get all the help you may need to succeed.

Disclosing any issues to the university’s disability services also means that a report of your condition can be sent to your tutors discreetly. This avoids any possible embarrassment you may feel about disclosing it outright.

Do bear in mind, however, that the more your tutors understand about how your condition may affect your studies, the better they can support you. Being open and honest about your disability or illness will help yourself and your tutors come to a mutual agreement as to how to manage your academic work effectively.

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

It isn’t always the case that students know of their disability or learning difficulty prior to starting university.

This is because some disabilities affect individuals in ways which would not obviously signpost them to any specific impairment.

For example, dyspraxia is a hidden learning difficulty which can effect mood, concentration, and co-ordination – things which you may put down to other factors such as tiredness or general clumsiness.

However, your university can assist in diagnosing learning difficulties and hidden disabilities.

QuickScan is used by many universities to assess whether a student may have a possible learning difficulty or ‘hidden’ disability such as dyspraxia. It is an online test which asks you to answer a few simple questions, taking roughly 15 minutes to complete. The software is accessed via your university’s online services.

If the software suspects you may have a disability, you will receive a summary which you can present to your university’s student services, who will then provide you with a voucher to be fully assessed by a psychologist without charge to yourself. The psychological assessment usually takes 2-3 weeks to arrange, and lasts around two hours.

Once a psychologist has assessed you, you should receive a full report within two weeks.

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Managing your Masters study

If you opt to notify your university of an illness or disability, you certainly won’t have to face any possible challenges alone.

As well as being able to access support from your university, there are steps you can take to successfully manage postgraduate study on your own terms.

Attending lectures, seminars and core learning

Depending on the severity of your condition, you can be provided with different kinds of specialist support and equipment.

Your university can provide you with:

  • A personal note-taker to jot down material for you
  • Access to audio recording equipment. This can often be loaned from student services free of charge, but you may be eligible to purchase your own using Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). Do note that it is polite to ask if recording would be appropriate prior to any lecture, seminar, or lab session.

You can manage material by:

  • Simply sitting and listening without notetaking, if multitasking is a struggle for you. Though it may not seem productive, listening to the lecture itself allows you to absorb material directly and efficiently without worrying about including everything in note form. The lecture slides themselves will usually be made available online afterwards.
  • If you do want to get some material down, you may find that using visual diagrams such as mind-maps help you to get down the main points and themes.
  • For lab sessions, your tutor will likely have prepared an outline as preparation for each class. If you think it may be useful to you, you could ask them for a copy of the notes.

Reading and research

For many disabled students, reading documents and comprehending them efficiently can be difficult, especially in different formats and under limited time. Accessing materials and resources may also be more challenging as a result of your disability or illness.

Your university can help you get around this by:

  • Installing software on your personal computer to help with your reading by allowing you to
    • adjust screen colours
    • organise references or notes that you highlight automatically
    • access text-to-speaker software to help you take in information more easily
    • provide training on how to use the software efficiently.
  • Providing study spaces specifically designed for disabled students. These areas are often quieter and the computers will usually contain similar software mentioned above. These spaces are also usually bookable, which is ideal during exam time.
  • Providing you with digitised books or journal articles. Many books held by university libraries have already undergone the digitisation process. However, if you find one that hasn’t, you can request your university to supply a digital copy.
  • Delivering books to your home if travelling to the library is inconvenient, or digital versions of material are unavailable.
  • Arranging longer library loans so you have more time to read material.

Some of the services mentioned above, such as installing software on your home computer, are not always free. However, you may be able to cover the costs through Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) and other sources of funding.

Writing and drafting

Drafting your work a couple of times before you submit it is always advisable, regardless of whether you have an illness or disability.

To ensure your work is free from spelling mistakes and grammatical errors that may naturally occur through disability or learning difficulties, a proof-reader can be allocated to check over your work.

Again, this service can be funded through DSA.

It is important to note that if you decide to use a proof-reading service, pieces of work will have to be submitted to them well before your deadlines.

This allows time for you to edit your work sufficiently and avoid being turned away if the service is busy.

To manage your workload:

  • You may find it easier to print out notes, in which case you can claim back the costs of printing at the university library or on personal ink and paper through DSA if you are eligible.
  • Planning carefully and taking time with your work is always advisable. If you have been able to access assistive software, using the text-to-speaker mode to listen to your work audibly will help you notice grammatical errors more easily. Reading your text out loud to yourself is also sufficient.
  • Allow yourself plenty of breaks. Writing down your thoughts takes a lot of effort, especially if mental illness or a learning difficulty such as dyslexia makes it hard to concentrate. Taking a 5 minute break every 30-60 minutes will keep you perceptually charged to undertake the task.

Preparing for exams and assessments

There are many services available to help students prepare and undertake examinations and assessments. Though the precise services vary in different universities, you may generally be eligible for:

  • Extended time to complete your examinations, and in some cases extended time to complete and hand in assignments.
  • A study skills supervisor to provide you with tips and advice on how best to revise and complete pieces of work efficiently.
  • Exams can be undertaken on a computer instead of hand-written, and also take place in a different environment i.e. smaller rooms. If illness tires you out, you can also be given breaks.
  • Some universities provide ‘SpLD’ stickers to put on assignments before you hand them in. These stickers let the marker know you have a disability or 'specific learning difficulty'. This means that muddled expression or minor spelling mistakes may be forgiven, though work still has to meet university standards as for any other student.
  • Your university can ask tutors to not bunch together too many deadlines to allow you to manage your time more effectively.

Managing your own preparation:

  • Find a suitable environment in which you can most productively revise. For some, this will mean working in silent study spaces, or simply in a space at the library. For others, this may mean working at home, or even a cafe. Finding a space in which you are most comfortable will help you to work more effectively.
  • Try working with others in study groups. You may find that the support of others covering the same material is a useful way of making revision more accessible.
  • When preparing assignments such as essays or presentations, always ensure you understand the task fully. If you are unsure, no question is too big or small for either your peers, your tutors, or support staff.

Managing the dissertation

An independent project or final thesis is one of the most important parts of the dissertation. It is the part of your Masters degree where you will have to do the most independent work. As a result, you will need to be self-sufficient, and set out what you plan to do during each stage carefully.

There are several ways in which you can do this:

  • Think ahead and consider how your personal circumstances will affect your work load during the summer period. Could it take you longer to do things as a result of your disability? If you suffer with a chronic illness, might there be any treatment plans coming up which could interfere with your research and write-up? Making a list of any possible hindrances and integrating them into your schedule will allow you to plan effectively.
  • Plan your time by making a timetable of what you will do and when. This doesn’t have to be a comprehensive itinerary of what you will do from day-to-day, but setting weekly or bi-weekly aims will aid your productivity and make your workload more manageable.
  • Liaise with your supervisor and set up regular meetings to discuss your work. Take advantage of the advice they provide you with – after all, they’ve been there themselves. Checking in from time to time ensures that the goals you are setting are realistic and achievable.
  • Take breaks. When planning and managing your time, it is easy to forget to schedule rest time. Treating your dissertation like a 9-5 job, rather than sporadic episodes of work, will help you structure your time effectively. Giving yourself a day or two of rest every few days will keep you invigorated and ready to take on the next task.
  • Be honest if you are struggling. Masters study is never easy, and can be particularly draining if you are managing a disability, illness, or learning difficulty. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you are struggling. Also, don’t forget that you can still access extra support such as counselling just like any other student.

If you would like some more tips on writing your dissertation, you can consult our guide.

Get support from your students’ union

Accessing support through your students’ union is an excellent way of meeting those in a similar situation to yourself. Unions often have societies specifically for disabled students, so accessing them is a great means of balancing your academic and social pursuits.

Many unions also run mentoring schemes, where you can chat with somebody either online or in person. It’s a fantastic way of talking to somebody about any possible struggles, if visiting a councillor or staff member seems too daunting.

Balancing work and studies

When managing your Masters study alongside part-time work, it’s important not to take on too much.

Most universities recommend that the average full-time student works no more than 16 hours per week. If you have a disability or illness, it might be best to reduce this to around 12 hours per week to better manage your coursework and other academic commitments.

If you are searching for work, you can be confident in applying to employers that are part of the Two Ticks Scheme. Under the scheme, employers cannot discriminate against you for a disability or chronic illness. You are guaranteed an interview so long as your experience fulfils the job criteria.

All universities and students’ unions are Two Ticks employers, so it’s definitely worth looking into possible positions with them.

If you feel your illness or disability does not hinder your work, you may be comfortable applying to most jobs.

You do not have to disclose information about a disability or illness if you do not wish to. However, if your condition impacts your work for any reason, it is only fair on your employer to be honest with them.

Additional funding

A disability or chronic illness, or learning difficulty can make postgraduate study more expensive. You may need to purchase specialist equipment, pay for additional help, or cover other costs associated with transport and accommodation.

Thankfully, there is funding available to support Masters students with disabilities, learning difficulties, or illnesses.

Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) is the largest funding source for disabled and chronically ill students. Depending on your circumstances, you may be eligible for a grant of up to £10,362.

The funding can be used to cover the costs of accessing services, printing, and any assistance you may need.

DSA for postgraduates

Looking for more information on Disabled Students' Allowances for Masters students? Our guide provides you with information on whether you are eligible, and how to apply.

Other sources of information

The most important thing to remember is that you aren’t alone when it comes to managing a learning difficulty, disability, or illness during your studies.

As well as support from your university, there are lots of online forums and external organisations which you can access support through.

Our sister site, Postgrad Forum, brings together students of all levels to post about and discuss potential problems, as well as successes stories and advice.

The NUS - The National Union of Students - provides support for issues facing students at all levels of higher education and runs a specific Disabled Students Campaign.

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.

Did you know we currently list 24,708 Masters programs worldwide?


Why not take a look?

Last updated - 15/11/2016

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