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Masters Study With a Disability, Illness or Learning Difficulty

Written by Chantelle Francis

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

However, there are plenty of students who take on this challenge and have a rewarding, successful postgraduate study experience.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if you want 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 can support you, and how you can manage your condition while studying a Masters.

Approaching postgraduate study with a disability

If you’re thinking about studying a Masters, it’s a good idea to consider how your disability, learning difficulty or illness might affect your studies. We’ve listed a few of the things you may want to bear in mind when choosing a Masters, such as how the location, area and university itself can accommodate your needs.

  • 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 per the UK Equality Act (2010), public locations (like university buildings) should be accessible for people with a disability, whether this means providing lifts, escalators or additional services.

However, you may still want to check that buildings for different modules are a manageable distance from each other, telling the university about any potential issues.

Applying for a Masters degree

You don’t have to disclose any disability or illness when applying for a Masters degree.

Do note, however, that a university can’t 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 to inform your university about your disability or illness, it’s worth considering some important factors:

  • Discrimination – Your university can’t discriminate against you based on a disability or health condition. Therefore, you should not worry that disclosing this information will have a negative impact on you. However, your university can’t be held liable for discrimination if you haven’t disclosed an illness or disability that could affect your studies.
  • Impact – If your disability or illness will have little impact on your studies, you may not feel it necessary to disclose. Remember that some illnesses and disabilities can be unpredictable, though. Disclosing your situation to your university will provide a safety net for any future problems you might encounter.
  • Benefits – There are many benefits to telling the university about your situation. Institutions put lots of procedures in place to support disabled students, meaning university life could be 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 discussing it outright.

Do bear in mind that the more your tutors understand about how your condition affects 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 an 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 wouldn’t obviously point to any specific impairment.

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

However, your university can help diagnose 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 that 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 give you a voucher to be fully assessed by a psychologist without charge to yourself. The psychological assessment usually takes two to three weeks to arrange, and lasts around two hours.

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

Managing your Masters study with a disability

If you choose 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 could receive 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 outline 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 short time periods. Accessing materials and resources may also be more challenging because of your disability or illness.

Your university can help you get around this by:

  • Installing software on your personal computer (and giving training for this software) that allows you to:
    • adjust screen colours
    • organise highlighted references or notes automatically
    • access text-to-speaker programs
  • 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 ask your university to supply a digital copy.
  • Delivering books to your home if travelling to the library is inconvenient, or if digital versions of material are unavailable.
  • Arranging longer library loans so you have more time to read material.

Some of the services mentioned above aren’t 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, your university should provide a proof-reader to check over your work.

Please note that the Equality Act 2010 places responsibility on universities to supply proof-readers. This means that you can’t fund this service through DSA, as the university should already provide it.

If you decide to use a proof-reading service, you’ll need to give your work to them well before your deadlines.

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

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 be eligible for the following support:

  • Extended time to complete your examinations, and in some cases more 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 taken on a computer instead of handwritten, and take place in a different environment i.e. smaller rooms. If illness tires you out, you could also have breaks during the exam.
  • 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 so that you can manage your time more effectively.

Managing the dissertation

The dissertation 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, are there 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.
  • 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, you can read our guide to writing your dissertation.

Getting 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 good way of talking to somebody about any possible struggles, if visiting a counsellor or staff member seems too daunting.

Additional funding for disabled students

A disability, 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 maximum of £10,993 to help cover the costs of accessing services, printing and additional support.

DSA for postgraduates

Looking for more information on Disabled Students' Allowances for Masters students? Our DSA 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 help 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 success 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 people, including a dedicated factsheet for disabled postgraduate students. 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.

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Last updated: 19 June 2018