Working in roles within University Professional Services, we can find ourselves as the people students talk to about their disability.
While some students will have had a disability since childhood, others may have just discovered they have a disability/ies. Supporting students with recently acquired disabilities is something I have been thinking about of late, so thought I’d share some tips and thoughts with you on this area.
Newly acquired disabilities could be of any type, though I have noticed students who have come to me with recently acquired hearing loss, vision loss, arthritis, head trauma, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and mental health problems. Certainly, acquired disabilities can be both hidden and seen.
Sometimes a student will have a newly acquired disability or illness due to an accident e.g. resulting in head trauma. For others, it’s a case of them receiving a formal diagnosis, e.g. dyslexia, though the student may have had a hunch they have been dyslexic for a while. There are also those who have had an illness or condition for some time, but it has worsened over time (e.g. anxiety).
What to think about when supporting these students:
- Your role might not be to implement study support or to support the student with applications /workplace adjustments. Nevertheless, it’s good to start with a practical question like: ‘What are you hoping that I can help with?’ or ‘What would you like to talk to me about?
- It is wise to become familiar with the disability resources on offer and get to know some people in the Disability Team or perhaps the Disability Tutors, if your University has them. That way you can signpost students to the right person to help. If a student is talking to me about disability, I sometimes ask ‘Do you meet with other people in Professional Services?’ If they don’t, or choose not to say that they do, I don’t push it any further. But, I ask this question because it’s useful for me to work out whether they are already working with the Disability Team or if I am the first person at University they are talking to about this
- It can be a confusing and difficult time for the student. Getting to grips with a disability might be hard and could be affecting various aspects of their daily life. But, this is not universal so best not to assume a newly acquired disability is unwelcome news for the student. I’ve had students who have been pleased and relieved to receive a diagnosis. They have been able to think about the study support they need, and their behaviours/pain/actions make a lot more sense to them now that they know it is down to – or in part down to – their disability
- I’ve noticed that for mature students who have had a career behind them, acquiring a disability (as many people do in their working life) is particularly worrying. This could be because they have seen disability discrimination in the workplace or because they think it’s going to hold them back from entering a new career area or e..g hinder their chance of getting a management role. Listening to (and where appropriate, challenging) those perceptions is important. It can be useful to chat with the student about how things have changed in recent years (stronger disability legislation, disability initiatives/networks/schemes, less stigma around mental health etc.)
- At this moment in time, it can be particularly challenging for a student with a newly acquired disability who may be studying / working from home. Remote assessments are becoming more talked about, but on a practical level, it is good to ask how the student how they are finding working/studying from home. Is there anything that they need in place at home? (e.g. another computer screen, ergonomic chair, specialist equipment/software)
- Physical disability can affect mental health and vice versa, so it’s good to be aware of this. The student might have arthritis but perhaps the idea of taking pain medication is causing them stress and affecting their mental health. Listening and asking appropriate, open questions is the right approach
- People are worried about using the wrong language when talking to student about disability. I try to pick up on the language the student uses, but I also double check that they are happy for me to use words like ‘your disability’. The student may be fine with it, or on the other hand, they might not see their recent diagnosis / illness / health condition as a disability
Here is a helpful post with tips on how to talk confidently about an acquired disability to employers: https://agcasdtg.wordpress.com/2019/12/09/talking-confidently-to-an-employer-about-an-acquired-disability/
Edmund Lewis, AGCAS Disability Task Group, University of Westminster