Aiming high as a disabled student
Rensa Gaunt, Cambridge (CUSU Disabled Students’ Campaign)
If you are thinking of applying to a top university and have experience of disability, chronic illness or mental health, you might be wondering whether it’s worth aiming higher. You might not be sure what kind of help you would be entitled to at an elite university - taking the example of Cambridge, I’m here to tell you that there is lots of support available, and choosing a top university could be the best choice you’ve ever made. (N.B. much of the Cambridge system is mirrored at Oxford!)
Here are some quotes from members of the Disabled Students' Campaign about why they are glad they applied to Cambridge:
"I was nervous about applying to a top university because of my existing mental health problems. When I got here I realised that I was not alone, and that it didn't need to hold me back - I deserve to be here just as much as anyone else!"
"Despite what I've been through, I still enjoy every moment of my exciting and challenging education. Whilst being disabled will always shape my experience of the world, with the right adjustments I will never allow it to limit my aspirations."
"When I suddenly developed several chronic illnesses, I thought I would never be able to finish the Cambridge degree I loved. But after learning about my rights, I was able to switch to part time and have been enjoying my studies more than ever!" (more information available here [https://www.disabled.cusu.cam.ac.uk/double-time/])
I will run through the support available to you, including financial, academic and social - feel free to skip to the section that interests you, and if you have any questions, contact details are in the resources at the bottom of this post!
1. Support during your application
As a student with disabilities or chronic illness, you are just as capable as other applicants, but you might need small adjustments or advice to feel confident applying. The university’s Disability Resource Centre is available throughout the application process to advise on college choice, adjustments to your interviews and exams, and any other questions you might have about being in Cambridge as a disabled person. They know that not every disability is visible - mental health problems such as anxiety or OCD are just as valid as learning difficulties or physical impairments, and you’re just as entitled to support. They have a great section of their website dedicated to prospective students, available here [https://www.disability.admin.cam.ac.uk/students/prospective-students]. You are also welcome to contact our student union’s Disabled Students’ Campaign with any questions (see ‘Resources’ section below).
2. Deciding where to apply
The DRC has a Building Access Guide [https://www.disability.admin.cam.ac.uk/building-access-guide] that gives an overview of every college and department, so you can make sure your needs would be met without having to visit first. You can also contact individual colleges and common rooms (student representatives) to find out about support available specifically at their college if you know you will need specific adjustments, e.g. level access into the canteen. This will help to make sure that you can enjoy college life in the same way as everyone else!
3. Support once you arrive
Moving away from your home area might disrupt the ongoing medical care that you normally receive. While it can be frustrating to reestablish relationships with a new medical team, you can be reassured that Cambridge has some of the country’s leading clinics at its university hospital campus. As an example, my family live several hours away from Cambridge, but my nearest specialist clinic for certain conditions would still be in Cambridge! So, whatever your condition(s), moving to a city like Cambridge could be a good step towards getting long-term treatment alongside your studies, if you decide that moving away from home is possible for you.
From the government
On top of the tuition and maintenance loan that you might receive from Student Finance, as a UK disabled student you are eligible for Disabled Students’ Allowance, which is designed to help with additional costs incurred due to your disability. This can be in the form of money and/or ordering furniture and equipment that you need to be delivered to you - and it’s yours to keep! This is not exclusive to Cambridge - it’s available across the UK and at any time during your degree.
From the university
The Cambridge system has many types of support in place that are mirrored at other top universities. We have our own University Counselling Service which provides free counselling to all students, and a Disability Resource Centre which makes recommendations about your needs to your faculty, and offers you advice and mentoring all the way through your degree. If you are low income, your Student Finance will be topped up automatically with the Cambridge bursary, and as a disabled person you may be eligible for private treatment funding through the university.
From your college
Your college has a tutorial (pastoral) team, consisting of personal tutors, college nurses and counsellors, who can help you with any needs you may have, whether related to your disability or not. There are also dedicated staff for college accessibility and for making sure you get the exam arrangements needed to level the playing field. College common rooms have student representatives for disabled students and other groups (e.g. BME, LGBT+), which can provide essential support for day-to-day matters. The support offered to you comes from many different people, so it is not a problem if you don’t feel comfortable opening up to one specific person - you have autonomy in choosing the help you receive.
There are grants available for study or travel costs, and taxi funds for medical appointments, which you can use as much as you need. As a languages student, I have had some amazing trips funded that would not have been possible at other universities, but travel funds are open to non-language students too if you can convince your college it’s an ‘academic’ trip! Your college will offer additional maintenance grants and hardship funding for students from a low income background - the aim is to make sure that neither your disability nor family background limit your university experience.
From the students’ union
At the Disabled Students’ Campaign, we run social events to bring people together, and we campaign for change at the university level. Aside from the friends you will make in college, in your classes and doing your hobbies, we have a network of students with experience of disability, chronic illness and mental health, who can give you advice or just hear your rants from time to time! We have been through the various university support systems, and know what it’s all about - so you’ll never need to go through it alone.
Hopefully some of this information has helped you to feel more confident in aiming high as a disabled student!
Apply to Cambridge map of colleges and faculties
Disability Resource Centre ‘Applying to Cambridge’ https://www.disability.admin.cam.ac.uk/students/prospective-students
Disability Resource Centre ‘Building access guide’ https://www.disability.admin.cam.ac.uk/building-access-guide
Disability Resource Centre ‘Contact us’
CUSU Disabled Students’ Campaign homepage https://www.disabled.cusu.cam.ac.uk/
CUSU Disabled Students’ Campaign ‘Exec’ (contact page)
CUSU Disabled Students’ Campaign ‘Resources’, including ‘Uni 101 Guide’ and ‘Access Around Cambridge’ https://www.disabled.cusu.cam.ac.uk/resources/