Seren Kiremitcioglu • 14 February 2020 • 9 minutes

📚 Studying with a long-term health condition 📚

If you have a long-term health condition, studying can be easily disrupted; especially if you develop one smack bang in the middle of your studies!

The amount of time you have in which to complete coursework can be sliced in half by sick days, hospital admissions, flare-ups, and so on.

In true Seren style, I decided that moving to Portsmouth and starting a new job wasn’t enough of a challenge for me. I wanted to study my masters degree, and I only wanted to study it in Exeter. Which is fine – it’s only 130 miles away!

So long story short, I travel to Exeter once a week to study my MA, as well as working and managing my health conditions. It’s definitely hard, it can be pretty draining, but it’s all 100% worth it for me.

I won’t pretend that this kind of choice is for everyone, though – even someone in full health would think twice about it! But there’s a range of ways in which I manage, which I’d like to share with anyone considering study with a long term condition.

Getting help from Disabled Students Allowance

I’m not sure how this works across the board, but as a UK resident studying in England, I have been able to access help through Disabled Students Allowance, otherwise known as DSA.

This isn’t a cash lump sum you get sent to your bank account, but resources and tools to help you as an individual to access the course on the same level of your peers. The way I like to think of it is through this image:

An image split into two: on one side is the word 'equality', on the right side is the word 'equity'. The equality side shows 3 people of different heights on a platform, but only 2 out of the 3 people can see over the fence. On the equity side, the smallest person has the biggest platform, with the person of middle height having a slight platform, and the tallest person having not platform. They can all see over the fence.

Basically, you get some extra boxes to stand on to give you a level playing field.

For example, when I began my undergraduate degree, I had severe depression and anxiety. One particular issue I had was accessing the library and printing off work; the crowds of people, light, and noise levels were very overwhelming and gave me anxiety.

To help, DSA gave me a printer so that I could print work at home. This, in turn, meant I was more relaxed about going to seminars, as I wasn’t turning up empty-handed when my anxiety had prevented me from printing off materials prior to the class.

Picture of Canon Printer
Credit: Joshua Fuller

In addition to this, I was allocated time with a study mentor, who helped me navigate my coursework while also talking with me about my mental health and day-to-day concerns. This was really cathartic due to its practical and emotional benefits.

I also had practical help in the form of computer software, specifically catered to help with the concentration issues that come with both anxiety and depression. Specifically, I benefitted from audio notetakers and mind mapping applications.

Picture of book and notebook on desk
Credit: Aaron Burden

Qualifying for funded ergonomic equipment

Now that I’m studying my MA with a diagnosis of vasculitis, I’ve encountered a wider range of problems, from aches and pains to chronic fatigue.

As these are predominantly physical symptoms, I’ve had even more practical help than before! A DSA assessor came to my house, talked to me about my condition, asked lots of questions about what I particularly struggle with, and physically measured me.

She was lovely, and we talked about our cats. (Cats rule.)

From this, I received a whole suite of ergonomic equipment to help me to study for as long as possible, regardless of my illness. I received:

  • A lightweight laptop for writing assignments and taking to university. I did contribute £200 towards the cost of this, though. All students are required to contribute £200 towards the cost of a laptop if they are eligible for and opt to buy one through the DSA scheme.
  • A gel wrist support
  • An ergonomic chair with adjustable headrest, lumbar support, arm support, height, and reclination to enable me to sit properly and comfortably for as long as possible.
  • A footrest, both with a flat side (to enable me to keep my feet stationary) and a domed side (for me to rock my feet back and forth)
  • A portable desk to allow me to work from bed!
  • A bed cushion: I have no idea how to describe this, but it basically looks like a sofa cushion with cushion arms. This helps me to keep a comfortable upright position if working from my bed or sofa.
  • A bookstand to prevent strain in my wrists when keeping books open.
  • A laptop stand to enable me use my laptop as a desktop while also mounting paperwork in front of the keyboard.
  • A portable keyboard and ergonomic mouse: the mouse is called an Oyster mouse, and allows you to use various heights and angles throughout the day to prevent wrist strain. The keyboard is incredibly lightweight and easy to use.
  • A writing slope / lap desk which allows me to work on the sofa and write at an angle
  • A roll-along cabin bag which means I don’t have to carry my things on my back anymore! Being able to wheel my things alongside me is so much easier than squeezing it into a backpack…
  • A powerbank to help me keep things charged on my train journeys. This is incredible as it has such a huge capacity (15,000mAh!)
  • A portable lumbar support for when I get uncomfortable on the train.
A picture of my ergonomic set up

I was also given a range of software, along with allocated software training time, to assist me with my studies. My Dragon software allows me to dictate to my computer, for days when my wrists hurt but I want to write essays. Sonocent Audio Notetaker enables me to record lectures and make notes at the same time, and it even allows me to put slides and images alongside specific chunks of audio.

I also have Claroreader, which will read text to me out loud (like news articles, essays, or even books) for times when I struggle to concentrate on reading. Along with this software, I was given a shotgun microphone and a headphone and microphone headset. This has been really great for times when I struggle to concentrate or type!

Picture of a microphone headset
Credit: Petr Machacek

Claro is also great as it allows you to highlight and delete chunks of text with ease. I am very grateful for my online software teacher, Lizzie, for taking me through it all with such ease and consideration to my chronic fatigue and break requirements.

Finally, I have been allocated weekly video calls with a mental health tutor, who helps me to digest my week, my workload, and my conditions. I am really appreciative of this help, as it is fantastic to be able to offload to someone!

I also have a taxi account that I fund in conjunction with DSA. Basically, due to my mobility issues, DSA offered to pay for the taxi fare I use from the train station to the university (and vice versa), minus the price it costs to take public transport. The fare is £5, so I contribute the bus fare (£1.30) and DSA pay the rest.

Picture of taxi rank with taxis queued up
Credit: Greg Mak

Speaking to the university

During my undergrad, I felt comfortable enough to access counselling through the university and contact my personal tutor to keep her updated with my mental health. She supported me with extenuating circumstances applications and provided a metaphorical shoulder to cry on.

Every university should have an extenuating circumstances application process, which will grant deadline extensions for those with long term health conditions, sudden illness, family tragedy, and so on. I would recommend asking your personal tutor for guidance on the criteria for your specific institution, as they will all vary.

Picture of notebook and pencil
Credit: Jan Kahanek

When I got very sick with my vasculitis, my module tutors all kept in contact with me and wished me a speedy recovery. Their support was really valuable in my third year, and I was able to meet with the accessibility team and my head of department to find out the best ways they could support me.

Now that I’m studying my masters, I’ve seen how different universities offer different support. Before beginning my first module, I was contacted by the ‘AccessAbility’ and Mental Health team.

As I had disclosed my medical conditions, they were keen to get to know me and offer support, and both teams rang me on an arranged conference call to inform me of the support available.

An Individual Learning Plan was created, which explains my condition and explains how each module tutor can support me – for example, allowing me to stretch my legs and walk around during seminars.

This is only shared with the relevant professors, and prevents me from having to explain my condition and required adjustments before each semester! I also automatically receive a one-week deadline extension, should I need it.

As I travel such a long distance, my ILP asks the timetable team to take my condition and distance into consideration when planning modules. Very thankfully, I was able to get a 09:30 seminar moved to later in the morning, which means I don’t have to travel down the evening before and experience intense fatigue from additional traveling!

In conclusion, I have experienced so much support alongside my studies, and that has enabled me to work to the best of my ability. I am so thankful for DSA, and for the University of Plymouth and the University of Exeter, for their support in my student journey.

If you are worried about going to university because of a health condition, be it vasculitis, mental illness, fibromyalgia, diabetes, or anything else, talk to the university about it, and contact DSA. They will talk you through all of the support you can access while you are studying, and I promise you that you won’t be alone. The University of Exeter even run student support groups for things like chronic fatigue, so you may even make friends with the same condition/illness/disability. Don’t give up – reach out!

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