Everybody’s university experience is different. Some students, like myself, have a disability. Many disabilities are what are known as “invisible disabilities” – they are not obvious just by looking at someone. Invisible disabilities can range from deafness, to chronic health conditions, to specific learning disabilities. Here are some things you should remember when talking to a student with an invisible disability, coming from a student with dyspraxia.
1. You may not be able to see it, but we still have disabilities
A disability isn’t something that you can spot by looking at someone for five seconds. Comments that suggest our disabilities aren’t real just belittle our difficulties, coping strategies and achievements. Many of us will have gone through many long tests in order for our disabilities to be recognised, because the symptoms are complicated and can’t always be diagnosed on first impressions.
2. There’s a reason we get a free laptop/printer/extra time in exams etc.
Society is not shaped to fit people with disabilities and accommodations counteract this. Also, the Disabled Students Allowance is a long and complicated procedure filled with paper work and meetings, so if we didn’t actually require these accommodations to excel in our degrees, we wouldn’t bother. Furthermore, when universities give assistance to students with disabilities, it helps all students by demonstrating that people learn differently. This helps universities make improvements to education for everyone.
3. Having bad balance and being clumsy barely phases us anymore, but when it does, it really does
People with disabilities are some of the most resilient people around. We’ve all seen the extremes of this – Paralympic Gold Medallists such as David Weir and Sarah Storey, and famous physicist Stephen Hawking – but the everyday dyslexic getting through their reading or the student with chronic pain getting to their lectures are not noticed as much. As someone with dyspraxia, I frequently spill drinks, run late and take forever to put away my things at the end of seminars, but these things barely phase me anymore. Others get crumbs and stains on their clothes and freak out, but for me it’s just how I eat and I roll with it. However, one too many slips in punctuality or frantic searches for my keys can get me stressed out in ways people without disabilities would not. It’s not the lateness or losing things stressing me out, it’s dyspraxia.
4. Terminology matters
You probably don’t need me to tell you that you shouldn’t use words like “retarded”, “cripple” or “spas.” But you may not know that some people hate being called disabled and would rather be a person with a disability, because they don’t want to be defined only by their disability. My sixth form college used the term “learning difference” instead of “learning disability” to promote the idea that people learn differently from each other with different advantages and disadvantages. Research “neurodiversity” if you’re interested in this. Some people desperately want a cure for their chronic health condition, whilst others wouldn’t want a life without their learning difference. Of course, there are people who think all of the terminology talk is too PC and don’t mind what you say. The easiest way is to research the most used terms and follow the terms the person you’re talking to uses.
5. Having a learning disability and being smart aren’t mutually exclusive
Throughout school, I felt like I could never be “the smart kid” and “the dyspraxic kid” at the same time – if you’re succeeding academically, you don’t need help, but if you have a learning disability, you do. The thing is, I was both. I would go from putting my hand up at every question to be the last one to copy notes from the board. Students with disabilities can be incredibly smart, but they have to get past other difficulties to let that intelligence shine. Stop labelling your university friends arbitrarily and realise we can all be the smart one, the clueless one and the procrastinator.
6. Don’t be surprised if our disability seems different to how we first described it to you.
I was diagnosed with dyspraxia as a kid, and I still struggle to sum it up in one sentence. Invisible disabilities can be complicated things to describe and we don’t want to bore you. Just trust that we’re being honest, and if you see something that seems a bit “off” compared to others – for example, I’m bad at keeping my hands still – it might be another symptom.
7. Ask us about our circumstances before you label us as privileged. So much of people’s difficulties aren’t visible from the outside.
If you came into a room in a wheelchair, people would start to make assumptions in their head that you face many everyday difficulties living in a world that is not designed for people in wheelchairs. People with invisible disabilities can end up in emotionally tough conversations where the other person makes false assumptions, such as that they had a fairy tale academic experience throughout school just because they go to university. Checking your privilege is very important as it’s easy not to notice issues when they don’t immediately affect you. However, it is up to us as individuals to check our own privilege and not to label others before we fully know their experiences and the problems they may have experienced throughout their lives.
There are tons of things that people without disabilities take for granted that people with disabilities find difficult. We don’t begrudge you this, just don’t act like it’s easy for us. As long as you are curious, compassionate and treat us like fellow students, you shouldn’t have too many mishaps.
Edited by Jayde Richards