Molly is a 2021 Snowdon Scholar and member of the Disabled Leaders Network. She is currently completing an Mphil in Classics at Cambridge University and has recently secured a job with Office for Students, due to start in the Autumn.
In this blog Molly shares her reflections as a disabled student moving into employment and gives her top tips for those who might be going through the same experience.
“As long as I can remember, I have preferred stability and security over new opportunities and risk. I feel infinitely happier knowing I know how things work, who to go to if I need help, and what I’ll be doing day-to-day. This is in part due to my personality, but my disability makes it far more necessary. I’m visually impaired, and having my access requirements in place, being able to orientate myself around somewhere and understanding how these processes work is invaluable to me. This has made personal transitions hard: the uncertainty of new places and new people create a lot of anxiety.
I haven’t let my fear stop me, but I have had to learn hard lessons along the way. My first major transitional period in my life was the move from my relatively small sixth form to studying at Lancaster University. I wasn’t visually impaired when I first started school, so I felt very comfortable with moving around. I had processes in place. It wasn’t the most accessible place, but enough of my teachers and friends were on my side that I could get along without every access requirement being met. Lancaster was different – it was brand new, huge, and a lecture hall is a much bigger place than a classroom, so it felt as though I had suddenly been made more disabled.
I had an assessment by the Disability Service in my first year, and a list of access requirements were made for my lecturers to follow. This was great in principle but was rarely actioned in reality. I spent much of my first year feeling absolutely helpless. In my first couple of weeks, I can remember asking my lecturer to upload or print off his PowerPoints so I could follow along, and promptly being told no.
I eventually got bolder, and learned not to take no for an answer. I was in constant conversation with the disability service and academics higher up, and for the most part, my needs were met. If I hadn’t been militant about following up where they weren’t, I would not have been able to attend my lectures. I know many disabled students who were simply tired of fighting for their basic needs, and suffered as a result. After I became Students with Disabilities Officer, I tried campaigning for many of these students, but was often met with hurdles. First year students who had not declared their disability in advance or did not have a ‘good enough’ diagnosis particularly struggled, because the university refused to accommodate those who did not have anything in writing.
After Lancaster, I begun a Masters course at Cambridge (funded by the Snowdon Trust), studying Classics. I had learned to make everyone aware of my needs well in advance and had multiple meetings with the Disability Resource Centre in the lead up to the beginning of my course. I was delighted that they were so willing to implement by accommodations and felt that I was doing the transition ‘right’ for the first time.
Unfortunately, despite my work, when I arrived many of the things I had been promised did not materialise. I had been told that I would receive a fund for taxis due to my struggle with travelling, which I did not receive until just before the second term. I had been told my lectures would be provided in an alternate format, but when I asked my course convenor and my supervisor in the first week, they hadn’t even heard I was disabled.
This is the reality for many disabled students, and one of the fears I have about moving into full time employment once I finish in June. Even where I felt I have been as transparent and proactive about my disability as I possibly can, the accommodations are not in place for me when I begin.
If you are not disabled, you may not realise why this is so important. Surely I can just get in touch once I am there, and surely it won’t take that long to sort out. But if I cannot access my first lecture, how am I meant to even know where to go to get help? If I can’t even see the lecturer at the front, how am I meant to know who they are and how to contact them later? Will I be able to catch up? And regardless of all of that, it perpetuates a culture where the burden is entirely on me, rather than the institution, to meet my access requirements. It reinforces that academia is inaccessible to me unless I am willing to constantly fight for it.
I have accepted an offer to work at the Office for Students (the independent regulator of higher education) as a graduate trainee in the autumn. This is again a huge transition, especially as I will be moving cities to work there. However, I am excited to begin. I aspire one day to ensure that my experiences, and the experience of so many disabled students, will be a thing of the past.
In the meantime, to anyone undergoing a transition:
- Your access requirements are not ‘asking for too much’. They are exactly what you need to keep up with everyone else. Don’t feel guilty about fighting for them.
- Getting your requirements into place can be exhausting. Begin as early as you can.
- Even if it doesn’t feel like it, there are people out there who will support you. Find them and hold onto them.
- Don’t avoid an opportunity because you don’t think you’re good enough for it, or you feel your disability will get in the way.
- You’ve done it once; you can do it again.”