Over the last decade, BBC Ouch has followed the progress of three disabled university students. They kept diaries on campus and we watched as they began a new stage in their education, and as they got to grips with living independently surrounded by new people.
So much sudden change can demand a lot of organisation and confidence, raising questions like: Will I be able to get around campus? Will other students include me? How will I employ and manage assistants or carers?
Below you can catch up with three of our students who have since graduated from university. How did it go? And, with almost 50% of disabled people unemployed, how are they doing in the jobs market several years later?
Do you have a story about life as a current or former disabled student you want to share? You can do it using #disabledstudents on social media, or get in contact using the details below.
Darren Paskell is 29 and lives near Egham, Surrey. In 2004 he began at Keele University, where he was studying Computer Science and History. A bad virus in 2006 forced him to retake his second year and eventually he decided to move to a university in London to concentrate on computing. He went on to complete a further three years there and finished in 2010.
He says: “At the end I only came out with a diploma which still riles me.” He believes the course could have been made more accessible: “If you look at my marks they range from 7% to 79% and it’s clear which classes I had the best support in.” He praises one imaginative lecturer who created tactile maths graphs using metal chains that he could feel.
The proliferation of eBooks must now make studying easier for blind people, says Paskell, but back then he often found himself on the phone to publishers asking if they could send electronic versions from their office files. He can read them on his computer which has screen-reading software on it, but – often unable to get hold of any – he had no option but to make his own accessible versions. This meant he ended up spending 12 hours a week scanning books.
“It took two or three minutes per page on average,” he says and added that it proved unsustainable.
Paskell has spent a lot of time unemployed since his university days. Last year he became a part-time waiter at a London restaurant where diners eat in the dark and are served by blind staff.
“You’re more than a waiter there,” he says, “you’re their link with the outside world almost, people want to be reassured.”
However Paskell says he never would have chosen to become a waiter and still hopes for a job in IT. “I spent six years studying Information Technology and have been an expert user of PC systems for a decade and a half. But frankly I’d take anything.
“I probably wouldn’t make the best postman but I’d take absolutely anything.”
Arunima Misra is 28 and lives in Islington, London. She’s a wheelchair user who also uses crutches due to paraparesis which makes her leg muscles weak. In 2004 she began a law degree at Cambridge University.
On her time there, she says: “I think my best years are yet to come but it was so much fun.”
She was at Peterhouse, the oldest college at the university, and was the first wheelchair-user in its 800-year history.
The university made adaptations on campus and and in Misra’s accommodation before she arrived.
She says her first year was hard as it took time to get used to living alone, and she didn’t venture out much. But she says she had no difficulties making friends who understood her disability.
“Once I made my needs known to those around me no one batted an eyelid,” she says. “Friends carried bags and did things like always holding parties in accessible venues.”
She now works for an investment bank after deciding that being a solicitor was not for her.
“I had Ally McBeal in mind when I entered the profession – endless banter and solving cases with the flick of my pen,” she laughs, admitting she didn’t appreciate the very long hours that those in commercial law have to work. Those hours were not easily compatible with managing her condition but she says the firms she worked for did well at trying to support her. Arunima says she would never want to put others off law.
“They can only do what they can do, and still meet the expectations of the customer,” she says.
Charlotte Faragher is 23 and lives with her parents in Oldham, Greater Manchester. She has tetraplegia, meaning she is paralysed in her arms and legs. When BBC Ouch met her in 2009 she was beginning a Film Studies course at Lancaster.
Looking back, she says it was good being at a university of more than 12,000 people as the “odds were good” that she’d come across someone who didn’t see her “difference” as a problem.
But she says she still had to “size up” potential friends with care. Her limited mobility and “little” voice gets in the way of starting casual conversations, which means she has to make a real effort to approach and engage people.
“I would listen to what fellow students said in lectures, and work out if I’d be in tune with them before attempting to chat,” she says.
When she finished university she felt that there would be fewer job opportunities for her because of her disability. Not wanting to sit at home doing nothing she decided to do a masters, also at Lancaster.
Seeing friends move onto jobs at that time was difficult for her and she advises people should take a masters degree “only if you are completely out of other options.”
Since then she has completed a local course in mental health, become a youth rep on a local education committee, and is about to start befriending at an old people’s home nearby.
She says: “I want to be as effective a member of society as I can be in whatever form I can be. I don’t want to be looked at as a scrounger. I want to contribute and make something of myself, but how much I’ll be able to do remains to be seen, as it’s a new situation for everyone.
“I don’t know if at the end of it all I’ll end up getting a job because I think there might be too many barriers in the way, but I have self belief, I know I’ve got a lot to offer, and know I’d be a valuable employee.”
Are you a current or former disabled student? We’d like to hear about your experiences of life at university with a disability. Email us at Ouch@bbc.co.uk, tweet @BBCOuch using the hashtag #disabledstudents, or get in touch via Facebook
By Damon Rose