What is it like being a disabled student?

“I was trying. I was fighting my body every day to be there. I was exhausted.” Today, Time To Talk Day 2024, our Student Ambassador Graham Dorrance shares his story.

Currently in third year of BA Creative Writing in the Highlands and Islands and living in Uist, Graham explains how disability has impacted his studies and what UHI North, West and Hebrides have done to support him.

"I am what is regularly recognised as ‘chronically lazy’ – or disabled when people are aware of it and not just making assumptions about my work ethic.

When I first started going to college – not UHI but shall remain nameless – I attended classes in person. For the first year or so, I wasn’t diagnosed with anything, I just had a string of doctors’ notes that accused me of making stuff up for a variety of reasons. Either way, I was doing my best to make it to class and maybe I’d then have to get a complete stranger to drive me home afterwards because I had a seizure or something. It was that kind of time.

However, after a while, I managed to get diagnosed and start on medication that was meant to make it all better (it did not) and I got into that glorious time some may be familiar with that is adapting to new medication and experimenting with medication.

It is rough. It is still rough. I honestly don’t know if my medication works for me but my memory for remembering to take my medication is so bad that any time, I discuss this with a specialist we’re stuck on the fact that I’m not taking my medication properly so we can’t make a call. I’m trying, I truly am, but remembering just isn’t working for me. It definitely wasn’t working for me at the start, and I spent most my time feeling absolutely awful. Better than I had but still not great. Worst of all, the support forums for my condition are paywalled, so I can’t even ask for help. I’m not making enough money to cover membership fees for something I hadn’t exactly signed up for having.

The issue with my medication, or rather the point of them, is that they weaken my immune system. Now, this is pre-COVID. At this point, I was getting on a crowded bus every morning to go to a crowded college in the city centre where if I was lucky, I’d get on a crowded lift to get to class; then I’d stand at a crowded bus stop to get on the crowded bus home.

The second that cold and flu season hit I was out. I was completely taken out, could not move sick. That hour journey to university, those seven or more flights of stairs – I was not touching them. I’m so far away from everything, there’s no way I’m getting in there never mind working for the full day. I was also in a very physical degree – we were frequently walking a couple mile to other campuses or to the city. It wasn’t possible for me.

You may think, ‘well, that’s bad. Missing a couple weeks of college can really set you back.’

I was out for three months.

There were a couple days here and there I pushed myself to class.

My lecturer got used to me falling asleep on the floor at the back. I’m not proud of that, but I was exhausted and not stable and it would take such considerable effort to get myself home; I just had to be able to lie down there.

It’s not nice. It was an awful time. I struggled to keep up with my work. There were very few segments we could do online, and we hit this issue of the fact that I was the only one doing things online. One of our assignments that semester was a group project and I’d be contacting my group through the online meeting space, but I wouldn’t hear anything back because they were discussing the task in person.

Even though I did everything I could, I felt guilty for being given that grade. Even now, I consider it their grade and not mine.

What could I contribute?

At the very end, I came in and made up all the documentation they’d skipped out on. That was about it.

It’s around this point that someone made a comment, and I don’t remember the exact words and I don’t think they intended to be mean. But it was something along the lines of, ‘you’re so lucky you’re passing this class when you’re not trying.’

I was trying. I was fighting my body every day to be there. I was exhausted.

I know they didn’t mean anything bad.

But, darn, it really makes you realise everyone thinks you’re just being lazy.

You’re just not trying hard enough.

I quit college at the end of that year. I was really uneasy. I didn’t know if the next year would be better or worse or the same.

I didn’t want to miss another three months of college and have to play catch-up again.

I moved away from the city, moved to an island.

After a couple of years, COVID-19 hit and, basically, there was no chance of me getting a job. Instead, I resat my higher English through UHI, then signed up for university with them. I assumed it was the benefits of a pandemic, but I got presented with the opportunity to just do my entire course remotely.

Going from an hour journey, from a few thousand flights of stairs, to rolling out of bed and being in class. Not just that – there have been days I’ve sat in the doctor’s waiting room while listening in on my class. I can get a doctor’s appointment without missing class now because I’m doing it remotely. Isn’t exactly easy to take notes but luckily all our lectures are recorded so at any point I can go back and take down notes of anything I missed.

Being able to re-listen to things is a life saver for me. I really struggle with understanding things and sometimes I don’t even realise I didn’t understand it until way later because I’m so used to having to pretend I did. So, at any time, I can pull up the recording and listen to it as many times as I need. Then, if I still don’t get it, I can email my lecturer and clarify what I’m stuck on. They’ve been really helpful in explaining things and finding new ways to help me understand even though I struggle.

There are times I’m sick or can’t participate in class, and it helps me that when that does happen, not only are the recordings there, but the lesson plans, the class discussions, the reading list, questions to answer, and all the other information is ready when I am. This time, my entire class is using them and not just me.

(It’s also a massive help when I have to go back right before my essay is due and I have all the material there to reread and make sure I’m providing the relevant information.)

I still don’t have a lot of energy and there are still times I’m struggling to keep up, but it is a lot easier to catch up on two weeks than three months."