practicalities of going to university
So, you’ve decided you’re going to university. What next? If you plan ahead for the practical things, this will help to make going to university as straightforward as possible. It might also give you more time to decide what to pack, find out more about your university town or city and start getting excited about this new adventure!
I did it all myself, and I just wouldn't accept any help and I was really stubborn and I think part of it was because I didn't want it always to be, “Oh well, you know [participant's name] is doing well but she's got epilepsy, so that means she's doing really well considering.” I didn't want any kind of special measures taken because I think I wanted to do it despite the epilepsy, and I think I didn't wanna make a fuss.
Deciding where to study can be as important for anyone going to university as deciding what to study. Are you going to go to a university close to home or will you move away to a new town or city? Will you live at home, or move into student halls of residence or a shared house or flat?
Going to a university close to home means you can live at home or travel home at the weekends and holidays and be near people and places you know. But you might feel that there is pressure to keep going home, that you won’t be independent or that this is not a new start for you. Going to university in a completely new area where you don’t know anyone can be daunting and scary. Or it can be exciting to start a new life with new places to explore.
Finding out as much as you can about your university and the area it’s in before you go might be helpful. You could find out where your halls of residence are, where you lectures will be, where the students’ union and health centre are and what student support services the university has. Check out its website and prospectus for more information.
Disclosing your epilepsy
Disclosing your epilepsy can open up opportunities. Recent research by the Higher Education Council for England (HECFE) has shown that students who are willing to disclose health issues, such as epilepsy, to their university, achieve better results and are less likely to drop out of the education system than those who don’t. This is because they are able to obtain the appropriate support that they are entitled to.
If you have epilepsy, your university has certain obligations to you under the Equality Act 2010 (opens new window). This means that they have to treat you fairly. It also means that there are sources of support and help available to you, if you ask for them.
By telling the university that you have epilepsy, you can find out more about what support and help is available. Each university should have its own Disability Equality Scheme (opens new window), which says how it supports students with disabilities. Also, most universities have a specific disability adviser or co-ordinator who can help with advice and getting help.
Although you can contact the university’s disability advisers or service when you get there, it may be helpful to contact them before you arrive or, even better, before you apply, to see what support they can offer. If you are applying for the Disabled Students’ Allowance, it is a good idea to apply as far in advance as possible, before you are offered a place or accepted on a course.
You could also ask about going to the university for a visit, to talk about help and support. This is an opportunity to find out what support they offer, and how this is organised and funded. It is also a chance for you to tell them what specific help or support would be most helpful for you. They may ask you to have a ‘risk assessment’ to look at how your epilepsy might affect the course, and see what support might be appropriate. Find out more from UCAS (opens new window).
We look at any potential dangers and work out where extra support may be useful. For example, we can put an alarm system in a student’s room in halls that will be attached to a control centre, in case they have a seizure and need help. We make sure that, where necessary, students have the opportunity to stay in halls throughout their degree, rather than moving into a house. Our aim is to make sure that all students receive the support to maximise their opportunities and experience at university, and we do this very much in partnership with the individual – it is all about working together.
disabled student adviser, Oxford Brookes University
Before you contact or visit the university, you might want to think about some of the practical issues that will affect you – you could make a list of questions to ask. For example, you might want to consider:
- how your epilepsy, seizures or medication might affect your learning, memory or concentration and what might help with this
- how the course will be run – for example, how much is lecture based and how much is group work or private study?
- how the course will be assessed – by examinations or coursework or ongoing assessment
- where your lectures or practicals will be held, and where the library is, and where these are in relation to where you will live
- where you might live and how this will be affected by your epilepsy, seizures or medication – for example, would living in halls of residence where you have other students around all the time be useful? Or would a seizure alarm or specialist equipment be helpful?
- what help and support you are entitled to, and how you can get access to this
- who will support you during your course, or who you should go to if you have any problems during your course.
One of the problems was, I couldn't contact my parents inside the halls, no reception … So she [the disability support officer] made sure she got somebody to come by, install a phone line; install a phone in my room. No charge, university covered it completely, so whenever I had a fit all my friends had to do was pick up the phone, press the quick dial button, got my parents on the other end of the line. I thought that was just absolutely brilliant, so I mean I was very lucky there.
Support and funding available
Some universities have funding to provide support. You may be able to get help and support through the Disabled Students’ Allowance (opens new window). You may also be eligible for other financial support or benefits such as DLA or learning funds.
Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs)
Disabled Students’ Allowances, or DSAs, are sources of financial support for students with disabilities. They can pay for any costs of attending your course or any help or equipment during your course that occur because of your disability – for example:
- it might help you to buy equipment such as a voice recorder or laptop
- it might help you to pay for a note-taker during your lectures
- it might help with the costs of travel, if you need transport to get to and from different buildings or placements.
Both full-time and part-time students are eligible for DSAs, although the amount you get will vary and depend on the amount of time your course takes up, and on what help you need. DSAs do not depend on your income or your parent’s income, and you don’t have to pay the money back.
Maximum DSA for full-time and part-time higher education students 2014/15
- Specialist equipment for the entire course: £5,212 (full-time or part-time)
- Non-medical helper: £20,725 per year (full-time) or £15,543 per year depending on the intensity of the course (part-time)
- General DSA: £1,741 per year (full-time) or £1,305 per year depending on the intensity of the course (part-time)
The disability support office put me in touch with the people who can fund the disabled students' allowance from my LEA [Local Education Authority], and from them I've been given quite a lot of equipment. I've been given a laptop and a printer and a digital recorder so that I can record my lectures, which has been incredibly helpful 'cos it means that, if my concentration is lapsing, I don't have to worry about it, and then, when it comes to revising, I can go over it and listen to it, and listen to things that I won't have remembered.
Applying for DSA
You will need to complete an application form for DSA. You will need to show ‘evidence’ that you have a disability. This could be a letter from your GP or specialist, which you may have to pay for.
If you live in Wales, you need to contact your local authority; in Scotland, the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) (opens new window); and in Northern Ireland, your local education and library board (ELB) (opens new window).
If you are eligible for DSA, you will need to have an assessment to see what specific help and support would be suitable for you. This will be done at an ‘assessment centre’, and it is confidential. You can take someone with you if you like. A report will be sent to you and to Student Finance England (or to the relevant authority) about what help you need. Student Finance England will then write to you about how you can arrange for the help you need.
So, I did go and see the disability co-ordinator and I did apply for my disabled students' allowance, and I did get that, and I did get the swanky computer and the nice posh chair. And they did things as well that I didn't even know that they would do, so they did things like, they gave me a huge book allowance, so I could buy all my books, so I didn't have to go the library.
You can find out more, check whether you are eligible and download application forms from the GOV.UK website (opens new window).
Personal Independence Payment
Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is a benefit for working age people (16 to 64 years) who have a long-term disability or health condition, to meet the additional costs because of their disability or health condition. PIP started to replace Disibility Living Allowance (DLA) in April 2013, and DLA will be stopping for people aged 16 to 64 in future. You can claim PIP whether or not you are in work and it is not means-tested (so does not depend on your income or savings). PIP aims to help towards the extra costs that come from having a health condition or disibility. If you receive PIP you can spend the money in whatever way you think is best.
Access to learning funds
If you need extra financial support (sometimes known as being ‘in hardship’), you may be eligible for access to learning funds through your university or college. Whether you are eligible or not depends on your personal and financial situation. The fund may be able to help with costs of your course, help to keep studying or help with your everyday living costs. You need to apply directly to your university, through the student services department, after you have started the course. They will tell you exactly how to apply for the fund. Although the fund is not directly related to having a disability, students with disabilities are usually seen as a priority for the fund.
Find out more about these and other benefits at GOV.UK (opens new window).
Travel and transport
If you’re planning to pop back home in the holidays, you might want to think about travel options. As a student you might be eligible for discounted travel, but you might also be eligible for discounted travel because of your epilepsy.
A disabled person’s railcard might be worth considering – it’s a better deal than the young person’s railcard. It costs £20 for one year or £54 for three (compared with £30 for a year or £70 for three years for a young person’s railcard). And it gets you and an adult companion a third off most rail fares (with the young person’s railcard, you only get a third off your fare). Check out the disabled persons railcard website (opens new window) for more information.
You might also be eligible for a free national bus pass. In England you can use these on local buses, between 9.30am and 11pm, Monday to Friday, and all day at weekends and on Bank Holidays. In Scotland and Wales there are no restrictions. Contact your local council for an application form or visit GOV.UK (opens new window).
Some coach operators, such as National Express, also have half-fare schemes for people with disabilities. Contact local coach companies to find out more.
Hints and tips
- Think of practical things: if you rely on your mobile to keep in touch with other people, check the coverage in the area from your mobile provider.
- Think about whether you want an ID card or medical jewellery. Some people find it reassuring to have something with them that says they have epilepsy, and tells people how to help during a seizure. There are loads of companies that make medical jewellery and lots of styles to choose from, and you can buy most of them online.
Groups, sports and activities
Of course, your university experience is more than just about the degree and your epilepsy. It’s also about trying new things and making the most of new social activities.
You can sign up for groups, sports and activities during fresher’s week. These can be good opportunities to try out something new. Think about what you can do (not what you can’t) and what you’re good at. What have you always wanted to try? There will probably be lots of new and exciting clubs and activities that you might like to take part in. Deciding on what you want to do and thinking about whether some safety measures might help to keep you safe, means you can put epilepsy in perspective.
Find out more about social issues, lifestyle and epilepsy.
Epilepsy Society is grateful to YouthHealthTalk (opens new window), and the young people featured on its website, for allowing us to use their quotes.