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DEMOS Project

Online Materials for Staff Disability Awareness
[Resources] : Student Interviews


Name :
Helen Spencer
Course :
Drama BA (Hons)
Year of study :
Level of study :
UCAS Disability code :
7, disability unseen - severe asthma

Pre-entry and Admissions

How was the process of application to the university?

It was an interesting time, because I was predicted 3 As but was ill during my exams in the summer . I was told the school would be sending notification to the university that it was likely that I might not get the grades because I am usually ill during the summer and that affects my grades. But then I got a D in English Literature but As in the other two subjects and the university said I wasn't capable of doing the course. I then had to get a Doctor's letter and letters from my headmasters that I was capable and had been an excellent student, plus I had got As in my mocks.

So it was annoying and frustrating and half the fault of the school for not sending or making sure the university knew the circumstances and half the fault of the university for being like they were.

Did you disclose that you had severe asthma when you applied?

I did think at the time about not disclosing because doing drama can be a practical and very physical course, but I am used to telling people about my condition now and people need to know.

I have to balance my disability with what I can do in life and I'm not stupid, I would never do a chemistry degree for example because it would kill me and it just wouldn't be practical.

It is difficult really because it could be an initial barrier, but for my condition people need to know basically how to save my life if I am having an attack and if I hadn't told anyone I could die.

I saw it like if the department were being funny at the application stage then I didn't particularly want to go to their university or study on their course.

I think it's because there's a lack of understanding about my condition, there is misunderstanding about the kind of asthma that I've got. I think people just hear asthma and think of an inhaler but when I have an attack like I did in the exam for English Literature I was on an infribulator and actually had to be rushed to hospital during the middle of it.

The alternative would have been to go to my second choice but I really wanted to go to my first choice university and do their course.

It was a lack of appreciation, it's alright for someone sat behind a desk to make a decision about me without seeing what I have to cope with and having a full scale attack. I also have to take a lot of Rentalin which makes me shake and although it helps my asthma it has that side effect. So people see me when I've taken the medication most of the time and I take it so that I'm not ill when I'm in college but then I have the shakes from it anyway.

I didn't realise at interview that they would have my UCAS form and it was the first thing they asked me about which was a bit of a shock and I thought oh no, it's going to be a problem. But after that the interview went quite well but I was still thinking oh, but at the same time I was glad that we had discussed it, just wished it hadn't been the first thing.

Did you get any information from the university about support?

I got some information from the disability office in the summer which was good, I got a big pack about support, and then I made an appointment almost as soon as I got to the university with the disability adviser.

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On the course

How have you found the approach of lecturers?

No-one would have known what to do if I had had an attack so on the first day when we were having the introductory talks I told the lecturer who was taking the sessions that we needed to tell everyone about my condition. So she said when we got back that 'Helen is now going to tell us about her condition and what we should do if she has an attack'. So I had to announce to the whole year what would happen and what people should do. I didn't mind too much because I am used to telling people and it is a matter of life and death and I am a confident person. Afterwards other students came up and said how brave they thought I was and they could never had done that, but I have got used to telling people.

I'd rather as many people know as possible, I go in the opposite direction and want as many people to know so that they could help me. And if people are nasty about it well I just think that's up to them and they're not very nice people anyway.

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Do you have any additional support in examinations?

My big problem really main problem is with exams. Because a lot of examinations are in the summer and I also have bad asthma related to stress. I was really worried about my performance in exams so we had a meeting with the disability office and my academic tutor who is also the disability coordinator for the department.

What did you think of the system for arranging this?

The biggest problem is with attitude. You don't need people giving you a hard time and top of what you have to cope with. You're not doing this for fun. When you've got people having a go at you because you haven't handed an essay in on time. There is an assumption that the degree is the most important thing in you life and nothing else matters to you even the fact that you have been seriously ill and it's more important than your health.

There is an attitude towards disability especially unseen ones like mine. But if you're around me 24 hours a day you'll see me not being able to walk to the shops not being able to go to the pub and all the medication I have to take and I have to tell friends if they say oh we're going to such and such a place I have to think but I might get an asthma attack. If you saw all that you'd understand all the problems I face. So if they can't see it they just seem to be saying you're lying.

What about assignments?

It was decided that I don't do exams because there could be so many times when I am ill and it would affect my performance on the day. So I do essays instead. So if a course requires two assignments and an exam, I have to do three assignments. Which means I often end up doing twice as much work as anyone else because even though you're supposed to start revising about four weeks before the exams nobody does but I have to take about 5 weeks over doing an assignment. I live with a student off my course and I know how much work they're doing or not doing for the exam.

It also led to other problems for instance, I was supposed to do an assignment but no-one had told me when the deadline was, it was confusing - was it supposed to be the same day as the exam etc? I was ill over Christmas with tonsillitis and if I get an infection of any kind then it flares up and also affects my asthma. So I was in bed most of the time. So then I was getting emails when I got back saying 'where are my assignments' and I had had to do about five over the holidays while I was ill.

The attitude needs to be swapped around; it should kind of be assumed that I have been ill if I have missed a deadline and how can we work around that not I have missed a deadline and it is my fault therefore how am I going to sort it out. There seems to be an attitude that I am being lazy and trying to skive. But it's not true. For instance last year I had to do eight assignments in the summer and I was rung up and hassled. There I was sat inside because of my asthma and the assignments and everyone else was going out and having a laugh. I want to do as much as anyone else, I don't want anyone saying she got away with not doing something and I feel that I have to do twice as much just so I can prove myself.

But I know at the end of the day if I have been ill and not been able to work on something as much as I could have done I will end up with a lower grade and a piece of paper saying I got a 2:1 instead of a first that I know I'm capable of when I'm not ill. It's like the A-level D grade that I got when I know I could have done a lot better and I was the best student in the whole year yet I now have a piece of paper that will always say that I got a D grade.

I want to be able to overcome my problems but at the same time I face all these attitudes, it's drawing a balance..trying to be equal and prove you are and striving for equal treatment.

Why do you think that the tutors are being like this? Don't you think it's over a concern for making sure people achieve a certain academic standard and also about teaching things like time management skills?

Well to some extent but we're not at school anymore, we're not children. Everyone is here because they want to be, if they didn't they would leave or not have applied in the first place. I like being here, I like having the opportunity to study this course and be at this university and I try my hardest. I do as much work as anyone else, I have got a huge pile of books to do the research from for the assignment but if I have been ill, I shouldn't have to keep having to justify myself. They are saying that I am being lazy and I don't need to be hassled all the time because I'm not.

Did you claim DSAs?

I got a computer which was really good because I can work at home when I am ill and I have used it in the holidays to complete assignments.

I also have a Dictaphone because sometimes I might be too ill so I send my friend in with the Dictaphone. I'd rather have it on tape than rely on a note taker. Then I can take my own notes from what is actually said.

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Career Aspirations

What career would you like to pursue after university?

I will probably do more production work or stage management. I have been in several projects and have had lead roles which have worked out well. I have often had an understudy, in one production the understudy didn't get to do the role because I was well the whole time. But in another we decided to share the workload although I made the most appearances.

When I applied for a role last year I passed the first audition and then when I was recalled for the next one I told them then, so they appointed an understudy.

I'm more worried about coming out of the university with a 2:1 instead of a first or a 2:2 instead of a 2:1. than people knowing I have got a disability. When I have been well I have got firsts and not had to rush things and hand poorer work in.

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Other issues

How much do you think that dealing with your condition/impairment/disability is the responsibility of the university or of yourself?

It's my responsibility to inform people but it's not my responsibility to run the course and organise that side of things.

It's their responsibility to make sure my disability doesn't give me any less of a chance. Although I don't think this will be entirely achieved with my condition because there are always going to be periods when I am ill and I miss out on giving my best effort or attending something.

What have been people's attitude to you in the university? Academic staff, administrative staff, other students?

Often it's not that people don't do things eventually it's that I have to make a real effort to make them aware. I have to tell people three times or have to constantly keep convincing people that I have genuinely been ill and that is because of my disability. I think that attitude makes disabled people feel like their disability is the problem. But in actual fact it's the attitude that is the problem.

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