As students enter their first term of University, the traditional freshers week, and other social activities used to get to know other students take place this month. And a time that is set to be fun and exciting for most students, can be quite different for disabled students.
A recent study from the 2022 Workplace Wellbeing Awards winners, Student Beans, found that over half of students with a disability admitted to struggling with their mental health throughout their time at university - especially throughout freshers week.
The study also found that:
Students with disabilities are twice as like to feel like nobody cares about them during freshers week (13.9% vs 6.3%)
A quarter (24.1%) of disabled students felt isolated and lonely during freshers (vs 13.9% of those who do not identify as disabled)
Two-fifths (39.2%) of disabled students who have struggled with their mental health at university did not seek help.
While freshers week is promoted by universities as a way to introduce students to new activities, social clubs, and friends, it is no secret that for many the week and beyond will be heavily influenced by alcohol, partying and intense socialising. And whilst this is a great way for many to break the ice, it can leave students who don’t drink, who have difficulties with accessibility, or who are struggling with their mental health, to feel lost, left out or out of place.
For students with disabilities, this can be a challenging time, on top of the difficulties already presented with leaving home and starting a new chapter - and it seems many universities may not be doing enough to look out for their disabled students.
As part of their study, Student Beans spoke to former student Bee, who has disabilities including Fibromyalgia, Joint Hypermobility Syndrome, Inflammatory Arthritis and Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder, and when discussing the hardship that comes with freshers week, she said:
“I remember feeling really anxious – especially around meeting and interacting with new people. There is also added anxiety around disclosing my disabilities to new people, due to fear of how they will react, as most of my disabilities are invisible – there is always the fear that they will react badly.
“I wish the University had been able to provide me with the support they advertised to me. I feel this would have benefitted me a lot because I wasn’t in any kind of therapy at the time and was really struggling, and definitely needed more support than I received.”
It is crucial that Universities are doing everything they can to ensure that all disabled students and students struggling with their mental health are provided with the same opportunities to socialise and be supported on their journey through university.
So, what can universities do to create a more inclusive environment for students with disabilities:
Review the events that are running over the freshers’ period- see what changes can be made to cater to those with disabilities, both visible and invisible
Run events tailored specifically to those with disabilities to foster a sense of community and help to make disabled students feel visible. This is also an opportunity for disabled students to network with other students who have the same or similar disabilities or mental health issues and to feel less alone.
Look at and review the services that are available to disabled students- making sure that needs are being met and an adequate level of care can be provided.
Ensure the careers department can provide adequate support for graduating students, by signposting inclusive employers and empowering disabled students throughout the job-hunting process
Reflecting on her time at university Bee said: “I would have definitely liked to have seen more consideration into students with both mental and physical health disabilities.
“Being disabled definitely affected my life as a student because I experience a lot of chronic pain. This meant that often I felt unable to do my work, and had to apply for a lot of extensions – which ultimately made me feel like a failure despite my knowledge and belief that disabled students deserve to have their access needs met.”
Read the full interview with Bee, and find out more about Students Beans study here.