Hidden Disabilities and University: Studying with Dyspraxia
2021-11-29

photo of KirstyI was diagnosed with Dyspraxia at about age 7, but at the time I didn’t really understand what it meant for me. To be honest, as an adult I’m still continually learning about exactly how it affects me. I like to refer to Dyspraxia as the lesser-known cousin of Dyslexia but actually whilst some people may experience both, the only overlap is that they are both neurodivergent conditions. The official definition of Dyspraxia according to the Dyspraxia Foundation is “a common disorder affecting fine and/or gross motor coordination in children and adults. Many people with Dyspraxia also experience difficulties with memory, perception and processing.”  Although Dyspraxia affects everyone differently, it’s largely a subtle and hidden disability.

There were definitely times I was worried about how my dyspraxia would affect university studies, but I remember student support got in touch fairly promptly to discuss additional support needs. This meant I was reassured that any support needed would be in place for starting university before I even got there, which really put me at ease. I met with the student support team in Welcome Week and they not only discussed what would be put in place for me, but also helped me apply for the Disabled Student’s Allowance through SAAS. I was completely unaware that this was something available to me prior to speaking to them, and it meant that I had access to my own printer as well as specialist software to help support my studies, which was really useful. The Student Support team were really kind and helpful, and they definitely helped me feel supported while studying.

I came straight to university from school and lived with my parents, so moving into halls was my first experience of living away from home and looking after myself. Trying to balance things like cooking and cleaning etc. with university work and deadlines, whilst also trying to maintain a social life, was definitely a challenge. This can be overwhelming for anyone, but time management and organisation are two core things Dyspraxia affects, and I’d never previously considered how that might impact me outside of studying. This was therefore a steep learning curve for me. There were times when I struggled to get the balance right, particularly around deadlines where I’d get too absorbed in studying. By the time I reached fourth year, I’d definitely got much better at balancing everything, but it could still be difficult at times, especially as the academic side of things got more advanced.

Whilst it may not seem like it, everyday tasks can be more difficult for people with Dyspraxia in comparison to our neurotypical peers. On the surface we may appear to be fine, but underneath our brains are often whirring away. This is especially the case if a task involves fine motor skills or coordination. For this reason, I find that I get tired more easily than others, and this definitely affected me at university. Especially in first year when I was still getting used to things, I would come back shattered from a day of uni and wouldn’t have the energy to go back out to something like a society meeting later. This impacted my social life a bit at the beginning, as it limited my opportunities to make friends. However, I thankfully got on well with my flatmates so that really helped.

In terms of careers, I haven’t found that Dyspraxia has held me back. In fact, a lot of the strategies I used to cope at university are now really helpful in the workplace. The only barrier I’ve faced is not having a driver’s license. As Dyspraxia affects spatial awareness and coordination, driving can be a real challenge, and some people may not be able to drive. I have previously had an invitation to interview rescinded because I didn’t have a driver’s license (despite meeting all the other essential and desirable specifications). The Equality Act 2010 actually states that a driving license can’t be considered an essential criteria for a job if driving is not intrinsic to the role, and that reasonable adjustments should be made for those with disabilities. Knowing this, I have since advocated for myself in another situation in which a driving license was required and succeeded in getting the job.

I think one of the main pieces of advice I would give to any current students with a (hidden) disability is don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s a classic piece of advice for anyone really, but disabilities can affect your confidence, and those with a hidden disability can often feel like they’re less worthy of support than other disabilities. There will always be someone who can help you or offer a bit of advice, and there’s no point in suffering in silence. There were times when I was struggling to meet a deadline and I didn’t ask for an extension because I was worried about the reaction of the lecturer and subsequently the quality of my work suffered. During my dissertation I finally asked for an extension, and it was totally fine. It also turned out that as part of my additional support I was automatically allowed extensions to deadlines, so also make sure you know exactly what support you’re entitled to! Also, go easy on yourself. When your disability makes things harder than you feel they should be, it can be really frustrating. It’s then easy to take this frustration out on yourself and be unnecessarily hard on yourself. Remember that your disability is not your fault and that we all have our own unique strengths and weaknesses. For this reason, making sure you’ve got good, supportive, friends is essential too. They can help provide perspective and take your mind off things. Also doing things like cooking dinner together can be a great way to make sure you’ve got food and support, especially when things are busy.

In terms of other practical tips, I would say batch cook and freeze food, and make a schedule. Cooking big batches of food and then freezing the leftovers means you have a quick and easy meal in the future. It’s especially useful for exam time and when deadlines are tight. If you struggle with organisation and time management like me, making yourself a schedule and routine for everything (not just studying) is a good way to ensure you stay organised. Set alerts on your phone or calendar to help you remember!

Information on the support available to students can be found here. 

Published by Students, University of Aberdeen

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