Picking a university can be a daunting task at the best of times – you need to try to chose one that matches your desired subject with predicted grades, and be in a location that you’ll be happy to live for the next three to four years. But for those who require a wheelchair trying to make the right choice can be a much greater challenge. Let’s run through some of the things you need to consider, as wheel as some universities that really stand out as being the most wheelchair, power chair and mobility scooter friendly.
City or Campus?
There are two types of universities in the UK, city and campus universities. Many of the best rated unis in the UK are town based – Cambridge, Oxford, and Durham for example, are town based. This can be a challenge as accommodation, lecture rooms and tutorials may all be in different locations and require navigating old city streets. However, some of the older universities are totally self-contained, and you may hardly need to leave the confines of the college walls during your stay. So be sure to check exactly where you will be housed and where your lectures and tutorials will be if you apply to a city university.
Campus universities are generally more wheelchair friendly because everything is on one site and most buildings are modern and accessible, and there will often be shops and other amenities on site too. This can make your day-to-day activities much easier, but if most of the socialising takes place in a nearby town, you may feel isolated if there are not good transport links in place, although a good mobility scooter or powerchair may be the solution.
As mentioned, few students look at the accommodation before going to uni, but this is probably the most important consideration. Many newer city universities have accommodation in mid-rise buildings (4 to 11 storeys) which although are usually modernised with lifts, are not always the most suitable option for wheelchair users.
Ideally, you should be able to get a room or apartment that has full wheelchair access with accessible bathrooms and kitchens. Kitchens should have low sinks and worktops, and ideally, there should be a wet room that you can roll your wheelchair into.
Disability Support Service
Contact the Disability support service at the earliest opportunity to discuss your needs and the facilities on offer. Pay them a visit on the open day too and have questions ready to ask – make sure they are geared up to support you fully.
Attend Open Days
Before applying to any university you should attend an open day. At the open day be sure to ask about accommodation too (many people forget this part) and take time to visit the halls of residences or area with student houses. Ask to see lecture rooms and tutorial rooms to check wheelchair access yourself.
Look Beyond the Campus
It is important to look beyond the university grounds as with both city and campus universities you will need to have easy transport to and from them. Some newer universities are often located in parts of town far from national railway and bus stations which can make it very difficult if you need to leave and arrive by public transport.
The terrain is also important. Cities such as Edinburgh and Exeter may provide modern university facilities, but many of the roads are very steep and wheelchair users will struggle to navigate all streets. It might be sensible to look up the most wheelchair friendly towns in the UK and then see which ones have universities offers courses you’re interested in. If you do head to a hilly university town, you might need to buy a new wheelchair that is lightweight and more suitable for the terrain.
Which Is Best?
There really is no “best” university for wheelchair users – every university works hard to accommodate all students equally, but one that does stand out is Loughborough University.
Loughborough is rated as one of the best campus universities (named Times University of the Year 2019) in the UK thanks to its top class facilities, access to green spaces and a good community feel in the student village. Loughborough’s Disability Office says that they support a range of long-term conditions as well as wheelchair users.
For a city campus university, here’s an interesting account of study at Canterbury Christ Church University. As you can see, some universities are extremely accommodating and will provide an excellent learning environment no matter what your abilities.
Are you, or have you recently attended, university as a wheelchair user? Please share your experiences below.
This guest post is provided by CareCo who provide mobility advice and support through their website and UK network of showrooms.
1. What is your disability and how does it affect you?
Lauren West:I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I’ve never walked independently and got my first powered wheelchair at the age of two and a half.
Despite the severity of my SMA, I passed my driving test, went to university three hours from home, and moved to London to start my working life. I now still live in London with my partner and with support from live-in PAs who do all my personal care and domestic tasks.
Michaela Hollywood: I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I commonly say that I can do pretty much nothing without assistance except speak! Although, I have recently learned to drive using hand controls.
Possibly the biggest impact of my SMA is my breathing and the impact of chest infections, which can make me sick quite often. I’m also deaf, and have pancreatic insufficiency which affects my ability to digest food, and that can cause a lot of pain and fatigue. My motto is; I can drive a van, and boil a kettle but I can’t make a cup of tea!
Emma Vogelmann: I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I’m a full-time electric wheelchair-user and since contracting Swine flu in 2009, I also use a portable ventilator via a tracheotomy.
2. How and why did you become involved with MDUK Trailblazers, and what is your role?
Lauren West: I became involved at the very start of Trailblazers, after I left the Whizz-kidz Kids Board. I felt I had a campaigning void in my life after leaving the board, so I was really excited when I heard about Trailblazers. For a long time, I was the only Welsh Trailblazer and so I formed a great bond with the original team, Bobby and Tanvi.
I stayed involved throughout university through participating in work experience and attending events like APPGs. I was delighted after a few years in different jobs to be offered the role as Campaigns Officer, as I’d always wanted to work for Trailblazers. It was then super exciting to take up the role of Trailblazers Manager at the beginning of 2016.
Michaela Hollywood: I was involved with Trailblazers from the very beginning, before it even started!
I was at a MDUK Family Weekend when I was 16, and, because of my disability and access requirements, I couldn’t book tickets to see the band McFLY perform in my local arena. Consequently, I spoke to the then Chief Executive of the charity Phil Butcher, and said we need a “young people’s forum”. My idea at the time was that those of us with a muscle wasting condition have powerful voices that weren’t being heard, and too many non-disabled adults were making decisions that affected our lives without even thinking of consulting us. And out of that Trailblazers was born!
I volunteered for the first number of years, and directed the organisation from Northern Ireland for a year before it became official. I went to university and did my undergraduate degree in Public Relations, followed by a Masters in PR and Communications, specialising in political lobbying. I then joined the team from home in Northern Ireland a little over 3 years ago.
Emma Vogelmann: I was invited by MDUK to a Parliamentary roundtable meeting about disability employment. I really liked that a prominent charity was directly engaging with young disabled people and their lived experiences. After that, I asked if there were any opportunities to get involved with the organisation which led to a 4 month internship with the Campaigns team. I absolutely loved it, so when the role of Employability Officer was advertised I knew I had to apply. The rest, as they say, is history!
3. How do you feel about being an influential career woman with a disability? Has your disability made you more determined to pursue your career goals?
Lauren West: I don’t think I would describe myself as an influential career woman but if I am seen that way, then that’s a real honour.
I think my disability has made me much more determined in all parts of my life, not just my career. I have always been quite driven and even when I wasn’t sure what career path I wanted to follow, I knew I wanted to do something that made a difference.
But I genuinely think there’s been one driving force behind my ambition and that was a social worker who was sorting out my university care package. She made an off-the-cuff comment about how when I was done having fun at university, I’d come home and she’d help set me up on benefits in a little flat. Whilst this is needed for some, this is not how I wanted my life to go, but I knew I’d face similar beliefs and attitudes throughout my whole life. So I was determined to fight against that societal expectation.
Michaela Hollywood: For me, I think it made my education very important. And it’s made me steely and determined. It’s a good advantage to be able to use my voice as communication is so important when your impairment is so physical. I’m proud to be in the position I am, and try to keep my focus on what I can do for others.
Emma Vogelmann: I never really thought of myself as an influential career woman in all honesty. I suppose you just crack on with your day-to-day work, so you never stop to think about it.
Now I am starting to see the impact my work has on other people, such as my employment work. I’ve seen the people involved in my project access jobs, find a careers mentor and so many other meaningful changes. That’s incredibly rewarding for me.
My disability makes me more determined to do a lot of things, but definitely in my career. Someone in a meeting I ran summed it up perfectly, “disabled people feel the pressure to be exceptional just to be considered equal to their able-bodied co-workers”. While this is not the culture at MDUK, I do feel that internal pressure to prove myself constantly. I’ve learned first-hand and from others that it is unfortunately really hard to enter the working world as a disabled person, so once you’re there you feel like you need to show your employer why they made the right decision.
4. In relation to employment, what challenges have you faced due to your disability, and how have you overcome these obstacles?
Lauren West: Throughout school and university, getting a typical student job just wasn’t on the cards for me. For one thing, I just didn’t have the stamina to study and work. But also the usual student jobs just weren’t physically accessible to me. I was worried that this lack of work experience would put me at a severe disadvantage for getting a job once I’d graduated.
I was lucky that Trailblazers found me an internship at my local MP’s office, so I did one day a week there for three months in my final year of study. I also did work experience at MDUK which gave me a great taste of living and working in London.
I was incredibly fortunate to secure a job in London prior to graduating from my Master’s degree. However, when this job turned out to not be what I expected and complete with a very abusive boss, I had real trouble finding a new job. I mainly applied to charities and many claimed to be part of the ‘two ticks scheme’ which offered guaranteed interviews for disabled applicants.
However, it was rare I’d even get called for an interview and it took many unhappy months before I was offered a role as a mental health advocate. The same year, I started working for MDUK and I love being part of a charity that values diversity and inclusivity.
I think the only way I’ve overcome challenges within employment is just through stubbornness and determination. I really think there are organisations out there for everyone but it can just take a long time to find the right fit.
Michaela Hollywood: The biggest one is my health. Self-care is important to keep me ticking over. I’ve been really lucky to work for a group I wholeheartedly believe in, and where we see real help and progress happening. I try to make sure others are afforded the same opportunities I have been lucky to have.
Emma Vogelmann: I struggled to find an employer willing to give me a chance after university. Of course, this is true for most graduates. But I do feel that being a disabled graduate made it harder. I remember asking Lauren West for advice before I started working at MDUK about when, where and how to disclose my disability, because I didn’t want to be counted out too soon for jobs, but I also didn’t want to hide something I consider a strength. I decided to always disclose my disability, though this is a very personal choice that isn’t necessarily right for everyone. I work within a disability charity, so it is extremely relevant to say I’m disabled, but I know a lot of people who aren’t comfortable with this and that’s completely okay too.
As someone who was part of Trailblazers from the start, being able to bring those 10 years together through an incredible event in Parliament was just the best experience. Seeing over 100 people all in one room celebrating their successes of the past 10 years will be forever one of my best moments.
Michaela Hollywood: This is a tough one! My dad, Michael, likes to tell anyone and everyone he meets to “Google” me because he is so proud of what I’ve achieved.
Emma Vogelmann: What a tough question! I suppose it would be winning my case against a taxi driver who discriminated against me due to being a wheelchair-user. It happened on my second day of work at MDUK and it was a difficult experience to go through. But to have two courts agree that wheelchair-users cannot be overcharged was a great feeling. I really hope it will empower other wheelchair-users to not accept discriminatory treatment from taxi drivers.
Many thanks to the brilliant Emma, Lauren and Michaela for answering my questions.
Tabi, who has SMA Type 2, on her debut album, ‘I Wrote Life’
Tabitha ‘Tabi‘ Haly is a 35 year-old singer-songwriter from New York City. She has Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2, a progressive condition, causing muscle weakness and contractures.
Tabi cannot walk and therefore uses a powered wheelchair for mobility. She is now unable to use her hands to feed herself and uses voice dictation software. With 24/7 support from “home health aides” and physiotherapy to maintain as much strength as possible, Tabi leads a highly proactive lifestyle.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Tabi about her music career and debut album entitled, ‘I Wrote Life’, (released January 2019).
Tabi, what and who are your biggest music influences and why?
I grew up listening to classic rock, pop and R&B, but I appreciate all genres. I enjoy catchy, soulful melodies, so that has heavily influenced the songs on my album. I am most inspired by artists who write their own songs because that is what I like to do. I love timeless songs and I feel motivated to write when I hear something that I wish I had written myself. I also admire artists who write about personal experiences.
I love Mariah Carey because she writes songs that touch upon insecurities and feeling like an outcast. She writes about her faith and she has clever lines and an impeccable vocabulary. I also love singer-songwriters such as Anna Nalick, Sara Bareilles, Christina Perri, and Jason Mraz. They write about love and heartbreak, which I can relate to.
I also admire a wide vocal range because it is fun to sing songs that are vocally challenging. That is when my R&B influences come into play. It’s really enjoyable to improvise and jam along. I like to challenge myself in general, so I definitely apply that to my music in terms of the lyrics, melody, and vocal styles.
How would you describe your debut album?
I would describe my album as real and soulful. I allowed myself to be vulnerable to reveal my struggles and hopes regarding my disability, love, and life in general. The different subjects lend to the spectrum of dark and light tones.
My album is also fun, diverse, and uplifting! There are a lot of upbeat, empowering songs. People like to dance to them, and it was definitely a blast recording them.
The album is diverse because it crosses multiple genres including R&B, pop, blues, and reggae. It was difficult to select which songs to put on this debut album. Ultimately I wanted to make sure there was something in there for everybody. The order of the tracks matters to me because it tells a story and hopefully feels like you are being taken on a memorable and moving journey.
How autobiographical is the album, and why was it important to you to write the songs yourself?
This album is my baby! I know people use that term a lot in reference to personal projects, but I intentionally released it on my 35th birthday. At this age, many women, myself included, start to worry if they have not yet had a baby.
SMA presents challenges in every part of my life, but I am highly ambitious and set out to conquer my goals. I haven’t yet had a baby, so until then, this album is my baby. As an artist, it is my portfolio.
This album epitomises all that I have accomplished thus far; buying my own home, getting through college via financial aid and scholarships, having a successful full-time career that allows me to be financially independent, owning my own wheelchair accessible van, volunteering regularly, helping implement change for people with disabilities, writing and managing my music, managing my home health aides, being a motivational speaker, and being able to perform throughout New York City at cafés, bars, church, and schools.
As great as this is, it does cause alot of stress, sweat and tears! So I hope people enjoy the album and heed the message that faith and hard work have afforded me the life I have. This allows me to remain positive and to inspire myself and others.
Is important to you to inspire other disabled people who may have musical aspirations?
It is, especially since we are now at a time where there are so many groundbreaking opportunities. A few years ago, I saw many people with disabilities acting on Broadway, which took my breath away and really inspired me to continue doing what I’m doing. I would love to inspire, or better yet, collaborate with other musicians with disabilities.
During the bridge of my song ‘keep rolling on‘ I sing, “there’s so much left to change, more than we even think. More face in media, presence in arenas”.
Have you faced any opposition, challenges and/or stigma on your journey to becoming a musician, due to your disability?
Surprisingly, the biggest challenge is sometimes getting onto the stage to perform! Most stages are not wheelchair accessible, so I have to be prepared for that. Another major challenge is having less live music venues to choose from because not all of them are wheelchair accessible.
How do you overcome these obstacles?
In the early days, I didn’t want that to be an issue or a dealbreaker when pitching to venues to book a show. So I would have my band members and friends lift me in my wheelchair on and off the stage. I have a powered wheelchair that weighs at least 300 pounds! So that was a lot to ask, and I am thankful for the support. This still happens sometimes, but I am now more confident about asking venues to consider investing in a ramp.
There are still the same challenges surrounding the inaccessibility of venues, both for the performers and attendees. I think this is just one of many accessibility issues that exists and for which we need to implement improvements.
You were the opening performer at the first ever Annual NYC Disability Pride Parade in 2015 to celebrate the ADA’s 25th anniversary. How did that make you feel?
That was such an amazing feeling! I had just started using my wheelchair again after having been stuck in bed for a few months due to ill health. So this experience was a huge comeback and it was an honor to be a part of this event. I have to reflect on this sometimes and remember how privileged I was to perform outside, in front of so many people, during the first parade specifically for people with disabilities.
I would like to thank the lovely Tabi for taking the time to answer my questions. Her brilliant debut album, ‘I Wrote Life’ is available to purchase and download NOW!
Let me know if you can relate to any of the following scenarios…
Stranger: There’s only a few steps. Me: I can’t walk, hence the chair. Stranger: They’re only small steps. Me: Nope, still can’t walk I’m afraid. Stranger: Oh, not even with assistance? Me: Not even with assistance. Stranger: Not even a little bit? Me: Not even a little bit. Stranger: Not at all? Me: Not at all.
Awkward, deafening silence…
Stranger: There are steps but we can just lift you (in a powered wheelchair). Me: Thanks but this chair is really heavy. There’s no way you’ll lift it.
Stranger then attempts to lift me in my wheelchair, only to complain of the weight.
Stuck in a long queue of fit, young able-bods who look me up and down (in my wheelchair) but still choose to wait for the one and only lift/elevator rather than take the stairs, which would be much quicker!
A young driver in flashy sports car races into a blue badge bay and gets out without displaying a badge. Me: Excuse me, have you got a blue badge? Driver: No! Have YOU?! Me: YEP! (waving my blue badge at the driver while sat in my Motability WAV).
Being unable to access public disabled toilets because they’re being used for storage!
Entering a public disabled toilet after a mother and baby have just used it. It absolutely stinks and there are used nappies on the floor!
Guy: okay, can I be honest? Me: yes. Guy: let’s be real, you’re no one’s type. Are you! Me: erm, thanks!
Me: I can’t walk. I have something called muscular dystrophy. Guy: oh. Right. Okay… Me: yup… Guy: so is that something you could change if you work on your fitness? Me: no. Afraid not. Guy: not even if you try really hard and actually make an effort?
Me: I’m a wheelchair-user. Guy: oh right, what’s wrong with you? You self-propel, yeah? Me: no I can’t do that, and there’s nothing wrong with me. Guy: but I’ve seen some really fit girls in wheelchairs. They play basketball and all sorts! Me: yeah, that’s never gonna be me. Sorry.
Me: I’m a wheelchair-user. I can’t walk at all. Guy: oh, okay. What happened? Me: nothing happened. I have something called muscular dystrophy. Guy: I just Googled it. Wow that really is a disease isn’t it!! Me: fear not, it isn’t contagious.
Guy: oh, so you can’t walk at all? Me: yeah that’s right, I have muscular dystrophy so I can’t weight-bear. I use a powered wheelchair. Guy: okay…. Me: it’s fine if you want to ask questions. Guy: so…you don’t have sex then?? Me: why’s that? Guy: well, I’m guessing you can’t feel anything…you know.
Woman: aww, I’m sure you’ll find a nice guy in a wheelchair to date! Me: or just a nice guy!?
Social Worker Review
Assessor: are you able to make your own decisions? Me: yes. Assessor: always? Me: yes. Assessor: (with a sceptical expression) but…if you needed advice when making a decision, who would you ask? Me: myself!?
Stranger, whilst leaning over, “It’s good to see you getting out and about”
At a restaurant with a group of friends, all of whom are able-bodied. Waiter comes to our table, looks at me in my wheelchair, and starts rambling about a friend of his who lives near a Paralympian. None of us know quite how to respond.
At the pub with a friend who goes to the bar to get us drinks. When she returns, she says a guy at the bar who she knows told her he didn’t realise she’s now a carer. She had to stop and think for a moment and then replied, “I’m not her carer. I’m her friend! We’ve known each other almost 20 years!”
The guy looked absolutely dumbfounded.
Driving & Mobility
“Wow, you learned to drive? Is that safe? Did you have a special instructor and a special test?”
“Your wheelchair’s a bit battered. Looks like you could do with a new one! I suppose you just call and get a replacement through the NHS?”
“Do you have to have training and a test to drive that thing? [my powered wheelchair]”
“They [wheelchairs] cost HOW MUCH?! Why are they so expensive? Can’t you just save up?”
“Oh, you went to university? Good for you! It’s something for you to do, isn’t it. How did you manage though?”
Admittedly, I was unaware of the pioneering disability advocate Robin Cavendish prior to the release of Breathe, a much anticipated biopic starring Andrew Garfield. Thankfully, this important figure’s story is sympathetically portrayed with charm, decency and humour in Andy Serkis’s directorial debut.
The film brings to attention the life and achievements of one of Britain’s longest-lived responauts – Robin Cavendish (Garfield) who, at the age of 28, became paralysed from the neck down after contracting polio. Unable to breathe for himself, he was kept alive for almost forty years by a mechanical respirator.
We are first introduced to the handsome, sporty and awfully posh tea-broker in late 1950s England, where he meets and falls in love with the equally posh Diana, affectingly played by Claire Foy. The blissfully happy couple marry and relocate to Nairobi where Diana announces she is pregnant. Life was good and seemingly limitless.
Struck down only a year into their marriage, Robin and Diana are told curtly by doctors that he will survive no more than a few months. Confined to his hospital bed, Robin wished for death, mouthing to his brothers-in-law the words ‘let me die’. Depressed and resentful, he spits in the face of a hospital chaplain who suggests his suffering is part of God’s plan.
A helplessly devoted Diana asks what she can do, to which her husband responds, “Get me out of here”. Choosing to courageously risk death rather than submit to merely exist, hidden away as a patient for the remainder of his days, Robin was the first to pave the way for all other incarcerated disabled individuals. He determinedly pursued life, freedom, social integration and acceptance.
Opposing contemporary medical convention, the Cavendishes defiantly leave the hospital constraints in a blaze of glory, ignoring a disgruntled doctor who calls after them, “You’ll be dead in two weeks!”
Upon their exit they pass by two women who comment that it’s “not right” and “cruel” even, for “them” to be out and seen in public. This brief dialogue epitomizes the narrow-minded medical and social prejudice towards the severely disabled population, at the time.
The remainder of the film chronicles Robin’s fight to challenge such perceptions, whilst also pushing the boundaries of possibility. Not only does he succeed in changing attitudes, he was instrumental in making revolutionary practical advancements, thus effectively changing the lives of thousands of disabled people worldwide.
With the assistance of Oxford professor and inventor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville), Robin develops a wheelchair that incorporates a ventilator, allowing him the freedom to venture beyond four walls, which he does with gusto.
A particularly funny episode involves a family holiday to Spain, during which Robin’s electrical respirator blows up, leaving him, Diana, their son and Diana’s brother stranded on a dusty layby. Not so funny, you might think. But the interaction that follows adds much needed light-relief.
While wife and son keep a jovial Robin breathing with the aid of a bag respirator, Tom Hollander’s character goes in search of a phone to call Teddy Hall back in England. The group then set up camp and attract a local crowd who party with them until Teddy makes a comical arrival on the scene.
As in life, there are moments of heart-breaking despair adding shade to the sunny optimism and whimsical jollity throughout. In one such scene, Diana presents photos of their former life in Nairobi to young son Jonathan who asks, “Can we go to Africa, Daddy?”
Unable to explain his plight to the youngster, he stifles tears of anguish as a watery-eyed Diana can say only, “I’m so sorry”. “So am I”, Robin softly replies.
Some years later, Robin teams up with Doctor Clement Aitken and together they tour Europe, demonstrating the custom made wheelchair. Particularly shocking is their visit to a German hospital where disabled patients are maintained in what looks like a futuristic, white-washed morgue. If you didn’t know this is a true story, you wouldn’t believe it.
The film, which on the whole is a little too rose-tinted, benefits from stark, impactful reminders of the ways disabled people were viewed, treated and constricted. However, it lacks detail and grit, failing to depict the daily grind of real life, the mental strain and tensions within relationships.
While the central performances are commendable, they fail to achieve the same conviction and reaction as those of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in the comparable The Theory of Everything (2014).
Nevertheless, Breathe no doubt remains an inspiring tribute to the highly influential innovator Robin Cavendish and his triumph over adversity. His story has been realised with love, affection and sincerity, quite literally since the producer, Jonathan Cavendish, is his son.
*This article can also be found on the Muscular Dystrophy Trailblazers website.*