Disabling Perceptions and Getting on with Uni

By Henderson Best

Advice from a recent graduate for new students with disabilities.

I moved away from home when I was 18 to study P.E. at the University of Otago. In hindsight, it was quite a big step for someone who had no experience living away from home, and the extra baggage of having Cerebral Palsy. As a naive 18-year-old I had the attitude of It’ll All Be OK. Plus, Otago is close to the mountains which was a bonus for me - I love skiing. Overall, my time at university was a really positive experience. Once I knew the lay of the land and which people to get support from, I couldn’t fault it. However, it took a while to get to that point. 

At the end of my first year I was contemplating giving it all up because, A. I wasn’t enjoying the content of the course, but B. I was finding it all a bit much coming to terms with the limitations my CP. But I decided to stick it out, there was no point in leaving behind all the connections and friends I had made. Once you get to know people and get some clubs to be involved with, it gets easier. In my case I found sports like boccia and wheelchair rugby were excellent for keeping me sane amongst all the study (and skiing on the occasional weekend). To me, I felt like any other young person at uni, which was a great feeling.

"All my friends were starting organise flats and find flatmates, etc. It was getting a bit overwhelming for me at that stage."


One of the challenging things was finding a flat when I got to the end of my first year. All my friends were starting organise flats and find flatmates, etc. It was getting a bit overwhelming for me at that stage. I was fortunate enough to have the option of staying in my hall. This wasn't what I intended to happen - but hey, it happened. On the bright side, it was a darn sight warmer in the halls on those chilly Dunedin days. Having that option of staying in the halls was great, and it allowed me to have a little more time to think about the flatting logistics. Fortunately, I found an accessible university-owned flat for the last few years of my degree. This was a great solution and the university staff were very helpful in organising this for me.

Yes, I did have some doubts about how I could do uni with a disability. The hardest part for me was realising that I did need help. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that there are some things that I was just going to take a little longer to do, i.e. assignments and getting to class from one end of campus to another, but I just got on and learned strategies to cope. Occasionally I could stream my lectures online so I didn’t have to walk so far between classes, but I also just learnt to walk quickly (while trying to avoid wobbly pavements).

"Getting the “You Are Inspiring” and the “You’re So Far Away From Home” comments caught me off guard."

One of those times I was speed walking across campus, another student was so adamant he could cure my Cerebral Palsy that he approached me and stopped me. Come on, I was innocently walking back from a day at the library, needing food. My CP was the least of my concerns. To be honest, it was kind of amusing that he decided to pray for me then and there, but I bit my tongue. Of course I knew that it wasn’t gonna help, so I decided to just go with it. Getting the “You Are Inspiring” and the “You’re So Far Away From Home” comments caught me off guard. Pfft — just because I have a disability doesn’t mean I can’t go to the furthest end of the country for uni just like anyone else. Surely that doesn’t make me inspirational? All I was doing was going to class just like any other student.

So yes - sometimes it’s a bit hit and miss. But (believe it or not) people are willing and want to help you! It took me a bit of time to realise this but let me tell you, it gets so much easier once you do. The university appreciates it when you say “I need help”. It helps that usually when you enrol in a university, you can state that you have a disability on your enrolment form. Funnily enough, if you tick ‘Yes’ then the disability support service will make itself known to you. The support systems are fantastic, it pays to find your voice and be brave.

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