Study, exams, assignments, referencing, money, first time away from mammy's cooking, these are the usual worries we face as third level students. When you are also handed a diagnosis of MS things can get a little more stressful. This week, to coincide with the Better Options College Fair 2016 I am sharing with you, my experience as a student with a 'disability', and some useful information on colleges and supports that might be of interest to you. Also, check out this website to see more about this wonderful college fair http://www.ahead.ie/betteroptions
My diagnosis came in February of my final year of my under-graduate degree. There were months of unexplained symptoms and 'hiccups' in the lead up to the diagnosis. Knowing what I was dealing with, and being able to put a name on it, really helped me. I was finally able to explain what was wrong. I was finally able to put odd symptoms down to something. MS was accountable for my symptoms, they no longer seemed like excuses when looking for extensions or arriving in a little late in the mornings.
I was diagnosed during mid-term, so my three days in hospital came out of my 'home-time'. I was discharged from hospital on Friday and was back in class on Monday morning. My lecturers were not convinced that I should finish out the year. They thought that I should defer a year and give myself time to process and recover. I understood their point, but that wasn't going to work for me. The end was in sight and there was no way I was putting another year between myself and freedom! So I decided to stick with it. Next stop for me was the college 'access officer'. I made a call and the very friendly access officer said she would make the trip to my campus to have a chat about what supports could be put in place for me, so I could finish continue with my education. It was wonderful; I was allowed to hire an 'assistant' for 8 college hours per week. I was allowed to choose a fellow student who could help me when I needed, and they were paid for it! Win, win! It made it possible for me to stick with my commitment and finish out what I had spent almost 4 years trying to achieve. On a less formal basis, my lecturers were very accommodating of any changes or suggestions I had to make life easier for myself. For example, I used a dictaphone during tutorials, (with permission from each individual lecturer). This enabled me to listen to the points and comments that were made, so if I forgot or mixed it up, I could listen again for clarification.
About a year after completing that degree, I decided that I wanted to 'future-proof'. At 27 (28 this weekend eek!) I do worry about the future. I worry about how many 'working' years I have ahead. Do I have enough working years left to secure my future? Will I be able to save? Will I have enough (or any) money in my account when a rainy day comes? Will there be more rainy days than working days? Will the qualifications I have now ensure that I can work well into the future? I decided to look at my options to see what I could do. What could I add to my degree to make me more employable, but also leave me in a better position for less physically demanding jobs in the future? Should I completely scrap the first degree and retrain? Would I be able for the work load of a post-grad? Should I do it as a full-time or part time student? How could I continue to follow my dreams, in a practical and realistic way? What was the best way to go about it? The questions in my head were never ending.
I decided that I would look down the career path of counselling and psychotherapy. I looked at various courses in various colleges. Being a full time student was not an option for me, so I decided I would apply to a course that was part-time. I chose the course, the college and I applied. When I was invited for interview, I prepared myself; I bought a new dress and a black blazer to make sure I looked the part. I read and re-read the course and module descriptions so I wouldn't get stuck on any questions they might ask me regarding the course content. I flew through most questions, until they asked me what I had done with my time since finishing my under-grad. I froze for a moment and then explained that I had been diagnosed with MS in the final months of my degree and wanted to take some time off afterwards to settle onto medications and make lifestyle adjustments without the added pressure of study. I didn't go in with the intention of making this disclosure, but it was relevant so I felt it was the right thing to do. When my acceptance letter came I was overjoyed. I called the access office of this college, and the staff were very helpful. They guided me through all the relevant information I needed, and arranged for me to meet with them so we could discuss my particular needs. So all in all, I have only found any college I have attended to be very helpful and supportive.
Supports in colleges can vary, but there are a huge range of supports that can be accessed. Here are just a few:
- Scribes for exams
- Loop system
- Photo copying services, and credits
- Electronic and Class note-takers
- Spelling/grammar/punctuation waiver
- Accessible classrooms
- One-to-one learning supports
- Personal Assistants
- Funding for students with disabilities
- Extra time in exams
- Extended deadlines
My advice to anyone who might be thinking of starting or continuing with education, GO FOT IT!
Have a look on the college websites, there are pages specifically for students with disabilities, which will give you contact details for the relevant people to get in touch with. Some colleges have great supports in place and it is worth researching to find which might be the best fit for you.
Contact the college you are thinking of applying to. Usually they will have an access office or disability services, email them. Ask any questions you might have. Find out if it is the right fit for you. Contact the students union, they will be a great help in guiding you.
So if you are thinking of pursuing further education, don't let MS be an obstacle for you. Follow your dreams and make sure you get in touch with the relevant people on your journey through education.
Are you considering going back to college? Have you gone back to college? Do you have any advice or tips to share?
Here are some links you might find useful:
For secondary students who are hoping to make the transition from second to third level education, check this link out. http://accesscollege.ie/dare/ - This is an alternative admissions scheme. It offers 'reduced points places to school leavers who as a result of having a disability have experienced additional educational challenges in second level education. It is a fantastic alternative to the CAO for anyone meeting the criteria.
Original article published 26th November 2015.