We met with Zoe, who recently graduated with an MSc in Food Innovation from the University of Greenwich, to find out about her experience as a disabled student. Zoe shares her story about being diagnosed with Dyslexia and Dyspraxia during her undergraduate degree, the support she has received since and her advice to others considering applying to university.
“I always knew I wanted to follow a career in the science field. However, I didn’t decide to study until college when my dad had surgery and had to make significant dietary and lifestyle changes. This led me to want to help people to understand and implement nutrition for their benefit.
I was still unsure of the commitment a degree would require, but I went to an open event at the University of Greenwich and met one of the lecturers. She was brilliant and so encouraging, I even tried a practice session. It was a year or two later, after working in the NHS, that I decided I was ready for university.
A key factor for me in choosing Greenwich’s BSc in Human Nutrition was the location. I have a child, so I didn’t want to uproot my family. I also had a good feeling from the open event and from meeting Melanie Thorley, who manages STAART. Melanie explained to me all the support that was available to me and directed me to the wellbeing team to access it. It was only in the final year of my undergraduate degree that I was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia.
My biggest fear about going to university was that I wouldn’t pass; you could say it was a case of imposter syndrome. When you walk into university you think you’re going to be surrounded by high achievers, and as a mature student, I worried that everyone would be younger than me. I realised very quickly that everyone is in the same boat, we were all there just trying our best. Coincidentally, most people on my undergraduate course were mature students, too, so that was an unexpected bonus. We all supported each other and most of us are still in touch.
Success at university really depends on how committed you are. It can seem like for some people, everything comes easily, but I always had to work harder than others, which I learned is down to my dyslexia. I always work that bit harder and put in the extra time and effort so my disabilities don’t affect my grades.
STAART has also been a brilliant system that I could go to for advice and support. I’ve received wellbeing counselling, and support from other STAART members. It was through STAART that I was recommended an assessment for learning difficulties. Once I was diagnosed, I met with the wellbeing team again and we went through my assessment report, discussing what support the university could offer.
Now I’ve applied for DSA, I have been able to get a number of support aides, including a specialist chair for my hypermobility, a special desk with a height adjuster, a specialist mouse, keyboard and headset, plus a laptop with software to support with reading and writing. I also have a dyslexia tutor who I meet with to look at my work, which is especially useful now I’m on a masters course and there are no exams, it’s all graded on coursework.
The best thing about university has been the learning and the experiences the course has enabled. Alongside this, I’ve really enjoyed being part of STAART, working with SEND PP, and working as a course rep. It’s great to know you can contribute to something positive alongside studying.
When I started my studies, I had a really clear pathway in mind, but during my degree I realised becoming a dietician was no longer right for me. Through trying all the different aspects of my course and different experiences, I’ve learnt to be more open-minded. My masters course is so varied so it’s broadened my ideas of where I could go in the future. I might even do a PhD, as I’d love to continue working in research.
My advice to others would be to go to universities and see them for themselves. Don’t just base your decision on what you’ve heard from others or the statistics. You might visit somewhere that has lower results or statistics, but you love it there and you know you’ll succeed there. They need to meet your needs, and what you want from university. Go to open events – do you feel welcome? Find out everything you want to know and what matters to you, then make your decision based on that. I’d also say to tick the box on your application form to share that you are disabled; it’ll make sure you get your support in place quicker than waiting until you’ve enrolled.
Some people worry that sharing their disability will affect their application. This really isn’t the case – it is illegal for universities to discriminate based on a disability. You just have to choose the one that’s right for you.”