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Andy Mills Guest Blog: A brief guide to Socialising at University

  • Posted on Oct 1, 2019

Whether you’ve been looking forward to it for years, or the whole thing creeps up on you rather suddenly, going to University for the first time is a daunting prospect. For many of us with a disability, it’s the first time we get complete independence from our worrying parents. Ultimately, for most of us, university is the most rewarding, exciting and life-changing experience we’ll ever go through. It’s also an experience that’s as much about socialising and making friends as it is about gaining an education. Here’s my brief guide to the social side of university.

Live in University Accommodation

Even if you’re going to a local university, I think it’s an important thing to live in university accommodation for at least the first year. It’s a chance to live with other people who are in (almost) the same boat as you. Many of them are living away from home for the first time, and you develop a sense of camaraderie with them as you all figure out how to cook for yourselves, manage your limited funds and do the basic household chores that mum and dad previously did for you.

Back when I started university, I was extremely lucky to have moved into a “flat” with three really amazing guys. We were all doing different courses and came from vastly different backgrounds – there was a music student from Oxford, a computing student from Essex and an animation student from Warrington. About half an hour after my parents left me to my own devices on that first day, Jon (the music student) knocked on my door, introduced himself and offered me a cup of tea. The momentary panic I’d experienced at realising that I was now completely away from the comforts of home subsided, and we got to know each other – and the other guys – over a brew in the kitchen. We became good friends and are still in regular contact today.

Don’t Be Afraid to Educate People

There’s a good chance that many of the people you meet at university will have little or no experience of disability. Some will politely ask you about your condition, and some will avoid it like the plague for fear of embarrassing either themselves or you. It’s a great chance to educate people about OI and spread a bit of knowledge. It also helps them to understand your limitations and how they can help you.

The first friend I met on my course was a guy named Simon. We chatted briefly in the lift on the way to our first lecture and discovered that we’d grown up 5 minutes from each other, knew a bunch of the same people and had somehow never encountered one another. It took Simon a few pints in the Student’s Union bar later that day to get the courage up to ask why I was in a wheelchair, but eventually he did, and I was only too happy to give him “the knowledge”. He later confessed to me that his first thought when I introduced myself that day in the lift (having had no real experience with disability before this) was “Holy crap, there’s a wheelchair guy talking to me. What do I do?” Despite his initial panic, we became fast friends, and eventually lived together for two years.

Join a Club or Society

One of the great things about university life is the multitude of clubs and societies that you can join. Obviously, none of us with OI are about to join the Rugby club or take up Lacrosse, but there are plenty of others to choose from. I reluctantly signed up to the drama club in my first week at the urging of a friend and was immediately glad that I did. Once a week we’d meet to rehearse for a production we were putting on that semester. I met a diverse group of people from different courses and backgrounds, and it ended up being a great way to unwind and have some fun after a long day of lectures.

Embrace the Fancy Dress

Whatever university you end up attending, you’ll eventually encounter the fancy-dress parties. In my first year, each club / society had one Monday per semester to hold a fancy-dress party in the SU bar. The themes ranged from “999 Night” (always a winner if you’re in a wheelchair) to “Pirate Night”. Outside of university, fancy-dress always seemed a bit daft to me, but once in the student bubble, it became a great way to improvise cheap costumes and have a laugh with people. There’s also the additional challenge of trying to pimp up your wheelchair to match the theme! Some of my more memorable costumes included Professor X from X-Men, where I was wheeled around by a 6ft Wolverine for the entire night; and a Roman Chariot Racer, complete with spikes on my wheels and a cardboard horse sellotaped to the front of my chair.

Count Your Spoons

No, this isn’t a tip on hording your brand new cutlery set – although that will disappear one piece at a time, I can assure you – I’m talking about the famous spoon theory (https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/). When you start university, the temptation is to constantly be socialising. There are endless parties and social gatherings; and every day it seems like there’s some new event to attend. One of the rubbish things about OI is that we do get tired a little bit quicker than the average person. It’s important to have a bit of down time and take a day off from the social madness every once in a while. Pretty much every student will eventually encounter the dreaded “fresher’s flu”, but the worst of it can be avoided if you remember to take care of yourself and occasionally swap the parties for something a little more laid back.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to educate your friends about OI and how it can affect you. In my case, it meant that I didn’t feel embarrassed when I told my flatmates that my bones were aching too much to go out. On these days, we had a little tradition of staying in and cooking a meal together and watching a DVD or playing a game.

Enjoy It!

Striking out on your own for the first time is a terrifying experience. The important thing to remember is that you’re pretty much in the same boat as everyone else you encounter in those first few weeks. Wheelchair or not, every first-year student you meet is trying to figure out how to be somebody in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. It can be overwhelming at times, but it can also be the most rewarding experience of your life, so it’s important to take a deep breath every so often and just enjoy the moment.

Quick Tips

  • If you don’t already have one, invest in a radar key for getting into disabled loos – radarkey.org
  • Keep a copy of your OI passport on you at all times. If you don’t have one email admin@brittlebone.org or you can download a digital version direct from the OIFE website.
  • Register with a GP on your first day, and make sure you’re sorted for any prescription medication you might need.

If you are going to University it might also be worth checking out these websites for further information and resources:

Disability Rights UK

GOV.UK website

You may also like to read Abbi’s blog from 2018 “University Top Tips”