The disability adviser supporting students to reach their potential

Rachel Demery knows what it’s like to face the extra challenges of living and working with a disability. She’s one of seven advisers working for the Disability Resource Centre. She and her colleagues help to support 2,700 students, a growing number of whom disclose mental health issues.

Rachel Demery (Lloyd Mann)

I absolutely love my job. It’s wonderful to be able to make a real difference to young people’s lives. I’m full of admiration for all Cambridge students who’ve worked so hard to get here — and especially for those who have disabilities to manage. They constantly amaze me.

Things only happen because people make them happen. Like many of my generation with a disability, my educational opportunities were limited by the system in place at the time. The turning point came when two of the A-level teachers at the further education college I was attending spotted that I was bright. They told me that I should think about university — something I’d never considered.

I took A-levels and went to Birmingham University to study sociology. Because I wanted to be a journalist, I swapped to the BA in journalism at Cardiff. It went badly wrong when the course moved to teaching rooms I was unable to access. I use crutches and sometimes a wheelchair. Lectures took place on the sixth floor of a building with an unusable lift. It made me so angry.

Happily, things are improving now. But we have some distance to go before physical access for all is incorporated into the design of buildings. Legislation gives people with disabilities equal rights and universities have dedicated services to support them. Students can choose to disclose disabilities on their UCAS forms so that the appropriate support can be put in place before they arrive to start their courses.

At Cambridge’s Disability Resource Centre (DRC), I’m one of seven advisers. Our goal is to assist students with disabilities reach their academic potential as smoothly as possible. When you’re studying hard, and learning to survive away from home for the first time, managing a disability comes as an extra pressure.

Around 2,700 Cambridge students are registered with the DRC. Two of my colleagues work with students who have a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). One advisor works solely with students who have Asperger syndrome/autistic spectrum disorder.

Five of us work with students who have sensory impairments, long-term medical conditions, mental health issues and physical disabilities. In addition, the DRC has more than 100 non-medical assistants who work with students who need help with note-taking in lectures, for example.

It’s well known that 18–25 is a vulnerable age group. A really exciting time of life can also be a tumultuous one. Young people are finding their feet and discovering who they are. Cambridge students are high achievers who have been offered a place by successfully undertaking a very rigorous and competitive application process.

Student mental health is a growing concern. The number of students disclosing mental health problems has risen considerably. We’re working with many more students who have bi-polar or personality disorders. They need a system that’s flexible enough to respond to their needs.

Adjustments to teaching, learning and testing can make a big difference. For example, students might need an extension to give them extra time to hand in a piece of work — or they might require an alternative assessment to the traditional unseen written paper, one that’s equally rigorous but done differently.

It’s possible to take a less rigid approach to exams. A three-hour written exam is hugely stressful and can become a test of physical and physical endurance. It’s not always the only method of assessing for competences required by the subject.

I know what it’s like to face discrimination. I was born very prematurely. I was seriously ill and slow in meeting the developmental milestones. From the age of two, I went to special schools where children with disabilities were educated separately. Academic expectations were low. I took just three CSEs, exams pitched below O levels. When GCSEs were introduced, CSEs were abolished.

Illness prevented me from completing my journalism training. But I returned to Cardiff University to train as a social worker. I organised my own personal assistant, a Spanish psychology graduate called Almudema. Six of us shared a student house. We had great fun and I’m still in touch with her.

I worked in the social services sector for four years. I learnt a lot about the multiple problems people face. These can include poverty, homelessness, abusive relationships, poor family support and restricted opportunities to change their circumstances. Luck can have a large part to play.

In 2003 I got a job with Cardiff Metropolitan University as a disability Adviser. The role enabled me to combine my social work skills and knowledge with my experiences of working in the voluntary sector and of having been a disabled student. The role suited me as it was relatively well resourced and was a largely positive area to work in.

I’d like to see Cambridge leading the way in supporting students with disabilities. The college system provides a strong sense of belonging and the small group teaching means that students’ problems have a good chance of being picked up. But changes can be hard to push through.

My academic potential was picked up late. As a child, I wasn’t considered bright. I underwent numerous IQ tests and my IQ was assessed as low. I came off epilepsy medication at age 14 and began to show potential.

I went into mainstream education for the first time when I was 17. That’s shocking now. At a college in Pontypool, South Wales, I was taught by two exceptional teachers — Jeff Thomas and Sue Jones. Jeff particularly encouraged me and planted the idea that I should go to university. I got an A in the A-level subject he taught me.

Funnily enough, I’m not the first in my family to be at Cambridge. One of my aunts came to the university in the early 1930s to study science. She was from the Swansea Valley and although her father was born in the reign of Queen Victoria, he had a strong belief in the value of education for women.

My aunt went to a grammar school and worked incredibly hard. She was encouraged to apply for Cambridge. The culture shock when she got here must have been immense. Despite the existence of two women’s colleges, women weren’t able to become full members of the university until December 1947 and my aunt wasn’t able to graduate properly till 1948. Today this gender discrimination seems unbelievable.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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