Monday, 2 June 2014

The CFS/ME student survival guide!

So here I am at the end of second year and I am exhausted! This generally means I feel pretty negative but I can look back to this time last year and see how much I have improved and learned. When I relapsed last year I could really have done with some encouraging words regarding being a student alongside having CFS/ME. I wasn't expecting anyone to say it was easy, but even to read about someone who had succeeded was rare. So this is my attempt to rectify this! My disclaimer is both that I haven't quite finished yet, and that I do not have all the answers.

1. It isn't easy, but it is possible!
There are many challenges that come with being student and many challenges that come with having CFS/ME. But I do want to assure people that it is actually possible to do both. University staff are generally pretty supportive of those with disabilities from experience.

2. Do your research concerning practical and financial help
I am speaking from Britain here and so these things may be different abroad. Here are a few of the things I researched.

2.a Disabled Student's Allowance - once you have a diagnosis this is extremely useful. I found the assessor to be very helpful and understanding. Things that particularly helped me this past year include help towards paying for taxis to and from lectures and exams, a printer, a supportive office chair, a mentor and computer software that read aloud PDFs when my brain was too tired to read. I also had a voice recorder for lectures which took the pressure off.

2.b Social Services - they weren't particularly helpful in my case but still worth investigating.
Personal Independence Payment - a benefit (that appears to be in upheaval a little at the moment) that helps towards mobility costs and personal care costs. Also not helpful in my case but also worth investigating.

2.c The university's support office - the people here were very supportive and helpful. They knew more about the help available to those with disabilities and were willing to listen if I was struggling with anything. I would suggest meeting the staff here if you are looking round a university on an open day.

2.d Special exam arrangements - personally I have been allowed 20 mins extra time per hour and this year I was allowed a computer to type my answers on should I wished. The extra time rooms are more relaxed than the larger rooms and no-one stares if you get up and move around. I was allowed a comfy chair or sofa so I could use the extra time as rest breaks.

2.e Coursework extensions - my university weren't too keen on these but worth getting if you are having a bad few days.

2.f Extenuating circumstances - my university had a form I could fill in at the end of each year listing all my courseworks and exams so that the exam board could take my illness into consideration. I assume these are pretty consistent across universities.

I have found my university to be pretty supportive generally. There may be other things I have missed but I think this is everything.

3. Be realistic and prioritise
This is of course easier said than done but is an invaluable skill. I realised that while my degree came above most other things I had to also prioritise basically looking after myself and occasionally my social life to stop myself going crazy. It depends exactly what you're looking for in your time at university. I would suggest that nights out are probably not the best idea! Some students do actually prefer a night in with a film, and being as my university is one of the quieter ones I found quite a few people like this.

4. Your social life isn't going to match what is on the brochure!
Like I just said, nights out partying aren't the best idea. The expectation generally includes partying and drinking but it is possible to enjoy yourself and not do these things. There are loads of things on on campus that include sitting down like plays and small-scale concerts so that you can support friends, get out and not exert yourself too much. You may be fortunate to get friends who are understanding of the CFS/ME and you may not. But never exert yourself too far just to fit in with someone who is pushing you too far out of ignorance.

5. Think about the best place to live
For my third year I have chosen to live in halls on campus in a catered accommodation. Some may choose to live in self-catered as this allows better for special diets but also involves the stress of cooking and shopping. Living at home with the support of parents may be the better option if commuting in is possible. Also look into supermarket grocery delivery if you live in self-catered halls or are in private rented accommodation.

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