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PhD Study with a Disability, Chronic Illness or Learning Difficulty

Written by Mark Bennett

PhD study while managing a disability, chronic illness or learning difficulty can be challenging. But you might be surprised how many people do so successfully. Or at how much support for disabled students is available from universities, funders and other sources.

This guide will help you if you’re considering a PhD, but worried that a pre-existing medical condition may make it more difficult.

It contains information on applying for a PhD with a disability and advice for managing the day-to-day undertaking of your research project.

We’ve also put together a guide to Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) for PhD students.

Applying for a PhD with a disability or chronic illness

The first step in completing a PhD while managing a disability or illness is the applications process. Applying for a PhD with a disability may seem a little daunting. But your experience doesn’t necessarily have to be any different to that of another student.

You won’t normally have to disclose a disability when applying for a PhD. It is also illegal for your university to discriminate against you on the basis of any disability you do disclose.

Informing your university of a disability – the benefits

Your university can be an important source of advice and assistance as you complete a PhD with a disability. Many institutions have previous experience of helping disabled students complete their degrees. Some will also have structures in place to help new applicants.

Informing your university of your condition when you apply will allow you to:

  • Establish your legal rights – Disclosing a disability will invoke relevant legislation protecting you against discrimination. A university (or other institution) cannot be held to have unfairly treated someone because of a disability it’s not aware of.
  • Access specific support structures – Many universities have specific support structures available to help their disabled students. These include specialist resources to help you manage the effects of your condition. For example, computer equipment and software designed to assist students with dyslexia or visual difficulties.
  • Identify additional funding – A disability can make certain aspects of postgraduate study more expensive. You might therefore be entitled to additional financial support as a disabled student. Your university can help you identify and apply for this as you prepare for your studies.
  • Protect your privacy – Some students have personal reasons for not wishing to reveal a disability or illness. Your university will respect this wish and will have policies and procedures in place to help protect your information. Telling your university about a disability will not make your condition public. It may even help you manage it privately.
  • What if I don’t want to inform my university of a disability?

    Depending on your personal feelings and individual circumstances, you may not wish to inform your university of a disability or chronic illness. This is completely understandable (particularly if your condition is unlikely to have a significant impact on your studies).

    In most cases you have no obligation to inform a university about a condition. And you can still access lots of other support networks without doing so.

Receiving support at university – your legal rights as a disabled PhD student

The Equality Act requires institutions to make reasonable adjustments for their disabled students. These oblige your university to avoid putting you at a substantial disadvantage due to the effects of your condition. The three specific scenarios in which the Act holds a university responsible for disadvantaging disabled students relate to:

  • The university’s actions
  • The physical design of university buildings and facilities
  • A failure to provide reasonable additional support for your condition

In all the above cases your university should take reasonable steps to prevent you being disadvantaged. These could include providing information or materials in a more accessible format. Or providing altered or alternative means of access to buildings and infrastructure. You may also be offered specific support services. Where any of these take place, it is the responsibility of the university to cover their cost.

What counts as ‘disadvantage’?

You count as being disadvantaged if you are substantially less able to use facilities or carry out tasks relating to your PhD. Your university has a responsibility for this if it could have taken reasonable action to mitigate it.

Most universities in the UK will have dedicated disabled student services to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

Working with your supervisor

As the second-most important person in your PhD (after yourself!) your supervisor can be a great source of advice, understanding and support.

Of course, any successful supervisory relationship requires both parties to establish expectations and targets. This will be even more important if your disability or illness is likely to pose challenges during your research.

You don’t have to inform your supervisor of a disability or illness. But doing so can help you establish a supportive working relationship. Their expectations can then take account of your condition and they can help you to progress in spite of it.

Establishing a supportive supervisory relationship as a disabled student

A good supervisor will do their best to support you and will be motivated to help you succeed. You can help this process by discussing the possible effects of your condition in advance.

This will allow you to establish a working relationship that takes account of any extra challenges you may face during your PhD.

It can be helpful to discuss:

  • Difficulties you might face as a disabled PhD student – You will know best what effect your condition has on your working arrangements (including its effect on your previous degrees). Your supervisor, on the other hand, will have greater experience of what is involved in the research process you are now embarking upon. Early discussion will help you both identify likely problems and establish strategies for overcoming them.
  • Your specific needs as a disabled PhD student – You can also help your supervisor by identifying specific needs you have as a result of your disability. For example, you may find it hard to get to campus regularly or take longer to read written material. If so, your supervisor might be able to suggest alternative working arrangements.
  • The timeline of your project and expectations for progress – Discussing the likely impact of your condition on your PhD will help you and your supervisor come up with a practical plan for your project. Your supervisor will then be able to monitor your progress more effectively and help your research stay on track.
  • Expectations of you as a research student – It is common for PhD students to engage in other activities as part of their doctorates. These include presenting research at academic conferences or teaching undergraduates at their university. Such tasks are an important aspect of your development as a researcher. Your supervisor will help you identify any support you need to succeed in them.

Support from your supervisor as a disabled student

A helpful and encouraging supervisor can make a significant difference to your experience. Their support could include:

  • Making more flexible supervision arrangements – Your supervisor may be able to offer alternative supervision arrangements if your disability makes it difficult to plan or attend face-to-face meetings (or if you have problems getting to your university campus). These could include communicating electronically or via telephone, or simply setting alternative times and venues for meetings.
  • Providing accessible feedback – Your supervisor may be able to adopt alternative means of communication, if dyslexia or visual problems make it hard for you to read written feedback. These could include providing feedback in other forms (such as an audio recording).
  • Helping with drafts – If their time allows, your supervisor will normally be happy to read through drafts of material you are presenting or publishing. This can be particularly helpful if you have problems with dyslexia or similar conditions.
  • Providing encouragement and acting as a mediator – Your supervisor will become familiar with the problems posed by your condition. They will be able to offer encouragement when you need it and support you in interactions with other students and academics who are less familiar with your circumstances.

Managing PhD research with a disability

As well as establishing a good relationship with your supervisor, it can be helpful to anticipate some of the challenges you yourself may face as a disabled PhD student. This way you can come up with strategies for managing them in advance.

The exact difficulties you face will depend on your circumstances. But you may wish to list likely issues and investigate possible solutions. This will allow you to go into your PhD with greater confidence and enthusiasm. You’ll be ready to face the challenges it presents and come away with a qualification you can be incredibly proud of.

Overcoming mobility and accessibility problems

A disability may make it harder for you to get to and from your university, or to access certain buildings on campus. Universities have a legal obligation to make their facilities as accessible as possible. There are also other ways in which you can overcome mobility or accessibility problems:

  • Ask about disabled access for buildings and facilities – If you suffer from mobility problems, it may be a good idea to find out which buildings and facilities you are likely to use as a PhD student. You can then check their accessibility options. Many institutions will have a dedicated disability office providing this kind of information.
  • Find out if your library offers e-books or provides a delivery service – By its nature, a PhD research project will require you to access large amounts of library material. This can be a problem if you suffer from mobility problems that make repeated journeys difficult or expensive. But university libraries offer an increasing amount of material in an electronic format. Some also deliver physical books to distance learning students by post – find out if you can use this service as a disabled student.
  • Inquire about alternative ways to access training materials – Though you won’t usually have scheduled classes as a PhD student, some institutions run useful training and key skills sessions. These help students develop as professional researchers. If you cannot physically attend them, you may be able to access related materials (or even lecture recordings) online.

Managing research and reading

Reading and analysing written material is a big part of PhD research in all subject areas. This can be difficult for students with disabilities such as dyslexia or visual impairment.

These are some ways in which you may be able to overcome difficulties with reading and writing as a disabled PhD student:

  • Find out if specialist software or equipment is available to you – Because dyslexia and visual impairment are relatively common conditions, many universities will have resources available to help both undergraduate and postgraduate students. This might include computer equipment with assistive reading software.
  • Consider using an e-reader – You may actually find that commercially available e-readers can help you manage reading with a lexical disability or visual impairment. Most devices will allow you to alter the size, shape and brightness of text to a format that you find easier to read. Some also include text-to-speech options. Not all academic resources will be available in a format suitable for these devices. But the range of electronically published academic books and journal articles is growing. If the cost of necessary equipment and materials is a problem, you may be able to qualify for extra financial support.
  • Ask about extended loan periods at the library – University libraries may offer extensions on loan period for disabled students who require more time with resources. If your library does not advertise such a service, consider asking if it can make arrangements in your case.
  • Practise presentations carefully and use visual cues – Giving a conference paper or other talk can be difficult if you struggle with reading, particularly if this causes you to become self-conscious. You may find it easier to structure presentations around visual material rather than reading from a written paper. Rehearsing presentations in advance can also make you more confident.

Managing writing and drafting

Once you’ve managed the challenge of reading and researching as a disabled PhD student you can move on to writing up your work. This will allow you to present your ideas to a wider audience – including academic experts in your field.

Some conditions can make organising and writing up your research more difficult. There are various ways you can anticipate and help compensate for these:

  • Use alternative note-taking methods – Difficulties with writing can make it hard to take notes at academic conferences, or when discussing feedback at PhD supervisions. If you have access to a tablet or small laptop you could try typing notes. Or you may be able to record presentations or supervisions using a Dictaphone. Speakers will usually be happy with this, but it is polite to ask permission beforehand.
  • Try different ways of mapping your thinking – If you find it hard to plan writing tasks using a text outline, try alternative methods. Some students find that visual charts of spider diagrams are a better way of representing their work. This could replace your plan, or simply provide a way of identifying the key points of your argument and its framework before you plan.
  • Investigate support software for writing – As with reading, specialist software can sometimes help with writing problems caused by conditions such as dyslexia. Some word processors can provide advice on distinguishing between homophones (words that sound the same, but have different meanings and / or spellings). Others can make writing easier by removing unnecessary clutter from the screen. You may qualify for financial help to buy such software.

Relationships with other staff and students

Depending on the nature of your disability or illness you may find yourself feeling self-conscious or otherwise lacking confidence in interactions with other students and academics.

Such feelings may seem natural, but it’s important that you try to find ways of overcoming them. As a PhD student your research and ideas are as valid as anyone else’s. If other students are aware of the fact that you are managing a condition alongside your PhD they will be the last to judge you for it.

PhD students of all people will respect someone for working hard to overcome challenges as part of their research.

The following approaches may help you manage personal interactions that are made more difficult by your condition or manage any social anxiety resulting from it:

  • Investigate communication aids – If your disability leads to communication problems, you may be able to find resources to assist you. These will vary greatly depending on the problems you experience, but a wide range of support is potentially available. If you have hearing difficulties, for example, you may be able to use audio induction loops (hearing aid systems commonly fitted in university teaching spaces). Alternatively, if you have difficulties presenting or speaking about your own ideas, you may find it easier to use more visual aids.
  • Find student research groups or societies – Many university departments have their own research groups or societies for postgraduates. These are usually student-led and are very informal. Attending them can be a great way to get to know other PhD students at your institution and become more comfortable discussing your research.
  • Find online research groups and communities – There are also many friendly academic communities online, centred around blogs and forums. These can be ideal if mobility or communication problems make it harder for you to attend physical workshops or discussion groups at your university. You can also ask for advice (and get to know other PhD students) through communities like the Postgraduate Forum.
  • Remember your right to privacy – You do not have to disclose any disability or illness as a PhD student. Even if you have informed your supervisor and admissions staff, you have a right to privacy concerning other staff or students.

Completing your PhD viva with a disability

All PhD programmes end with an oral examination, or ‘viva voce‘. This is when a student discusses their work with an external examiner and ‘defends’ their conclusions. (For this reason, the viva voce is sometimes referred to as a ‘thesis defence’).

It goes without saying that this is a hugely important part of your PhD research experience. Any disability or illness should interfere with this process as little as possible.

Universities will understand this. They will do their best to make appropriate arrangements for your examination, allowing you to simply focus on the important thing: doing justice to your PhD thesis.

There are various ways in which you and your university can help limit the impact of a disability or illness on your viva:

  • Discuss likely issues with your supervisor in advance – It can be helpful to sit down before your viva and discuss any issues you may have. Your supervisor can help with this process. They can advise on different aspects of the viva and help you communicate any special needs to your external examiner.
  • Brief your external examiner – You can brief your external examiner about the effects of your disability or illness in advance. This will allow them to take account of any special needs you may have as part of the examination process. Most will be very understanding and accommodating if you have difficulties communicating or need to briefly interrupt the examination due to fatigue or other problems.
  • Find a suitable venue – Universities don’t usually have dedicated venues for viva examinations. Instead students (or their supervisors) simply book a suitable room. This means you can find a venue that is accessible and comfortable for you and which suits any other needs you may have, such as proximity to other facilities.
  • Investigate existing policies concerning PhD vivas for disabled students – Many larger universities will already have experience of supporting disabled students through viva examinations. If so, they will have policy guidelines in place to help facilitate this process. You may be surprised at how comprehensive some of these are and how helpful they can be.

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Last Updated: 16 December 2020