Exams & Disability
Exam season isn’t easy for anyone, but I’m more than confident when I say that exam season is at least 10x worse for those of us with disabilities; as I have just sat possibly my last ever academic exams I thought I would write a post about how exam season affects me personally.
I have Dyslexia & Irlen Syndrome which means that even before being diagnosed with my physical disabilities, exams have never been easy for me. My Dyslexia came hand-in-hand with short term memory loss, which meant that revision was always really difficult – I could spend hours trying to get something to stick in my memory without success (especially French & Spanish), but over the years I’ve learnt how to work with my dyslexia so I can still attempt to pass exams. And passing is usually all that matters to me, I’ve come to accept that when sitting exams I’m never going to be top of the leader board & that exams certainly do not show how educationally capable I can be; for this specific reason I chose to do a BTEC rather than A-Levels when I finished high school. For me, a BTEC was the better option as it meant that I wouldn’t have to worry about studying for exams; instead I could focus on showing my abilities through essays & projects… but doing a BTEC became even more of a good choice for me when I first started to get physically unwell.
I was only a few months into my first year of college, where I studied my BTEC, when I first started to show signs of being disabled (read the story here). Whilst I was off college, learning to walk again, I was still able to attempt some of my coursework because of the way a BTEC is set out; it also meant that I didn’t have to worry about failing exams & having to retake the year – by the time the end of my first year of college came around I had caught up on all of my coursework, apart from in one module, & my tutors (reluctantly) allowed me to do this module during my second year. During my second year I worked my ass off, & despite spending a month in hospital because my kidney broke & developing septicemia (a post about which will be posted soon), I still managed to finish college on time with the equivalent of three As.
University would be a different adventure though. In the UK, university means a lot of coursework throughout the year as well as exams at the end of the year; my university exams would be the first I would sit after being diagnosed with my physical disabilities & in my first year I really had no idea how to handle them (I’m still not sure now). Exam season is difficult for me as revision involves being sat up for long periods of time, being tense, not being able to sleep for as long as I normally would, & working to a very strict schedule (with coursework I could get extensions on my deadlines, but I couldn’t easily put off exams because my back was playing up).
The biggest issues with revision, for me personally, was to do with being sat up for hours at a time & all the writing I had to do. Sitting up for long periods of time causes me a stupid amount of issues; my shoulders start to burn, my arms ache, my back obviously hurts an unending amount & being sat up also makes me use more spoons. In all three years of university I ended up pushing myself too hard whilst trying to revise & it always resulted in me missing exams – this year I pushed myself so much that I didn’t notice when I was starting to get a bladder infection, & this lead to quite a nasty infection developing which resulted in me missing two exams. Last year I pushed myself so hard that on the day of my last exam I wasn’t actually able to stand; I was bed-bound for about a week, if I remember correctly, & it was all because I was trying to revise to the same level as my peers. I also have real issues with my hands but no one can really work out why; my hand issues were the reason I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia (after they froze up mid-exam) but I’ve still never got a proper explanation about why my hands are so stiff & why they like to spasm & freeze up when they’ve been overused. My hand issues arise regardless of whether I’m hand writing or typing, but unfortunately they are worse when handwriting – and handwriting my notes was one of the ways I managed to remember things despite my dyslexia.
But, to a lot of people missing exams & getting extra time to revise (with no financial cost or grade caps) seems like a great benefit of being disabled, & maybe I would have agreed a little if I had only missed exams in my first & second year, but missing them this year meant that I didn’t get to graduate on time. I was never going to go to my graduation ceremony because I couldn’t afford to dish out ~£100 just to accept a certificate from someone I’d never even met before, but seeing all of my peers photos of graduation broke my heart, & it was made worse because I knew that even if I had the money I still wouldn’t be there. If I had the money I would still be able to go to a graduation ceremony, it would just be in September rather than July, but I would have graduated with none of my “friends” & it would have been an even bigger waste of money than if I had got to graduate with everyone else in July.
I think the hardest thing about not going to my graduation ceremony was the fact that I saw the group of girls I thought were my friends all posting pictures with each other saying that the girls at the graduation ceremony were the reason they got through university – there was absolutely no consideration about how that would make me feel & none of them bothered to text me on graduation day to ask if I was okay, or to tell me that they wished I was there. I wasn’t included in the “I couldn’t have made it through university without these girls” posts, because I wasn’t good enough to finish on time like everyone else. Instead, my disabilities got in the way & destroyed what should have been an incredible day for me; I would have been able to go to the graduation after-party if I had graduated that day, & I was still invited; but as a guest of one of my friends who was graduating on time… and although I really appreciated her asking if she wanted me to put her on her guestlist, being there would have been a kick in the teeth – I wouldn’t have belonged there because I wasn’t good enough to finish on time. I wasn’t good enough to finish on time because my disabilities meant that I wasn’t able to revise to a good enough standard without getting sick.
I’ve now finished university, but I never actually managed to work out the right balance of revision & rest for myself – although whilst revising for the two exams I missed in May I have managed to get a better idea of how far I can push myself & now I’m only struggling with being incredibly tired, a shoulder injury & a spout of repetitive strain injury in both of my hands. The tiredness I can cope with – it gives me an excuse to sleep for even longer than I usually would, but it does also mean that I can’t start reading loads straight after my exams are over (which makes me very sad). My shoulder is starting to get better but it still feels like it’s slipping in & out of place every time I move it too quickly (yes, it really is as painful as it sounds). Repetitive strain injury in my hands is something I deal with very often, but it’s still incredible annoying & affects every aspect of my life; due to my fibromyalgia it also takes longer for my RSI to heal (I can feel it starting to kick in now, just from writing this post) which is also incredibly annoying.
Now that I’ve finished university I need to start job hunting, but I really need to take some time out before I start doing that because it’s going to drain me out a lot. Taking time out will mean that we have to be even more careful with the small amount of money we have left to live on though, so it’s a difficult thing to make decisions about. I’m also stupidly scared about starting to work full-time & I’m sure I’ll end up writing about that eventually as well.
Thanks for reading folks – let me know about any issues you’ve had with the exam system!