Campus - 14.11.2019 - 00:00 

Special Needs – Studying with special challenges

Studying at university has its daily challenges. But we rarely ask how people with disability or a chronic illness cope with their studies. We sent our student reporter, Sascha Duric, to investigate.

14 November 2019. There are currently an estimated 250 to 300 students at the University of St. Gallen living with a disability and/or chronic illness who have been in contact with the Special Needs Advice Centre. Just a small percentage of these students take action to compensate for their disadvantages. In the interview, Maria* explains how to cope with daily life at university when you have a disability.

Maria*, how does your disability impact your life at university?

Let me first tell you about my diagnosis: I have some amazing certificates ranging from intellectual giftedness to autism spectrum (Asperger’s), from a previous obsessive compulsive disorder to ADD. People generally have a range of strengths and weaknesses and each one of us is “unique” in our own way. For me, some of my strengths are really strong, such as my analytical and logical thinking, but I can find social situations really quite difficult. People are generally quite alien to me. I often feel like Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory, who dresses as Mr Spock as a way of tolerating time he spends at a medieval festival. Even if I find changes really unpleasant, I always try to adapt and learn.

I found the move from school to university really tough. Social situations are constantly changing; the narrative for most of the students is very different. I can look at it from a kind of outside perspective and respond accordingly. When I first started my bachelor’s degree, I initially felt really out of place. I found the university to be rather cold, very performance-driven and rather superficial in comparison to my old school. In order to find structure, routine and order as quickly as possible - three things that make me feel at home - I decided I just had to adapt. What’s more, to feel at home, I need security, routine and consistency. Once I have been able to assess a situation I feel ok. It helped for me to always sit in the same place in lectures and in every lecture, I would look for a person who I liked.





Everything is possible if you really want it











What are your experiences at university with your disability?

Overall, I’d say that everything is possible if you really want it. For me personally, it took a long time for me address the things I found difficult and seek out help. I initially turned to the university’s psychological counselling centre but didn’t really feel they fully understood me. Even now, I completely lose the will to live in every learning phase. At exam time, you can spend weeks locked inside your own head, under so much pressure, cramming in more and more knowledge with fellow students showing no weaknesses at all. Other students can probably start learning straight away. Before a learning phase starts I have to first work on wanting the exams and the life associated with passing them. Powerful stories such as the Hunger Games have really helped me. For a long time, I felt like Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. He didn’t want to drink any more of the liquid that was causing him unspeakable pain, and yet he was forced to just keep on drinking.

I got diagnosed as “intellectually gifted” at an early age. People would constantly tell me I could achieve anything I wanted, I just had to try hard enough. What I first had to learn is that it is also okay to enjoy having breaks, to not achieve your best and to find things hard. If I find something interesting, I learn extremely fast but I really have to force myself to learn all the things I find pointless or uninteresting.





I like to give others the feeling that they are not alone.











How does the Special Needs Advice Centre help you cope with your studies? What interventions do they use?

I’ve found the Special Needs Advice Centre to be very dedicated and compassionate. I feel like they are trying to support me as best and as far as they can in accomplishing my studies. For example, I am hyper-sensitive to noise, which makes writing in an exam very difficult. So in these situations I now am allowed to wear headphones, like the ones they use on a construction site. If anyone has an idea of how to solve a problem, it is reviewed and implemented in the best way possible, even if this solution didn’t exist before. This year, there are new workshops for students with disabilities - or as I prefer to call us, students with a somewhat greater spread of strengths and weaknesses. Even if a group meeting of people on the autism spectrum initially seems a bit controversial, I look forward to chatting and sharing ideas with other students who, for whatever reason, need the Special Needs Advice Centre. I try and like to give others the feeling that they are not alone.

How do other students and your social circle deal with your disability?

I am really happy to have found a group of friends who accept me for who I am. For example, it really isn’t important to me to ask people how they are over WhatsApp. I really find this sort of communication pointless and exhausting. We probably meet up less often than other people do, but when we do, we have lots to talk about. I am really pleased that my friends don’t see it as me being disrespectful, as I really don’t mean it to be. I know that some things are really good for me, such as going to the gym when I’m going through a bad period of depression. Most of the time, however, I don't get to the gym myself, but my friends just drag me along with them and I soon start to feel better. My periods of depression don’t last anywhere near as long now.

I’d rather not go to lectures at all. These social situations are really awkward for me. A friend gives me the notes if I don’t actually go. The challenge for me is getting into topics that otherwise don’t interest me and not being impressed by the HSG narrative. My strengths and weaknesses are spread out in a different way to other people, but that’s okay. I try to make the best of it, seek out help when I need it and accept it as well. The way I see it, you can still study in spite of any special challenges you face.

The aim of the University of St.Gallen is to give all students the same opportunities to study. Special Needs advises and supports students, post-graduate students and employees at the University of St.Gallen who live with a disability and/or chronic illness or have special health needs associated with psychosocial stress, for example.

Sascha Duric is a conversation teacher for Swiss German as well as Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian (BCMS) at the University of St.Gallen’s language centre and is studying for a master’s in law.

*Name changed

Bild: Adobe Stock / aerogondo

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