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Studying with a disability: A student nurse’s experience

16 December 2021

Shaun Williams is a learning disability nursing student at Keele University, and a member of the RCN Council. He is soon set to be a registered learning disability nurse working in forensic services.

In the United Kingdom, 21% of adults report having a disability and it is estimated that 70% of these are invisible disabilities. This includes me. It must be stressed that having a disability should not be a barrier to studying a healthcare course or becoming a healthcare practitioner.

I began university unaware I was disabled. I left secondary school with no qualifications, and despite monumental efforts between the ages of 16 and 26, I struggled to maintain steady employment or re-engage with education. As I reflect back on what, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek fashion, could be described as my own personal “wilderness years”, throughout this whole time it never occurred to me that there were other factors impacting my then situation.

I had internalised a defeatist narrative, genuinely believing that I was an underachiever, and that this was my fault for not working hard enough. However, I was totally unaware that I was a neurodiverse/neurodivergent “square-peg” unable to fit into a neurotypical “round-hole”; and as someone with learning differences, I needed expert guidance and support to be able to develop strategies and methods to be able to engage with education and employment to the best of my abilities.     

The realisation that maybe there was more to my then situation happened early on as a student learning disability nurse. As per the usual pattern in my life up to that point, I had performed poorly in my first year of studies and towards the end I gave serious thought to giving up on the notion of ever becoming a nurse. I was at an extremely low ebb, and suspecting depression, visited the campus GP who suggested contacting the University’s Disability Services. This was a turning-point as I was quickly seen by an educational psychologist who identified Dyslexia and Dyspraxia; this then led to further referrals to my local NHS Community Mental Health Team and more investigations, which resulted in ADHD and Autism being diagnosed (the latter at the age of 30).

Diagnostic labels do serve an important function. For a start, I could begin to understand myself and put a name to my difficulties and challenges faced – but in terms of practicalities, this was limited.

There have been three elements that have made all the difference for me: Firstly, being supported to arrange a functional need assessment that determined what adjustments and additional support I would require while studying. Secondly, being eligible to access DSA (Disabled Students’ Allowance) and secure funding for the measures outlined within my needs assessment. Finally, and most crucially, being advised, guided, and supported by specialist SpLD (specific learning difference) tutors with a proven track-record in SEND (special educational needs and disability) and a detailed understanding of neurodiversity. The fact that this support was both recommended to me and fully funded was essential to me accessing it.

This support has been invaluable: from academic skills, such as time-management techniques and reading strategies; to practical support with clinical placements, such as the development of heuristics and memory aids. This input has been tremendously positive, and there have been several highlights; one of these being finally completing my dissertation- not an easy feat for any student, let alone one with additional needs. Having a dedicated SpLD tutor to spend time with, specifically practicing writing skills and developing personalised methods to support my academic writing made all the difference (which coincidentally appealed to my neurotype and love of routine and order). It’s by no way an exaggeration to state that without this I would have stumbled, like so many other student nurses, at the final hurdle.

No student nurse should stumble at the final hurdle to graduation and registration, and I would really encourage my fellow students, trainees or learners to seek help if you are struggling- there is support out there that can help you like it helped me.


HEE’s Find Your Way Guide, developed in conjunction with Diversity and Ability, can help you to find the right support for you.

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