First Person

Starting University with a Hidden Disability

Read by Wardah Thanvi.

Even on my first day at university, my hidden disability got in the way. There was a problem with my accommodation. The good news was that the accommodation was on the ground floor. There were no lifts, and my airway meant that I could not climb stairs or else I would get out of breath. The bad news about my accommodation was that it was on a hill. Ok, so the hill was only small, but it was also a good ten-minute walk from the university. This meant that I would get tired before I even got to uni.

My mum demanded to see the accommodation team. I admired how she would always fight my corner, but at that moment, I was a nervous wreck. I was frantically looking around the Halls of Residence reception, when I spotted the noticeboard opposite me. The reception was small, with people coming and going. I concentrated on a photo of a cat on the noticeboard. His name was Batman, and his job was apparently Campus Security. A passing thought of meeting this cat made me relax a bit. However, that was quickly shoved out of the way by my worries. Would my university career be over before it even started? 

It turned out to be a bit easier than that. Kind of. My mum explained the issue, and I got moved to a ground floor flat on the doorstep of the campus building. It was closer to a five-minute walk, but it made it all the better for me and my airway. 

Ah, the joys of having a hidden disability. Another issue cropped up when meeting new people. I looked normal, with green eyes, glasses, and an alternative dress sense, including tops that were high-necked so that they covered my scar on the front of my neck. However, whenever I spoke to anyone one thing stuck out – in my mind, at least.

My voice.

You see, I was born at 26 weeks, and I have had numerous surgeries on my airway that have damaged my vocal cords, causing my voice to sound like I have a sore throat. That’s what I tell people whenever I meet them to stop them worrying. 

It does get a bit tedious, now and then. 

Also, due to being a premature baby, my airway is narrower than others. Thankfully, after living the first seven years of my life with a tracheostomy tube; a big reconstruction surgery when I was eight; and lots of other operations, I have a good quality of life. However, due to the various surgeries over the years, my vocal cords were damaged with scar tissue. This means I have limitations in life which I have gotten used to, however, when trying to make friends at university, I struggled to cope with them.

A group of girls from my course and I went to Wembley before a university induction day. My friends at college knew when walking that they had to slow down for me. They knew that wherever I went, I’d need access to a lift in case there were too many stairs. Walking down the long stairs from the station was fine. Unfortunately, when we were walking up the stairs, I rushed up, whilst trying not to sound like I was about to collapse. I could have told them to slow down, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to be known for my disability. I wanted them to get to know me as that girl who loves reading books, writing journalistic pieces, watching strange horror movies, and listening to rock music. 

One final example of how my hidden disability impacted my university experience is when I went to the cinema with a friend from my journalism group. She was walking fast, and I matched her pace to ‘stay normal.’ Unfortunately, this did not work. She offered me her inhaler, as she thought I had asthma. I politely declined, explaining that I did not have asthma, but I just had something like asthma. This was another throwaway line I had in my arsenal so that no more awkward questions were asked. I didn’t want to scare people off. 

Thankfully, those were the only odd moments. There’s a saying that going to uni changes your life. For me, it really did. I became a different person. I discovered my love of writing. I went to Camden one day on my own to meet a singer I loved at the time.  I interviewed people around campus for an assignment, gave a presentation in front of a seminar group, and asked questions during a lecture. My desire to talk overrode my worries about my voice, which was the biggest confidence boost of all.

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About Author

Katie Bird (she/her) is a Journalism student from London, who writes about living with a hidden disability and music. She has a passion for reading fiction books, watching Marvel films, and listening to heavy metal music.