Carrying a Heavy Load: a disabled student’s story

My recognition hit me like a lightning bolt. I remember I was sitting on a bench in the park of the sanatorium. My Mum was sitting beside me. I realized three things at the moment I came back into real life: firstly, I recognised where I was, and that I suffered from an mental illness and, thirdly, that I had lost weight and I was hungry. ‘Studying?’ the doctors asked me, disbelieving, and shook their heads. ‘Surely not at a red-brick university!’ was their well-meaning statement. I found the solution for my problem in an article about the Open University on the web pages of the British Council in Germany: studying at a distance! I wrote a letter to Milton Keynes and quickly received a package full of information. After reading the prospectus, I realized that I could study nearly everything at the OU. Moreover, I could study the humanities. I enrolled and dived into the ups and downs of a disabled student’s life.

From the very beginning the university helped and encouraged me to master my problems. Just two examples: my illness destroys the personality. I have nightmares, time and again, which can cause extreme fear. Then, my freedom of action or thoughts are often paralysed – sometimes for several days. I also have depression often, and forget all the good reasons why I have started to study – and, even more importantly, I forget how I like to study. I suffer, time and again, from nervous legs and can’t keep them still. This is one part of the side-effects of my medication. All these problems caused lost time and sometimes I fell behind my curriculum, but stress is like taking poison for me. My university found a solution for me: flexible cut-off dates. With flexible cut-off dates I have more time to make up ‘lost’ days when I couldn’t learn.

Everybody who has a mental illness knows how true it is when I assert that my home is my comfort zone. Here, I feel safe. Here, I do not encounter unexpected situations. I have real problems in writing my examinations outside of my four walls. The reason is: I can’t orientate outside my flat. I can’t ride a bicycle any more or drive a car. Big cities like London frighten me today: I once lived and worked in London and liked the capital very much. My nearest examination centre for the OU would be in Munich – four and half hours away by train. This would be pure stress for me. The OU dissolved even this problem for me: home examination. I have to prepare my living-room for the exam, following clear regulations. My examiners came from local universities of my home state. All of the examiners were friendly, the air was always relaxed and my exam became no longer a problem.

Don’t get me wrong: distance universities don’t give presents to anyone. They demand performance in the chosen subject, but the OU for example does everything so that I can learn in my own pace, so that I can keep up with healthy students. ‘You can compare your study to a 100 metres race’, my doctors explained. ‘But you carry a heavy load and therefore you are slower. On some days you can’t even do 70% of the performance a healthy student can do.’ But this makes a degree from a distance university so valuable, because a disability is no longer a real obstacle standing in the way of my passion to study the humanities.


Gracchus, an OU graduate

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