I Almost Dropped Out Because My Student Halls Were Inadequate

PHOTO COURTESY OF Elissa Reynolds
In 2008 we bailed out the banks. We now face the biggest financial crisis in a generation, with record youth unemployment. Who will bail out young people? R29 and Vice are joining the National Union of Students to call for all students to be offered rent rebates and asking the government to bring back maintenance grants for students from low income backgrounds. 
It’s well known that rent prices for university halls have skyrocketed in recent years. In 2018, the National Union of Students found that the average price of student accommodation in the UK had jumped by nearly a third in just six years. This alone is unacceptable but for disabled people, like me, these high costs have long weighed heavily and rising costs only add to the burden. 
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To non-disabled people, amenities like an en-suite bathroom, larger beds and lift access might sound like luxury requests which it’s reasonable to pay extra for but to a disabled person, these are necessities. We don’t have the choice of forgoing these services and choosing the cheapest accommodation. And so we are often left to pay premium prices for things we can’t go without. 
Some universities (like UCL) recognise this extra cost and offer a rent adjustment to make up the difference but this is not a common practice and most universities expect disabled students to foot the bill in full. We need a national recognition of this inequality, now. To ignore it any longer is ableism. 
I have suffered with chronic pain and mental health issues for years, which were finally diagnosed as fibromyalgia and borderline personality disorder in 2018. Coming to university I needed to ensure that I had a ground or first floor flat unless there was lift access, an en-suite for the gastrointestinal problems I have related to fibromyalgia, and self-catering due to coeliac disease to avoid the nasty effects of gluten contamination. I also explained to the university that sleep plays a huge role in managing my symptoms so things such as a larger bed for comfort and quieter areas would really help. And yet my experiences living in university halls of residence, along with those of other disabled students I have spoken to, has revealed that those living with disabilities are too often being failed and ignored by universities.
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I pay £160 per week for my accommodation. The total cost is almost £7,000 a year but my maintenance loan is just £6,000, leaving me with a £1,000 shortfall. I’m privileged in that I’m able to meet this cost through family support but I worry a lot about those students who have to pay for these extortionate rooms and have no other options to be able to afford them besides private loans or credit cards.

Four months into the first year of my course, I almost dropped out due to the amount of stress I suffered because of university accommodation. 

In its 2019 report on the "Disability Price Tag", UK charity Scope found that disabled people "on average, face extra costs of £583 a month". Having to pay for taxi travel, buying more essential items and higher heating or electricity bills to keep equipment running are just a few reasons behind this. The Disabled Students’ Allowance only pays for study equipment and academic support; it doesn’t cover day-to-day living costs. 
I knew all of this before I applied to university. And with COVID-19 still turning our lives upside down every day, I knew that starting my degree at the end of 2020 would be challenging. What I didn’t expect, however, was that just four months into the first year of my course, I would almost drop out following the amount of stress I suffered because of university accommodation. 
We were told to come to university even though the coronavirus crisis was volatile. This has meant that it’s almost impossible to have the typical student experience. There is no nightlife and we have to contend with ever-changing regulations on socialising and household mixing. All of this left me feeling incredibly isolated and lonely during the first half of the semester. 
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My worries are justified. My condition means that I am at a higher risk when it comes to COVID-19. As I already suffer from fibromyalgia and asthma, I would likely become very unwell were I to contract the virus. Even without the current lockdown, I felt unable to properly connect with people on my course or make friends because, simply, it wasn’t safe for my health. 
I have spent almost all of my time in my room, alone. While there, my ceiling has been shaken by blaring music as the sounds of partygoers echo through the night, reminding me of what I’m missing. I didn’t want to break the rules and risk my own or others’ health but it ate away at me to watch other people have fun and meet new friends while I felt trapped. This feeling only grew worse as the term went on; the final straw for my mental state was finding out there had been an out-of-control 100+ person party at my flat, and our dining table had been destroyed. I suffered a severe nervous breakdown and was forced to leave my halls for my mental safety in November. 
Before this, I had been emailing the university and accommodation office, trying to explain the issues I was having and how loud noise affects my anxiety, that losing sleep night after night was seriously affecting my mental state and causing my fibromyalgia to flare which left me in constant pain and struggling to concentrate on my studies thanks to the dreaded 'brain fog' that comes with flare-ups.
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Finally, after weeks of mixed messages, the government instructed students not to return to university accommodation on 4th January as part of the national lockdown announcement. By then, it wasn’t that straightforward for me. I have ergonomic equipment for my fibromyalgia in my room, which I need for studying to manage pain levels. I felt as though returning was my only option, even though it wasn’t necessarily safe. 

It feels like there is still a lack of understanding about what truly accessible accommodation looks like and we need universities to do more than pay lip service to it.

Maddeningly, the university had still not processed my transfer request because of the noise disturbance I’d been experiencing in the first term and I was told there were no rooms available that were suitable for my conditions. This was so disheartening to hear and I wanted to give up on asking for help because it felt like even though my mental health had gotten so bad in November, the university still couldn’t help me get out of the situation I was in. 
Not even two weeks back in my flat, the social issues escalated further and I was still unable to sleep. This impacted my fibromyalgia pain and ability to regulate my mental health, leaving me exhausted, in pain and completely unable to focus on my deadlines. I felt ignored. I had tried to be polite and open about my issues but my voice had gone unheard. I felt as though I didn’t belong at the university because of my conditions. I considered dropping out altogether. It wasn’t until things got so bad that I had to leave halls once again and go to stay with a friend because I felt so unsafe that the accommodation office finally approved my transfer request. It should never have got to that stage. 
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The university had all of my details regarding my situation, including the need for reduced noise because of my fibromyalgia and sensory processing issues, so why was this not taken into consideration from the beginning?  
According to their website, "disabled students make up over 15% of University of Manchester students" yet I have found only two disabled parking spaces in my halls and, to my knowledge, only one of the eight buildings in the complex has a lift and wheelchair accessible rooms. Once these rooms are taken, where do the rest of us go? 
On top of that, after talking to students from the Disabled Students Society I have found that the existing ‘accessible rooms’ appear to have their own set of issues: lifts breaking or being signposted as "out of use for 'COVID regulations'", a lack of entrances without stairs and heavy doors that are difficult to open or don’t stay open for wheelchair users. 
It feels like there is still a lack of understanding about what truly accessible accommodation looks like and we need universities to do more than pay lip service to it. Designated quiet spaces would greatly improve the quality of life for neurodivergent students like me, for instance, and anyone whose condition is impacted by lack of sleep or loud noise.
Following my experiences, I have joined Manchester University’s rent strike group as one of its demands for this semester is making accommodation more accessible and affordable for disabled students. I’m hoping that my story will resonate with others and draw attention to the issues being faced by students, and that we can begin to move forward with improving things. 
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You can sign the NUS petition calling for a better deal for students here
A University of Manchester spokesperson said: "The health and wellbeing of our students is of the utmost importance to the university and we understand these are extremely difficult times for them. We are aware of the case in question and Our ResLife teams and accommodation office worked with the student to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. However, due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic and the availability of a suitable accommodation to facilitate the student’s needs, there was a wait until an appropriate room could be found. This has now been done and the student in question has been successfully rehoused. If there are any further issues we encourage the student to contact us directly so we can resolve them as quickly as possible."

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