Wheelchairs in Academia.

Emma Steer (Diary of a Disabled Person) and Aidan Bizony (The Disability Diaries).

From September 2014 to June 2017, I studied Nutrition at the University of Leeds. One extremely common misconception is that nutrition it is a relatively simple subject to study, with very little hard science to get to grips with. The reality is that over my three year course, I spent many hours in the lectures studying biochemistry and human physiology in great detail, and I used knowledge from physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics on a daily basis. In addition to the lectures, I also spent a great deal of my time in various laboratories, working on food processing procedures, food analysis, and studying the effects of nutrients on cell cultures.

Much like any other academic subject, the lectures were central to help me understand my course. At first, some of my peers seemed to think that I had been given a place on the course out of pity, but soon learned otherwise when I consistently answered questions correctly, and received high marks for my work. This train of thought is entirely forgivable though, given some peoples’ attitudes to political correctness.

I was provided with an assistant to help me get around the university campus, holding open doors and lifts, moving tables and chairs to accommodate my wheelchair, and fetching and returning books to and from the library. In addition, I was offered support with note-taking, especially as my lectures were intense and fast-paced, requiring a rapid rate of note-taking that produced handwriting something akin to that of a doctors’. However, given that my main technique of learning involves repeatedly writing out notes, I decided to write my own notes in order to help me learn, and simply learned to cope with the ache in my wrist at the end of the day.

Unsurprisingly, it was in the laboratories where I needed the most support. People had to help fetch equipment and reagents, and return them to their rightful places or the cleaning station at the end of the experiments. I was allowed to perch on a rather uncomfortable wooden stool, on the condition that I could still move quickly enough if an accident occurred. Many of these experiments took several hours to complete, and by the end I was usually so tired that I could barely sit upright, despite having all the help the university could possibly provide me with. However, I only ever left the laboratory early if it was necessary, earning the respect of my tutors and peers alike.

By the end of the course I had made many friends and learned many skills. I had transformed from a miserable hub of self-consciousness to a confident and relatively independent scholar with a passion for science and health care. University helped me develop into what I am today, as it does for any other student, regardless of subject or disability.


In February 2016, I started an Undergraduate Degree at the University of Cape Town in English and History.  Initially, I wanted to do Law but decided to embark on my passion for Literature instead – something I’m extremely glad I did now that I think about it. While a lot of my old high school buddies spend their types in laboratories or in Finance Lectures, I chose to spend my time debating word-choice in centuries-old novels. I’m happy with what I do. It, too, is one of the few avenues in my life that can be entirely disentangled from disability. Don’t get me wrong, disability is a part of who I am, but I don’t want to be dominated by it all the time.

As much as my field allows me to separate me from my physical limitations, sometimes the campus itself and the ideologies of those around me find a way, as John Keats put it, “toll me back to my sole self.” Granted, a physical disability is bound to bring with it some challenges that mean the experience is different, but I don’t see how the real-world complications should be allowed to creep into my academic life. To think, though, that 150+ year old university built on a mountain must suddenly redesign itself for a relatively small portion of the population who have certain physical difficulties is naïve – particularly when you consider all the other problems South Africa must address.

Regardless of the various difficulties I have in navigating the campus, there are several groups who strive to make the academic experience as separate as possible from the disability limitations students face. For instance, since the campus bus system is not wheelchair accessible the UCT Disability Service arrange alternative, accessible transport so that I do not have to be beholden to friends and/or family to get me to my classes and my classes are taught in wheelchair-accessible venues.

Close to the end of my Second Year and rapidly about to be thrown headfirst into my third and final year, I continue to realise that despite the various access problems and some people’s warped understanding of what it means to be disabled, my disability has not solely been a limitation to me or my fledgling university career. In fact, considering my life-long disability has had a dramatic impact on who I am as a person, the friendships I developed at university (which I hope will remain long after we graduate) have been directly influenced by the fact that I’m in a wheelchair.

Insofar as my disability shaped my interaction with university, I think university has equally influenced my perspective on my disability. Given the largely protected nature of high school, the fact that I am exposed to a wider variety of opinions towards my disability and still can thrive illustrates that while disability forms part of your life, disability doesn’t define you.