Returning to Sydney University after Spinal Cord Injury

I was going to write about Christmas and New Year with family and friends. I was going to write about The Hunter Valley retreat, about caring away from home but that all paled into insignificance as Emily readied herself for her first day back at University.

In 2010 Emily completed a BA Commerce with majors in Accounting and Management. Emily’s experience at University was energetic, active with youthful liveliness so today is poignant as she returns as a wheelchair user, immobilized physically and incapacitated even more by her recent surgery and the full extension brace on her right arm.

We had an appointment yesterday on level 5 of the Jane Foss Russell Building, within the University. At 11 am we met the Disability Services Manager, who took Emily through the student support available. There is a technical support officer who manages computer, ipad and on-line assistance from the assisted technology room in the Fisher Library. Emily has extra time allowed for assignments and can be allocated a scribe in examinations. As a student Emily still has to comply with all the course requirements, she has to attend and be timely with all her work, projects and  tasks.  There are no intellectual compensations just physical so that the course is accessible.

Toilet accessibility is an issue on campus. We ran a reconnaissance mission to gather intelligence on accessible bathrooms. The facilities appear adequate but the doors were all the hinged, heavy weight variety which for a wheelchair user are impossible to open. Emily would have to ask someone to open the door and then most importantly ask them to wait to let her out as she could otherwise be trapped in the loo till the next user burst in on her. Automated doors are required as soon as possible Sydney University.

There are disabled parking bays on campus which allow for pick up and drop off although I have just received a text from Emily telling me that white bollards are across the parking spaces this morning. This is a constant dilemma for me as a carer, do I hunt around for other parking which may necessitate a longer pushing journey, up and down higgledy-piggledy, very attractive but not wheelchair friendly, cobbled stone pavements or do I move the cones?

Emily has to complete two pre-requisite courses prior to her Postgraduate Diploma choice. Summer school at University offers courses run in a condensed time frame, it allows pre-requisite subjects to be addressed prior to semester one in March. It is a comfortable way to return to study especially as she has to address all the new demands of immobility. After yesterday’s campus recci we decided Emily would use her power chair, I aim to meet her for a bathroom break, lunch, coffee between her lecture and tutorial and Emily would get a taxi home.  A streamlined plan although I have to point out that the morning care routine started at 6am to accommodate transport at 8.30am for a 9am lecture. I need to rendezvous with Emily to facilitate bathroom and lunch between 12 and 1 pm, which dislocates my day, with Emily’s estimated return home time of 4pm.

It will be enlightening to learn, on many levels, returning to study a new subject, learning to navigate Sydney University as a wheelchair user, experiencing student and staff rapport as a wheelchair user, learning how to study when she has no motor movement in her hands, no ability to write apart from note taking, knuckle tapping, on her ipad. Returning to study is acutely challenging and tiring but worthwhile, initiating an intellectual passion in Emily, it’s her way forward, up and onward.  

We were lucky yesterday as the weather was fine and we treated ourselves to a Campos coffee, Emily’s favourite, on Eastern Ave outside the School of Chemistry. Emily parked herself in the shade and I joined the back of the lunchtime queue. The counter was at eye level so that almost every order was given with the purchaser on tippy toes shouting to the towering barista. I shouted my usual “TWO SKINNY FLAT WHITES, EXTRA HOT”, I stood back and waited. No one called my order but I did notice two cups suddenly appear on the counter, I walked up and sure enough they had my name written on them. I rejoined Emily and sat in companionable silence as the lunch time rush diminished and the line dispersed. I sipped my coffee and reflected on Emily’s return to University, she is immobilized but not compromised intellectually, she is insightful and has been through a trauma that has enhanced her inner strength and understanding, she has clarity of mind and retains a sunny, sweet disposition to life. I do not doubt that Emily can achieve whatever goals she sets herself, I have no doubt that returning to University is a good choice, no doubt we can overcome the toilet door issue. There is only one issue I see at present, how is Emily going to order Campos coffee and collect her drink from a counter that is Gandalf sized to her? Sure, she will have many offers of help and much kindly assistance but that’s not the point – she returned to University to apply herself to her future independence, being able to order and collect a coffee is part of her learning journey.

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3 thoughts on “Returning to Sydney University after Spinal Cord Injury

  1. Rachel, I envisage you rewriting the Handbook for Disabled Students at Sydney Uni (to give it a title in Plain English – I’m sure you could come up with a more appealing heading…) however you’d have to present the draft to the powers that be ahead of time, so they could make the necessary modifications around the campus. I wonder is there anyone on the staff who relies on a wheelchair/disabled car space/coffee shop wrangling on a daily basis? If so, and I truly doubt it, have a chat with them about how they manage. About time for some practical solutions, and onlly when people like yourself and Emily who are willing to take up the challenge instead of meekly ‘making-do’ will there be any progress. Go Girls!

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