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Chronically Studying

By Merel (she/her)

Merel is 20 years old living in the Netherlands. She has gastroparesis among other things for which she has a feeding tube. She studied physics at the Open University.

Instagram @merel_muller

Education when being chronically ill and/or disabled is challenging and my educational journey has been far from normal. During high school I missed a lot of school due to my health and eventually had to drop out without a diploma.

However, I had a strong will to learn and a thirst for knowledge. This is how I found the Open University. After a bit of hesitation, I applied for my first module. The first year went really well and I even upped my workload to full time study.

My second year I started off strong fulltime but I got sick every so often causing me to fall behind. Halfway through the year we - my parents and I - doubted my ability to pass my modules. But I made it through the year. Distance learning made this possible.

I found that distance learning was the good choice for me in my current situation. Being able to study from anywhere and watch tutorials/lectures at my own time / because they’re all recorded, helped to work around my health issues and hospital appointments. I made it through two years with the Open University with amazing grades despite all the issues. Distance learning turned out to be the best choice for me due to the flexibility it offers.

I did wonder what it would be like to study with other people at a ‘brick’ uni because I missed being able to talk with others about my subject. So I applied to several universities with my grades from the Open University and got in to three out of five of my UCAS choices and one university in the Netherlands. The plan was to go to either the University of Exeter or Durham University in September 2023.

However, last year my health took a turn for the worse. I went from studying full time to not being able to study any modules at all. I tried to study a 30 credits module and held onto it for the entire academic year and deferred the others. I failed that module.

I studied in hospital beds, hospital waiting rooms and at home in my bed and on the couch. I was determined to study and pass the one module I had left. However, I only got sicker during the second half of the year and found it impossible to study. Admitting that to myself was one of the hardest things I have had to do. Admitting that studying, doing the thing I love, was not possible right now was hard. It made me question my future and I wondered what I would do now. My plans for the future had vanished now that I wasn’t going to be moving to the UK for my studies in the upcoming year.

For a while, I was too ill to really care. I was fighting for my health and fighting to live my life. That was more important than anything else.

But now that my health is sort of stable wanting to study hits me again. It’s the thirst for knowledge that is so strong that keeps drawing me back in for more. I’m sure those of us who’ve found their subject also know this feeling.

So now, summer 2023 I’m looking at my next module(s). I know that I will not be able to study fulltime but want to take on a module again. I have hit the books again at times I feel sort of okay – even during my almost four week long hospital admission last month – and enjoyed working and reading through them.

After hesitation and a lot of careful consideration, I did sign up for one module with plans – if this goes well – to take up a second one in February. It feels like a big step back from what I used to do, but I am happy to at least be able to study something. It is scary knowing that it might not work out and I’m trying not to think about that too much. I have hope that it will go well.

Education with a chronic illness or disability is definitely a challenge but there are possibilities. I’m grateful for The Open University and the opportunity to study they have given me.


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