It’s the beginning of a new academic year and for students starting back or returning to university or college, COVID-19 makes this a start like no other. In this guest post, regular contributor and recent graduate Serena shares what she wished she’d known when starting university as a disabled student.
Last year the Disabled Students Network at my alma mater, UCL, published a ground-breaking report into the treatment of disabled students at the university. It was a horrifying read in general and I was angry to find out how the university had failed disabled students in their care. But it was the section on universities’ legal responsibilities for disabled students that surprised me the most.
Under UK law, higher education institutions (including universities) are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure that disabled students aren’t at a substantial disadvantage to their non-disabled peers. Any failure to carry out these responsibilities could constitute discrimination.
As well as this, universities are expected to be anticipatory in their duty towards disabled students. This means that they must provide reasonable adjustments even if they’re not aware of any specific disabled students who might benefit from them – and also that if a student makes the university aware of their disability, it should be offering them adjustments without them having to request any. Universities are also responsible for providing non-medical support roles (e.g. note-taker or scribes) and ensuring that disabled students aren’t forced to pay extra to live in accommodation that meets their access requirements.
Reading the report, it astounded me that there was so much I hadn’t even known about my own rights as a disabled student until several months after graduating. I had my own negative experiences, with access requirements taking a lot of mental energy to arrange (if they were ever arranged at all), and in several cases I’d given up on using the official channels, relying instead on work-arounds to make the student experience more suitable for me. But at no point had I considered the university was legally obligated to help me, or that their inaction meant they were breaking the law.
Thanks to COVID-19, the process that young people starting university this month will go through is drastically different from the freshers’ period I experienced only a few years ago. However, disabled students’ rights shouldn’t be pushed to one side in the attempts to adapt to a new normal. A lot of other disabled students and graduates have drawn attention to the years they spent being refused reasonable adjustments that would have drastically improved their quality of life, on the grounds that they would be impossible to put in place – only to find the very same adjustments being implemented overnight now that they’re of use to non-disabled students during the pandemic.
I experienced an instance of this when I was left with no way of catching up on material after missing a lecture due to a particularly bad tic day. I questioned why my note-taker was prohibited from attending my lecture if I wasn’t there due to my disability and I was told that it would be unfair to non-disabled students who didn’t get the same treatment when they were ill or absent – with no acknowledgement of the false equivalence between non-disabled students being sick occasionally and disabled students dealing with chronic, long-term impairments that impacted their ability to attend lectures. This lecture wasn’t recorded (“it’s just not possible, it’s too time-consuming, we haven’t set up the recording equipment”) and I was left with a sparse set of PowerPoint slides as my only source of information for that week. I know plenty of other disabled students who have experienced similar and were disadvantaged by the university’s lack of flexibility when they needed it. Now, however, during COVID times streaming and recording lectures has suddenly become the norm with no worries about it being too difficult or costly.
Sure, it feels like a kick in the face to the people who fought for these adjustments for so long, but the battle isn’t over. As the pandemic (hopefully) draws to a close over the upcoming academic year, there’s every chance that universities will attempt to roll back the changes they’ve made. We cannot let this happen. There cannot be a return to lecture theatres accessible only via a staircase, to cramped seating that triggers tics and sensory issues, to lecturers refusing to record lectures or provide copies of their notes before the session (because apparently their academic ego is more important than educating disabled students).
Things are changing in academic spheres and while the universities are legally required to ensure that disabled people aren’t left behind, sadly I’m sure it will be up to us to hold them to their promises.
If you’re a disabled student, know your rights and be prepared to fight for them. And if you’re not a disabled student, be a good ally and take on some of that work anyway. Don’t be afraid to set up meetings, kick up a fuss and make those positive changes.
I agree with Serena – knowing your rights is a good way to prepare for the new term. It’s often assumed that as disabled people, we automatically know what our access requirements are. In reality, they tend to emerge through trial and error and through experiencing good support. For example it was only on using the accessible lavatory at another disabled-led organisation, where space had been cleared and marked out next to the toilet that helped me realise I could side transfer onto the loo instead of the complicated, energy consuming processes I’d been using for years.
University is an opportunity to try out different approaches to see if they work for you. Having your access requirements met is not an extra, or an act of kindness from your institution but a legal obligation that helps equalise access to education. If you need support to think through what you require, most universities and colleges will have a disability support officer. Making initial contact can feel daunting, but for me, it was the support of this team that helped me thrive.