Access all areas? An overview of life for disabled students in HE

Why, a decade on from the Equality Act 2010, is the provision for – and attainment of – disabled students still lagging behind their non-impaired peers?

When your correspondent was at university some 30 years ago, provision for disabled peers was not exactly comprehensive. I recall great fanfare for the opening of an alarmingly raked wheelchair ramp, leading into an old building festooned with mid-corridor steps and non-automated heavy doors. A blind student being able to reserve a front row seat in a lecture theatre seemed the height of progressiveness. If that was life for the visibly disabled, how were things for those with hidden impairments? Dyslexia was the punchline to a joke and Asperger’s was… don’t know… some exotic item on the refectory menu, maybe?

So much for the dark ages.

Everything should have changed 10 years ago, when the Equality Act 2010 legislated for an era of open access education. Institutions were required by law to make “reasonable adjustments” to ensure that students with a disability, health condition or specific learning difficulty could make the most of their studies. An autistic student, for example, should have immediate access to, say, pastoral care and appropriate notice for changes in routine, while a visually-impaired student might expect a digital recorder for use in lectures, or a mobility trainer to demonstrate routes to places of study, accommodation, and so forth.

The act appeared to herald a change in attitude towards the very concept of disability.

As Disability Rights maintains, “It should be borne in mind that ‘disability’ only arises when students have to interact with inaccessible courses and education institutions. The focus should be on removing disabling barriers rather than thinking that the ‘problem’ is caused by the student’s condition.”

Disabled people often have to rely on the kindness of staff who go out of their way to provide accessibility – Chloe Tear, Scope

A full decade on from the Equality Act’s implementation, how much has changed?

Not enough, in short. While some progress has been made, figures from the Office for Students (OfS) are stark. Compared to non-disabled peers, disabled students are less likely to:

  • Complete their course
  • Gain top degree marks
  • Progress to highly skilled employment or postgraduate study

Part of the problem lies in a widespread failure to correctly implement the act, specifically the anticipatory element of the duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled students.

“By anticipatory, it means that universities and colleges should not wait until an individual disabled student approaches them before they consider how to meet the duty,” says Rundip Thind, education officer for Disability Rights UK.

“Instead they must plan ahead and anticipate the requirements of disabled students and take reasonable and proportionate steps to overcome barriers that may affect people with different kinds of disabilities.”

Which, despite OfS statistics for 2017 showing that 13.2 per cent of HE students in England report having at least one disability, is where things fall down.

“Support for disabled students tends to be more individualised and is heavily reliant on disclosure and requesting adjustments,” adds Thind.

It is a problem familiar to Clare Vale, managing director of Sign Solutions, a language and learning company specialising in support for deaf people.

“Universities sometimes only look for a solution if a deaf person approaches them,” she says.

This kind of reactive approach creates a barrier in itself. “What if a deaf person doesn’t approach them in the first place, because the university doesn’t advertise itself as being accessible?

“I want universities to not just to write an equality and diversity policy and put it in the drawer, but to actually promote the disabilities they can support. People choosing places to study can then look online and think ‘They’re all accessible, I can go where I want’.”


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Chloe Tear has first-hand experience of what can result from universities treating equality and diversity policies as a tick box exercise.

Now a community partner at the disability equality charity, Scope, the 22-year-old award-winning blogger has very recent experience of university life as a disabled student, living with Cerebral Palsy, chronic pain and Visual Cortex Disorder.

“We need to get rid of the notion that a support plan places us on a level playing field with our peers,” she says.

“These support plans can be wonderful and allow us entry to classrooms, but they don’t take into account what is going on behind the scenes. More needs to be done to understand the complexity of individual needs.”

While Tear is clear that her experiences were by no means all bad, a lot more needs to be done.

“I was always so grateful to receive PowerPoint presentations in advance, have textbooks enlarged, or get an extension for health reasons – disabled students are entitled to these adjustments, yet it’s still a novelty.

“Disabled people often have to rely on the kindness of staff who go out of their way to provide accessibility. But we can’t just rely on those few members of staff who believe in our abilities. In 2020, this needs to become the norm.”

All too often, the norm has been rather different, as a series of reports by the Disability News Service has shown. These range from a wheelchair-using student at the University of Hull forced to sit alone and desk-less at the back of a lecture theatre, to the disabled students accusing University College London of “repeatedly failing to make reasonable adjustments and overcharging them for their accessible accommodation”.

There was also the case of the University of Liverpool staff member who was told that, rather than be timetabled to lecture in fully accessible rooms, “it might be ‘reasonable’ for her to go downstairs on her bottom”.

Award-winning blogger on disability issues, Chloe Tear

Other barriers to accessibility are less prosaic. One, says Clare Vale, was the implementation of a new register for non-medical help in 2016/17.

Whereas once assessors used to help students apply for funding, it’s now “very much on the back of the student to find finance to apply for the course and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for them. The whole process really got turned on its head.”

Is putting the onus on students to source finance in danger of infringing equality legislation?

“I definitely think so,” she affirms. “A lot of deaf people have left education because of this.”

A “massive shortage” of interpreters has compounded the issue, with a change to their employment terms and conditions leading them to conclude that “they might as well go and do a doctor’s appointment and actually get paid”.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t ultimately cost universities to provide BSL interpretation and make their courses accessible to deaf students, Vale says the need for institutions to process claims from the providers, Student Finance England, is holding them back.

“I don’t think they like the admin,” she says, “which has increased even more since this register was introduced.”

And the government agency doesn’t help matters. “Student Finance England are a little bit disorganised. They have about 80 people answering one email inbox, so if you send one email you get 25 responses.”

Technology is often touted as the great leveller when it comes to education access, but there are issues here, too. Partly, that’s because of a reduction in the scope of the Disabled Students Allowances (DSAs). Earlier this month, the government announced that it will simplify the system and cap payments at £25,000.

“There has been great concern on the issue of funding to help pay the £200 contribution towards the costs of laptops recommended via DSAs,” says Rundip Thind.

“Many students who already own a laptop have been told that they are not powerful enough to run the assistive software programs that they require. So, while non-disabled students can keep using their own laptops, students with additional needs must find an extra £200 for a new laptop recommended throughs DSAs. This, unfairly, results in an additional cost for disabled students.

“Furthermore, from this September it is likely that most lectures will be online, so experiencing any delays in support such as accessible computers would put disabled students at a considerable disadvantage.”

I want universities to not just to write an equality and diversity policy and put it in the drawer, but to actually promote the disabilities they can support – Clare Vale, Sign Solutions

Thus, the Covid-19 pandemic. If shifts in employment terms, student funding and admin levels mean the last decade hasn’t seen the great leap in equality of access that many had hoped for, what has been the impact of the greatest change of all?

“Disabled people have disproportionately faced loneliness and worsening mental health,” says Chloe Tear, noting that almost two-thirds of people who have died of Coronavirus were disabled.

“And disabled students run the risk of being more isolated than ever before. Without the right care and support it will significantly impact their education, as well as their ability to socialise.”

There may, however, be a silver lining.

“With the introduction of more lectures online, this could be a welcome change for disabled students,” she adds.

“I have lost count of the amount of times that I missed a lecture or some content due to my disability. Having all the course information at your fingertips can help to eliminate the bias towards non-disabled students.

Thind agrees.

“Covid19 has stimulated fast and effective progress in universities and colleges in embracing inclusive teaching and learning practices. [They] are recognising that not only will they meet their legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010, inclusive practice will also enhance their reputation and enable more students to succeed in their studies.

“By making the learning, teaching and assessment as inclusive as possible, the need for individual intervention becomes the exception. “

For deaf students, the pandemic picture has been mixed, according to Vale.

“If lectures are going to switch online,” she says, “the only way of making them accessible is by having online interpreters. For the universities that did it right, we were able to put them in.”

Alas, not all universities offered lectures online. Instead, says Vale, “Some deaf people were unfortunately sent notes for PowerPoint presentations, which aren’t really accessible. Again, they’re paying for a course that they can’t access.”

Ten years on from the passing of the Equality Act, then, the picture is mixed. On the one hand, says Tear, “there has been an element of progress for disabled students. We have access to the DSA, despite its cuts, and there should be support at [a disabled student’s] university.

“On the other hand, there is so much left to be done. We are still far away from an ideal situation. If a disabled student hasn’t been supported throughout their education, then university can be very unattainable.”

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