MPs and peers have been told of the “heart-breaking” discrimination faced by disabled students in universities across the country, and how this has grown even worse during the pandemic.
Disabled students lined up to deliver testimony about their experiences of discrimination, and those of their peers, both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They were speaking at an online meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for disability on access to higher education for disabled people.
One disabled student described his ordeal at Glasgow University (pictured), which has seen him repeatedly denied access to reasonable adjustments during his five years of study.
Law student Gary Copland, who is blind and autistic, was provided with just one of 600 texts he needed to read in his first year in an accessible digitised format, and in the second year just four texts out of 500.
He told the meeting: “It has been a really, really difficult experience and I cannot express how awful it has been.”
His uncle, Simon Harding, a professor in criminology at the University of West London, said: “Just about everything bad you can imagine has occurred to this particular student.
“His experience at the University of Glasgow has been beyond anything that I thought was even possible in the UK in the 21st century.”
Some of the most troubling evidence of discrimination was presented to the meeting by Disabled Students UK (DSUK), a network of disabled students from more than 30 UK universities.
Phen Woolley-Gale, a member of the senior leadership team at DSUK, said the pandemic had “caused an already bad situation to become acute”.
The process of securing reasonable adjustments had already been one of the “biggest barriers” facing disabled students, she said, with the process usually involving “severe delays with an arduous administrative burden imposed on the student”.
She said: “Naturally such obstacles have even more severe effects in a crisis.
“Universities transitioned to distance learning several months ago yet many of our members still have no new reasonable adjustments in place to make this new way of learning accessible.”
She also said that the complaints process was usually inaccessible to disabled students.
Professor Harding told the meeting that his nephew’s requests for reasonable adjustments were “either not provided, poorly provided, or given to him off the peg and were not suitable or were simply taken away”.
When he was invited to a law fair, Copland collected leaflets from law firms that were there to recruit students, but the university then refused to digitise them, so he was unable to apply for any jobs.
His family even had to resort to using the Data Protection Act to retrieve the leaflets.
They also used the act to find out what staff thought of Copland, and discovered that university staff had “criticised him for being disabled [and] criticised him for refusing or being unable to walk down stairs”.
The family have so far raised 31 complaints, of which 21 are being dealt with by an ombudsman.
Harding said: “We have had bullying, we have had victimisation, direct, indirect discrimination, all of this due to a lack of care, a lack of interest, a lack of training among the staff.
“Micro-bullying and a level of impact which has just been absolutely overwhelming.
“The entire family are under medical supervision as a result of this ongoing for five years.”
Copland added: “My university experience has just been absolutely awful right from the get-go.
“I have just had problem after problem, from getting access to reading materials to allow me to study the course, to the exams not going properly, IT problems, and just the overwhelming volume of communication.”
He has had to deal with more than 9,000 emails and letters from the university as he has tried to secure the adjustments he needs, the meeting heard.
Concerns in the meeting were also raised about the delays experienced by disabled students seeking support through disabled students’ allowance (DSA) – non-means-tested grants that help with a student’s extra disability-related costs – which has been subject to years of government cuts and reforms.
Rhys Jupiter Brown, disabled students’ officer at Birkbeck, University of London, said he and many of his fellow disabled students applied for DSA in July and did not receive their assistive technology equipment until mid-October.
He said: “In light of the importance of technology with the COVID crisis coming up, it is going to be incredibly important that disabled students have access to the necessary technology to be actually able to complete their degree, and if we don’t have that sorted out we may see a massive spike in drop-outs of disabled students.”
Individual universities also faced criticism during the meeting.
Jess O’Brien, who was Cambridge University Students’ Union’s disabled students’ officer until March, said she was “appalled” that it was one of the richest universities in the world and yet had shown “complete unwillingness to invest in accessibility for students”.
Another disabled student said she and her peers had “campaigned really hard” for their university to make its communications more accessible, so that visually-impaired students could access content posted online.
But the university refused to make the changes, saying that such access improvements were not “on brand”.
Paddy Crosby, from DSUK, said their university had refused to motorise the doors of its main building.
They said: “They have known for years of this problem and their answer has explicitly been to our disabled students’ officer: ‘We haven’t got the money.’”
Crosby added: “I don’t buy the case that universities will come round and do what they can and do the right thing because Gary’s case has demonstrated that universities will fight tooth and nail to not do things.”
Crosby’s comments were supported by Dr Nasser Siabi, chief executive of the assistive technology company Microlink.
He had earlier told the meeting: “Universities manage several hundreds of millions of pounds of budget.
“The cost of looking after disabled students probably doesn’t come to a couple of million pounds.”
Dr Siabi said it made economic sense for universities to spend a small amount of money to retain disabled students – rather than allowing them to drop out – and ensure they were employable, which would make their university attractive to other students.
He said: “The economic argument to the vice-chancellors is to get their priorities right.
“They are actually talking about pennies that they don’t have and yet they are wasting pounds by not doing the right thing.”
Over the last year, Disability News Service (DNS) has reported allegations of discrimination made by disabled students at a string of universities.
In January, DNS reported how University College London was facing claims of “institutional failings”, after an investigation by its Disabled Students’ Network accused it of repeatedly failing to make reasonable adjustments for its disabled students and overcharging them for their accessible accommodation.
In February, DNS reported how a disabled student at the University of Hull had been left “isolated” and “segregated” by the failure to make her lectures accessible to her.
Last September, an autistic medical student accused her university of discrimination that could end her career before it had started, after she was prevented from starting the fifth and final year of her degree at the University of Leeds.
And last June, DNS reported how disabled students at London South Bank University were taking legal action against their university over claims of disability discrimination, claiming the way they had been treated was “immoral and amoral”.
DSUK said it was speaking to disabled students who experienced similar discrimination to Copland’s every week, and that these cases were “heart-breaking”.
It has produced a report on the impact of the pandemic on disabled students, which concludes: “Disabled students’ need for support has increased during the pandemic while disabled students’ support from DSA and universities has decreased.”
The report says some disabled students are reporting delays in accessing disability support as administrators have been furloughed, redirected to other tasks, or made redundant.
Others say their complaints of being denied reasonable adjustments have been put on hold by their university and regarded as “non-essential”, while many disabled students say staff have been impossible to reach, have failed to send them information about the support available, or have been “unsure of what support is available when asked”.
Despite universities being forced to provide their services to students online during the pandemic crisis, some have failed to make this accessible to many of their disabled students, says the report.
An informal survey by DSUK found most disabled students said their education had become less accessible during the pandemic.
Cat Turhan, from the Russell Group of 24 leading universities, including Oxford, Glasgow and Cambridge, told the meeting: “Our universities have been working really hard to support students through the crisis, by moving provision online, offering one-to-one support, waiving accommodation fees and ramping up the financial support available.”
The disabled peer and former Labour home secretary Lord [David] Blunkett, who is one of three co-chairs of an inquiry into the experiences of disabled students, launched by the independent Higher Education Commission last July, also spoke at the meeting.
He said many disabled students still faced a challenge in accessing the materials they needed for their courses despite the “massive” changes in the use of the internet over the last 20 years.
Speaking before any of the disabled students had given their evidence, Lord Blunkett said there had been “substantial change, there has been a greater degree of awareness, thank goodness, but there is an enormous amount to be done”.
A spokesperson for Cambridge University told DNS after the meeting that it “works continuously to improve access for students, and continues to invest in creating an inclusive environment”.
But he accepted that the process for making reasonable adjustments for disabled students was “inconsistent” and that the university was “working on the development of new online training for teaching staff to ensure they are equipped to support disabled students”.
He said: “The university’s success in attracting applications from disabled students and admitting them in ever larger numbers has placed existing support systems under some strain, however there is much work under way to address these issues.
“In 2008 there were 600 disabled students studying at Cambridge (four per cent of the student population), in 2020 this figure is 3,600 (17 per cent of the student population and above the national average in higher education).”
The university’s Disability Resource Centre offers face-to-face and online training on teaching disabled students.
But he said: “It is important that this activity can be expanded to a wider audience.
“In addition, projects such as lecture capture [so they can be viewed remotely] and online exams are already benefiting students.
“However, we need to ensure that these developments will work effectively when operated at scale, and this consequently will take some time.”
Asked to comment on Copland’s case, a spokesperson for Glasgow University said that it was “committed to promoting and implementing equality of opportunity in the learning, teaching, research and working environment” and that students could “draw on the expertise of our disability advisers and IT professionals, along with a team of dedicated support workers”.
She said: “We are able to and do make bespoke adjustments to both teaching and assessments with the needs of our students in mind.”
She said the university’s Disability Service and disability co-ordinators provide “a dedicated service” for disabled students, “assessing and putting in place appropriate provision to assist with their learning”.
She said: “We have endeavoured to share reading materials with the student in question in an accessible format as soon as is practicable before each class.
“It has not always been possible to achieve this four weeks in advance, but we have done all that we can to be supportive, including using an external transcription service.
“In addition, lecturers have provided guidance on the order in which reading materials should be tackled for each class and for each written assignment.
“The student has had assistance from a team of support workers and we have periodically reviewed his needs and have drawn on professional advice from our own disability staff, from IT experts and from an objective adviser from another Russell Group university.
“We put in place special arrangements to cover examinations and are open, and always have been open, to any other requests or requirements.
“Academic and service staff have gone to considerable lengths to facilitate this student’s learning, as we would for any student who requires additional support.”
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