Only a third of disabled postgraduate doctoral students receive the support they need to study on an equal footing with their non-disabled colleagues, new research has revealed.
The report also found that nearly nine in 10 (86 per cent) of the disabled students surveyed said that conducting their PhD research had negatively impacted their mental health.
The research* – which included a UK-wide survey of 192 doctoral students – focused on disabled PhD students in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
The report, Improving the Experience of Disabled PhD students in STEM, was written by Disabled Students UK – which is run by current and former disabled students – and Pete Quinn Consulting.
It suggests seven ways that support for disabled PhD students could be improved, including addressing gaps in support; reducing the “administrative burden” associated with securing support; and improving safeguards to prevent the relationship between disabled PhD students and their supervisors deteriorating.
The survey results showed that those who found the administrative process of setting up support “quick and easy” were 4.5 times more likely to say they had the support they needed, compared to students who had not found it quick and easy.
And PhD students whose supervisors were “accepting and supportive” of their impairments were more than 12 times more likely to secure the support they needed, although 38 per cent of those surveyed said their supervisors were not well-equipped to support them.
The report also calls for universities to make the physical and sensory environments on campuses more accessible, with students with mobility impairments the least likely to have a sense of belonging at their institution.
And it calls for disabled PhD students to be allowed to study “at a pace that suits different bodies and minds”, as they are more likely to drop out than other PhD students.
One disabled PhD student told the researchers: “Disability services staff were very kind and wanted to help, but just had no experience supporting PhD students, especially those working in labs.
“I went to them because long hours working at an inappropriately positioned microscope was exacerbating my chronic pain and making it very difficult to work, and initially all they could offer me was ‘extra time in exams, and permission to record lectures’.
“Both of these accommodations are useless because as a PhD student I don’t have lectures or exams.
“It felt like they had no idea how to support anyone that wasn’t doing an undergraduate degree.
“After a few months, they lent me an ergonomic mouse, which has been some help.”
Some PhD students spoke of having to prove they were disabled before their university would provide them with the reasonable adjustments they needed.
One said: “The biggest change would be to believe and accept students’ disabilities even if they don’t have a formal diagnosis or documentation.
“This would involve adjusting the process for requesting accommodations and making it more accessible to those who do not yet have formal documentation.
“I struggled severely for the first two years of my degree due to health issues and lack of accommodations, but I did not have the required medical diagnosis documentation to be able to submit the online form and begin the accommodations process.”
Another said: “Until I filled in this questionnaire, it never occurred to me that I could complain about the lack of support [my university] offered.
“I’d told them I was on a waiting list of [autism] assessment, but there was no support available without a diagnosis, and the waiting list was 18 months long, so it’s been a bit of a surf-through-hell-on-a-chocolate-board really.”
Other disabled doctoral students highlighted the need for better funding for university disability services departments.
One said: “Fund the disability services so they are no longer so horrendously overworked that it takes months for them to reply to their emails.”
Another told the researchers: “Employ more people in the disability offices so students don’t have to wait for months after they start to get the reasonable adjustments they need and are entitled to from day one.”
The research found that those disabled students who felt they had somewhere to turn with disability-related issues were 3.7 times more likely to feel they belonged at the institution than those who did not.
And more than half of those surveyed (53 per cent) reported being concerned about how they were going to meet their financial commitments.
The report also stresses the need to ensure that international disabled PhD students are aware they have the same right to support as students from the UK, and that doctoral students know they have a right to the same level of support as taught disabled students, whether it is funded by disabled students’ allowance or by their institution.
Disabled students often take longer to complete study tasks, have less time and are in a financially difficult position, but the report’s authors said they “were concerned to see that funders often have policies which make it impossible for disabled students to get extensions, take sick leave or reduce their work hours without a loss of funds”.
They conclude: “Our report consistently shows the importance of allocation of responsibility, communication and collaboration within and between the bodies responsible for accessibility for doctoral students.”
But they add: “Throughout this work we found numerous examples that whether accommodations were put in place was largely down to whether disability was prioritised to the same degree as other protected characteristics.
“Senior leaders must take responsibility and listen to the data and lived experience expertise to create lasting change.”
*The research was funded by the Oxford Interdisciplinary Bioscience Doctoral Training Partnership, a four-year graduate training programme funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
Picture: Felicity McKee, a PhD student and one of the report’s authors, from Disabled Students UK
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