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Coronavirus Has Exposed The Failures Of Universities To Accommodate Disabled Students

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Art by @recipesforselflove

Cambridge University made headlines last week for its decision to move its degree courses online for the forthcoming academic year, in anticipation of further disruption related to the coronavirus pandemic. It is expected that other universities will follow suit.

Such a rapid and speedy transformation to higher education will come as a surprise to the thousands of disabled and chronically ill students who have been denied online support for years. Ten years on from the Equality Act, many universities still fail in their “duty to make reasonable adjustments” for disadvantaged learners; it’s neither compulsory to provide lecture recordings or flexibility of assessment at the majority of institutions in the UK. What the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated is that universities were never unable to offer online learning to disabled and chronically ill students, but simply unwilling.

Before the pandemic, universities cited a possible decline in physical attendance as a reason not to record all lectures as standard practice. Recent studies show that this is not actually the reality; research by the University of Leeds found that attendance at unrecorded lectures was only 4.7% higher than at recorded lectures.

For able-bodied students, online material is a helpful support; but for disabled, chronically ill, and mentally unwell students it’s an essential resource. Students know that online replacements will never recreate the in-class experience. What disadvantaged students need, however, is the ability and choice to use online resources when it suits their needs. 

Sufferers of chronic illness often find that their disabilities are not accommodated; most universities claim to follow the social model of disability, which imagines that “people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference.” On this basis, businesses should alter their physical spaces and their attitudes to solve issues of accessibility, rather than placing the onus on the individual. But, universities require chronically ill students to prove the disabling effects of their conditions – with a diagnosis or a letter from a health professional – in order to access extra support during their courses. It would seem, then, that universities rely on the medical model of disability in practice – which focuses on what is “wrong” with an individual – rather than the social model.

“my university officially categorised my suspected endometriosis as a ‘mental health’ condition”

Certain groups are worse affected by this approach. Many ‘women’s issues’, from gynaecological conditions to reproductive disorders, are difficult to diagnose and are misunderstood even by medical practitioners. Endometriosis, for example, takes on average 7.5 years to diagnose. During this time period, sufferers struggle to prove their eligibility for disability benefits and support, which is compounded by employers’ misconceptions about the condition. This makes ‘reasonable adjustments’ even harder to define in a university setting. Lack of knowledge and appropriate training led my university to officially categorise my suspected endometriosis as a ‘mental health’ condition – feeding into the conflation of ‘women’s issues’ with hysteria. At a particularly low point, the examination board tried to prevent me from bringing a hot water bottle for pain relief into an exam for “health and safety” concerns. When I pointed out I was not sure if I could physically sit the exam without this measure, a staff member suggested that I consider whether I was actually well enough to be continuing with my degree.

“The marketisation of higher education. The introduction of league tables and student fees transformed universities into businesses, students into consumers, and people into numbers.”

It seems that the main issue lurking behind universities’ inflexibility and unwillingness to accommodate for disadvantaged students is the marketisation of higher education. The introduction of league tables and student fees transformed universities into businesses, students into consumers, and people into numbers. For these institutions, there is no financial incentive to accommodate for chronically ill and disabled students who are more likely to withdraw from their studies than their able-bodied peers. Provision for mental health is lacking: students are offered little pastoral care but are then penalised for their inability to engage with their course. Even academics face precarious job security, making their argument against the availability of online resources understandable, though regrettable for students.

“What was once not seen as a ‘reasonable adjustment’ for some is now an essential adjustment for all.”

While the capacity of universities to accommodate for disabled and chronically ill students with online material was always available, many didn’t through fearing financial loss. The move to online is yet another economic choice, a means of justifying extortionate fees to the international student market in particular, if educational tools are something you can only receive in person. What was once not seen as a ‘reasonable adjustment’ for some is now an essential adjustment for all. 

We don’t yet know whether universities will streamline virtual and physical learning even after the pandemic. The sad irony is that as the current move online is done at the detriment of those disabled students who cannot physically access services such as mentors or lip-readers. Unless the ensuing economic crisis radically transforms the ways in which universities operate, it is unlikely that chronically ill and disabled students will have their needs met in higher education. 

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