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Disabled students are being let down by universities

Under the Equality Act universities have a legal duty to remove barriers faced in education due to disability (Picture: Getty/Metro.co.uk)

Every student deserves the right to accessible and fair higher education, but not all students receive it.

A survey of disabled students across the UK found that only 23% had received the support they needed at university.

The research by Disabled Students UK looked at the experiences of 329 students and concluded that ‘failure to provide access for disabled students is a widespread issue.’

Chelsea Sowden, 24, a social media officer from North Yorkshire, experienced difficulties during her time at university. She has multiple chronic illnesses, including chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia with joint hypermobility, PTSD, and lasting mobility issues.

‘I had classes that were scheduled to be in buildings that weren’t accessible, so I couldn’t attend them,’ Chelsea tells Metro.co.uk.

‘The university did not record our lectures. They didn’t have the facilities in place to do it, and implementing it wasn’t a priority for them.’

But problems also arose outside of her educational setting.

‘My main issue was with accommodation. Because of my accessibility needs, there was only one residence that I could realistically live in, and it was the most expensive,’ she explains.

‘It cost almost twice as much as the cheapest accommodation at uni. But there was no financial support to help me pay for this because I had the maximum maintenance loan.’

Chelsea is standing in front of a brick wall, smiling at the camera.  She is wearing a black top and has red hair.

Chelsea has multiple chronic illnesses and experienced difficulties during her time at university (Picture: Chelsea Sowden)

While the loan did cover it, Chelsea had hardly any money left after paying her rent.

‘When it came to Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA), I had quite a few issues as well,’ she says.

‘One of the recommendations was to get me a custom-made computer chair, and despite both myself and my university chasing this up, it was never delivered.

‘It meant that I had to work from my bed, as the standard chair that came with my room caused issues with my hips and didn’t support my back.

‘I also had trouble accessing the library.’

Fixing the problem

After experiencing many hurdles, Chelsea decided to get involved with disability rights work at her student Union.

‘In my first year, I got involved by helping the disability and accessibility officer and then was successfully elected into the position in my second year,’ she says.

‘There were a lot of inconsistencies in how disabled students were treated at my university depending on which department they were in, and it meant that attainment and retention rates varied enormously by course and department.

‘Some students had elements of their access statements ignored by their course teams and struggled as a result of this.’

Chelsea is now working with universities to look at the available accommodation options and the support they can provide disabled students.

‘Ableism in education is rife,’ she says. ‘Universities need to stop assuming that the onus lies with DSA and course teams to make and enact adjustments.

‘They need to take a holistic approach that covers each aspect of student life and higher education to ensure that disabled students are getting fair treatment and the education they deserve.’

Amanda Jayne O’Hare, 34, struggled to get help from her disability support teams at university and felt she had to jump through ‘many hurdles’ to get the adjustments she needed.

The freelance writer from Aberdeen, who is autistic and has ADHD and PTSD, was told to go through the support process.

‘But they gave me such a long list of things I needed to do, that I mentally checked out,’ she says.

After speaking with her academic tutors, Amanda was told she ‘just needed to try harder.’

‘I internalized that and pushed myself to the point of burnout,’ she says.

‘In the end, I decided to quit.’


The legal requirements

The Disability Discrimination Act, passed in 1995, makes it illegal for colleges and university institutions to discriminate against someone because they are disabled.

Under the Equality Act 2010, universities and educational providers have a legal duty to remove barriers faced in education due to disability. They are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled students.

These adjustments help ensure disabled students get the same access to education as everyone else. They can include getting notes and lectures in advance, accessing alternative formats of lectures or course material, one-to-one support, BSL interpreters and accessible rooms.

While anyone can ask for adjustments, in order to have legal rights to reasonable adjustments, you will need to be defined as ‘disabled’ under the Equality Act 2010. This will consider how your condition affects you rather than what your condition is.

While the term ‘reasonable’ is not defined under the Equality Act, factors that are likely to be considered involve the effects of the impairment, the time it takes to carry out disability activities, and how the may impact how activities are carried out.

How can students get help?

Christopher McFarland, associate solicitor at Sinclairs Law, specializes in higher education cases and has brought several successful appeals against universities.

‘While it can be a very challenging thing to talk about, for students who have experienced disability discrimination, the most important thing to do is raise it,’ explains Christopher.

‘Each university in the UK is required to have complaints procedures. They will also have a disability services department that should help you if you’ve run into difficulty. And, you have student unions as well.

‘If students have looked at those avenues and they’ve not been successful, or they feel they haven’t received the right guidance, they can take a solicitor’s advice because we know the law, and we’ll help them through those processes if needed.’

While Christopher acknowledges that legal support can be costly, there may be legal aid providers out there to assist. Equally, your local citizen’s advice bureau may be able to help.

‘Direct discrimination can be harder to prove without evidence. So, for example, if someone has used a slur, you’ll need witness statements from those who heard it or any recordings you may have.

‘Obviously, if you are in a one-on-one environment, it can be complicated to provide. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still raise a complaint.’

For other elements of discrimination regarding reasonable adjustments, Christopher says that getting evidence is much easier. As long as you know what you’re doing.

Access adjustments

‘There are three elements or forms of reasonable adjustments,’ Christopher explains.

‘There are adjustments to policies, physical aids such as ramps, and auxiliary aids which can include things like note-takers.’

While there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to reasonable adjustments or discrimination, Christopher stresses that there is support and help out there.

The decision on whether your request is deemed ‘reasonable’ will depend upon what you need, the difference it will make, the extent to which the disadvantage could be overcome, the costs involved, practicality and the interests of other students.

‘The first step a student should take is to try and informally resolve the problem with their department,’ Christopher says. ‘They should do so via email, so there is a paper trail.

‘Again, if they are contacting disability services, students should put everything in an email, so there is evidence of correspondence.’

In order to have their needs met, students will need to submit an extenuating circumstances application to explain why they weren’t able to do their coursework, for example. Then there is a reasonable adjustment application to try and alter the assessment.

‘If you conclude the internal procedures, which are always a good starting point, then you will have the opportunity to go through the student complaint scheme, which the Office of the Independent Adjudicator currently operates, and they can consider the situation as well.

‘So there are multiple avenues that students can explore.’

can you get legal assistance?

If all other options have been tried to no avail, then reaching out to a solicitor may be the best solution.

‘Our applications go through the complaints procedures, the extenuating circumstances, procedures, or the appeal procedures,’ Christopher explains. ‘If those avenues have been exhausted, then we will escalate matters through a letter before claim, which seeks to engage the university in more direct discussions.’

The final option will be to go to court. ‘We’ve taken cases all the way to court and succeeded,’ Christopher says. Claims for disability discrimination are brought in the County Court and must be brought within six months of the last act of discrimination.

However, a massive problem that students regularly run into is the time frame of these procedures.

‘They can often take multiple weeks, sometimes multiple months to resolve,’ says Christopher. ‘Exam periods come around very quickly. And academic years are not particularly long. So it can be a bit concerning.’

When it comes to improvements that universities can make, Christopher says that universities should stop paying lip service to disability and mental health support and actually start doing it.

‘Universities across the UK have lovely statements on their website and aspirational policies regarding student support,’ he says.

‘But in my experience, as soon as you have something slightly out of the norm, you hit resistance fairly early, and the university can be very difficult to engage with.

‘The practice doesn’t necessarily live up to the policy. Universities have a lot of policies, but they’re so procedure-driven that they can be quite useless to the people experiencing those difficulties.’

Christopher notes that there seems to be a lack of compassion within the system.

‘It really needs to change, but it’s systemic,’ he says.

‘If you’re severely depressed, how are you going to have the ability to find the procedures and make adjustment requests?

‘It’s very challenging for individuals. Unfortunately, there can be a real lack of compassion for those who have struggled to notify the university [of their circumstance] at the earliest opportunity.’

However, Christopher says there were some improvements during Covid as many universities amended their procedures so students could self-certify their situation and needs and give their medical evidence at a later stage.

‘This is a much more intuitive system than having a proactive system where people such as those in a mental health crisis, are expected to go down to their local psychiatrist/GP to get a letter,’ explains Christopher.

‘But unfortunately, this system is no longer in place. Ultimately, streamlining these processes will help the people most in need.’

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Get in touch by emailing MetroLifestyleTeam@Metro.co.uk.

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