I dropped out of uni because it wasn’t accessible enough for disabled students
Mette suffers from autism and fatigue, and became so desperate with her uni’s unwillingness to help that she left
A disabled student has left UCL after feeling like her university couldn’t give her the help she needed for her disability.
Mette Westander suffers from autism and fatigue and had become increasingly unable to physically attend lectures, so asked her uni to give her lecture recordings and a quiet space to go to make this easier.
However, she found her uni unhelpful and was even told “strictly speaking there isn’t a need for it”.
Feeling desperate at having to push for the things she needed to cope with her disability at uni, Mette dropped out, telling the uni “I have decided to drop out of the MSc due to the university’s attitude towards disability”.
Mette first became ill six years ago, but doctors didn’t believe her, telling her she wasn’t really disabled. Eventually, she was diagnosed with fatigue and autism.
Her autism means she needs a quiet place to go between lectures because she finds it hard to spend time in noisy environments. Her fatigue meant she was increasingly unable to physically attend lectures and instead needs lecture recordings as an alternative.
After finishing an undergrad at Oxford, Mette came to UCL to study an MSc in Cognitive and Decision Sciences. She chose UCL because, as a university which marketed itself as open and progressive, she thought would get better support.
Because of her fatigue, Mette is a part time student, unable to manage more than three days a week in uni. “Trying to force myself to go into campus four days a week really hurt my health,” she says.
A flare-up of her condition followed – joint problems, fatigue, and cognitive problems – which in turn made it harder to work. “I just couldn’t make it into campus because I was too unwell,” says Mette. She missed exams and labs, and had to get extenuating circumstances.
“If I’d simply been allowed to limit myself to the number of hours I knew that I could do on campus and do the rest via lecture recordings, I know that I could have done that just fine.”
Universities are required by the Equality Act to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled students. UCL’s own guidelines say “UCL must make reasonable adjustments to learning, teaching and assessment to support students with a disability or other ongoing medical or mental health condition”.
Mette asked for lecture recordings so she could arrange her timetable to allow her to come into uni for three, rather than four days. She says this was a reasonable adjustment which would have allowed her to cope better with her fatigue. This is where she ran into problems.
Her personal tutor had said this would be a good solution. In October, Mette emailed the lecturer who taught the module she was trying to get lecture recordings for. He had no problem in principle but didn’t offer a way to sort the recordings out.
A few days later, Mette emailed a member of staff who dealt with the course. This teaching administrator didn’t address the issue of lecture recordings at first, then said Mette could record the lectures herself, and directed her to the course administrator.
Mette told her “my ability to take in information deteriorates as the day goes on and if I still keep pushing through I am forced to spend the next day in bed recovering.”
The teaching administrator replied bringing up UCL’s 70 per cent attendance requirement, saying recordings would “significantly affect your learning on the module”.
The teaching administrator continued: “You would have known the timetable from the beginning of term when you first selected modules and started attending, so in your 2nd year I would strongly recommend really considering your module choices if you feel you may have a day which is too packed and may affect your medical condition.”
Instead, Mette was offered a different adjustment – moving a lecture from Monday to Thursday to make it easier. However, Mette says this wasn’t a reasonable adjustment as it wasn’t one she could fulfil.
When Mette pushed back, another reply said: “strictly speaking there isn’t a need for it in this case.”
From this exchange, Mette felt like she was being told she “didn’t really need the adjustment I was asking for”.
“This attitude of saying no to adjustments as a first step and only if students complain, if they try to push it through, can something happen is so harmful,” Mette told The Tab.
“The only reason I was denied lecture recordings was that they had this instinct of saying no. There wasn’t any other reason to not give it to me.”
When Mette emailed the course administrator after this, he did manage to get the recordings put in place quickly.
But the barriers Mette was facing at UCL were familiar to her. “Disabled people in general encounter along that attitude of, you’re not really sick or you’re not really disabled, you don’t really need what you’re asking for. It’s such a harmful attitude.”
Although she didn’t experience explicit discrimination, the process of getting help wore her down. “The problem for the vast majority of disabled students is delays and barriers which discourage people from chasing up and stop them seeking help,” she says.
Mette’s autism meant she also needed a quiet place to sit between lectures, in order to get away from noisy environments. UCL do have a space like this, but Mette says: “I wasn’t even informed that such a place existed, even though I complained about needing a quiet place to sit.”
Instead, Mette was given the option to book a room to go between lectures. She was grateful, but found the solution makeshift and not guaranteed. “I ended up spending time between lectures in the bathroom,” she says.
At the end of November, Mette sent an email to two UCL staff who deal with disability. “I am afraid I am strongly considering leaving my course due to insufficient support for my disability here at UCL,” she wrote.
Detailing the problems she had so far, Mette asked for the adjustments she needed to be put in place again next term – lecture recordings for her new modules next term, a quiet place to go between lectures, and a mentor who would check in once a week.
“If you can help me resolve these issues within 2 weeks I may be able to remain on the course,” she wrote. “Otherwise I hope for the sake of the rest of the disabled students in this institution that you learn from my experience.”
During this time, Mette was also involved with work as part of UCL’s Disabled Students’ Network, putting together a report which accused UCL of institutional ableism and of consistently failing its disabled students.
Eventually, Mette says “it was clear to me that on a wider scale UCL wasn’t about to change.”
“I went back and forth in my head for a very long time. As a disabled person, you’re not unaccustomed to being devalued.” But “it was explicit at UCL in ways I haven’t encountered before.”
That, coupled with the prospect of fighting for adjustments again – like trying to get lecture recordings put in place all over again for new modules next term – and “being told that the extent of my disability wasn’t what I said that it was,” led Mette to decide to drop out.
On 14th January, Mette emailed her course contact, saying: “I have decided to drop out of the MSc due to the university’s attitude towards disability. Please could you advise me on how to do this?”
In the end, Mette took a year out with no intention of coming back – she was told there was no downside to doing this rather than dropping out straight away.
Now, Mette is putting her time into the Disabled Students’ Network. “I’m actually working on it full time now. I’m doing more than I should, maybe, trying to help different disabled students,” she says.
“I don’t think that anyone at UCL – or very few people at UCL – hate disabled people, it’s not that,” says Mette. “But it is this general attitude of, if you can’t do a certain thing, then maybe you shouldn’t be here.”
Before starting the Master’s, she wanted to do a PhD and become a researcher. “However now I’ve spent a significant amount of money on an education that wasn’t accessible to me. So the next steps for me are unclear.”
“In the far off possibility that they transformed their disability support system within a year, I may return,” says Mette.
“The fact that it’s on all of us,” she says, “has just been really heartbreaking”.
A UCL spokesperson said” “We are sorry to hear about this student’s account of her time at UCL and that she has chosen to discontinue her studies. We cannot comment on individual cases. But we would like to stress that a range of support and practical measures were put in place to ensure that the student was able to continue her studies and that her needs were met. We have invited the student to come and meet the Heads of Department so we can understand what more the university could have done.
“We are committed to fostering a welcoming and caring environment for all of our students. Ensuring excellent student experience and academic outcomes for all disabled students is an absolute priority for us. UCL provides support for all disabled students in line with the Equality Act (2010).
“We have been working with the Disabled Student Network and the Student Union Welfare Officer to make sure their concerns are addressed that barriers to success are removed and the best possible support is place.
“A group, led by Pro-Vice-Provost for Student Experience Professor Deborah Gill, is currently developing an action plan to ensure UCL has appropriate policies, practices and resources meets its requirements to accommodate and support students with a range of disabilities to ensure a more equitable student experience.”