Lockdown moved all teaching online, but disabled students have asked for that for years

The ease with which universities moved all resources online showed that they could do it, but just didn’t want to

Last month, as the country descended into its pre-lockdown state, universities closed, sent students home, and made all classes remote. Everything was moved online. There has been an outcry from students who feel disadvantaged by this new remote learning, as they’ve had their educational experience turned on its head.

But online learning is exactly what disabled students across the UK have been asking for for years. Students with disabilities have suffered as a result of online learning not being provided.

Some have been punished for low attendance, when they could not physically muster the strength to attend. Some have had to write essays on topics they knew nothing about, because they were bed ridden. Some have been disadvantaged by not being able to pause, slow down and replay their lectures when cognitive processing becomes too difficult for them.

This was the reality for disabled students for years, with universities denying their requests for remote learning and ignoring what they were going through without it. For the disabled students The Tab spoke to, this has been their reality for years – before a global pandemic forced universities’ hands.

‘I pushed myself to attend so much that I physically broke down. I was bedridden’

Pascale Gourlay, a Masters student at University College London, has a mobility problem caused by a spinal fracture in her back. It cannot be operated on and causes severe pain when she is sat down. Normal lecture seating is a nightmare, it gets worse by the minute until eventually her extremities just go numb. 

“For me to do lectures, in class, for a whole day long, in school seats is just agony,” Pascale told The Tab. At another university Pascale attended, for her undergraduate degree, she was provided a specialised chair which causes her less pain. She also had help from disability advisors, who would occasionally be around to help her lift or carry things and get in and out of her chair, two activities which cause her significant pain. Despite multiple requests before she even arrived at the uni, she wasn’t provided this at UCL. 

As well as this, physical attendance was key to Pascale’s course. It was monitored by an app that detects your presence on campus via Wifi. Because of this, Pascale felt forced to attend, which started to take a toll on her body. She told The Tab: “You didn’t feel like you had the option to stay at home – because your physical presence was a course requirement.”

By the end of first term, Pascale’s body started to physically break down and she became bed ridden. Because her course was largely based on group work, she required online learning to discuss and work with other students. The teachers did not provide this, and students were unwilling to participate. 

Then the pandemic happened. Pascale told The Tab that everything changed, becoming more accessible in an instant. “Everyone was then being forced to work collaboratively online in these group Microsoft Teams projects. And they were able to work fine being isolated from each other, but yet [before the pandemic] they had categorically refused to work with me in a remote manner because my health had deteriorated and I had no choice but to work remotely. That felt really, really upsetting and I felt that no one really took accountability that it caused so much damage to my academic experience.

“It was more of a mindset, the facilities were there: They had Microsoft Teams and Lecturecast and recordings of the lectures all available. Everything technologically was available and on hand to use. That’s how they were able to roll it out so quickly.”

‘You need to be healthy in order to be sick’

Pascale is not the only student who’s academic experience could have been improved had online teaching been made available to disabled students earlier. Mette Westander, who has autism and a chronic health condition, dropped out of UCL because it was failing to accommodate her disability so badly. Online learning was not an option for Mette, it was a key requirement. She fought so hard get a module she needed put online in her first year of UCL, to no avail, that come second semester she couldn’t bear to go through that fight all over again.

“There is a saying in Sweden – you need to be healthy in order to be allowed to be sick. In other words: the effort the university requires you to put in in order to get reasonable adjustments is a huge extra burden that disabled students have to deal with.”

Mette fought for these measures for so long that it caused her to drop out of UCL, and now feels disappointed that they were introduced with such ease. “I think it’s quite telling that the excuses that were used to keep from having to provide disabled students with reasonable adjustments are not mentioned: ‘it’s not reasonable for us to make this change’, ‘if we make this change to exams the results won’t reflect your competence’, ‘maybe you’d be better off taking a year out’. These excuses are no longer mentioned now that non-disabled people need the same adjustments.”

‘I had to write essays about texts I had barely been taught’

Disabled students aren’t just asking for online learning to avoid punishment for non-attendance, though. It means that students who cannot physically attend can still learn, and catch up on seminars and spoken discussion they would have otherwise missed. Amber, a Masters student at Exeter, who completed her undergraduate degree at Queen Mary University of London, has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. This means it is near impossible for her to attend all lectures and seminars within a year, due to severe fatigue and contracting secondary infections from a weakened immune system. Amber missed three weeks of her first term at uni because of multiple hospital admissions. Her lectures were online, but as she does English Literature, seminars required attendance and were not accessible online.

Amber told The Tab: The uni could have tried harder to make these seminars accessible for students, like me, who often have to miss big chunks of teaching at a time. If they did then we would at least be on a level playing field with able students, who don’t face any difficulties with attendance.” Amber said that she was often forced to write essays or exams about texts she had never been taught, because of the lack of online resources.

And even when students have their disabilities accounted for in attendance, like at Exeter, they may still end up being punished. Exeter implements an ‘Individual Learning Plan’ for each student dealing with a disability, which includes a description of that students’ individual requirements. But even then, many lecturers don’t know how to interpret these and so students are punished for lack of attendance despite the reason for this absence being listed in the notes of their ILP.

Amber explains that part of the problem is that universities let individual lecturers decided whether or not to make materials available online. “It’s been very up to individual staff whether what they teach is easy to access. So if certain staff members aren’t very computer literate and you’re disabled and can’t attend lecturers or seminars, you would just have nothing to go off.”

But now, everything is online, as lecturers are not given a preference on whether or not to provide – because everyone needs it. Amber said: “It seems like now is the awakening where universities are having to realise that they actually have to standardise these things and not just leave it up to lecturers to decide whether learning resources are available online.”

In response to this, Exeter told The Tab: “We are very sorry to hear about Amber’s experience and urge her to get in contact with our Director for Education and Student Support so that we can investigate further and provide the right help.

“The University’s way of implementing reasonable adjustments is through an Individual Learning Plan (ILP) and senior leaders within each College are responsible for ensuring that all ILPs are complied with.

“We have made good progress in recent weeks in developing online learning and support and will continue to make improvements.”

Queen Mary have been approached for comment.

‘We were given so many excuses. Now they mean nothing’

Zohar, Disabled Students’ Officer for UCL, told The Tab that the lack of online learning before the pandemic made them feel as though disabled students “should not be a part of academia at all”.

Despite this, they are hopeful that the light has been shone on shortcomings of all universities and their treatment of disabled students. Zohar said: “I feel quite energised and hopeful now, personally. Our fight to get recordings for all disabled students will be much easier with this precedent set, and I look forward to hearing happier stories from disabled students in future years.”

UCL informed The Tab they’re currently leading a group alongside members of Disability Rights UK, looking into making disabled students’ experience more equitable. They assured that UCL provides support for all disabled students in line with the Equality Act (2010).

Disabled students have had to spend time and energy fighting for adjustments that were rolled out in the pandemic with ease. It has caused them unnecessary stress, fatigue and impact on their attendance and grades as a result. While the move online was a step forward, it was too late, and for the wrong reasons. As Zohar said: “It was always clear to me that the excuses were not made because it was not possible, but rather because it was uncomfortable.”

Featured image (before edits) by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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