Disability Resource Centre ‘at breaking point’ according to Cambridge SU report

The report finds that the university falls below official government guidance on services for disabled students


A Cambridge Students’ Union report has suggested that the “current burden on the Disability Resource Centre (DRC) has stretched it to breaking point”, with the ratio of disability adviser to disabled student at over three times the recommended rate. 

The DRC exists to provide support services for current and prospective disabled students, as well as for staff supporting them. These services include the provision of study aids, the creation of student support documents (SSDs), and meetings with professional disability advisors.  

The 2019/20 Disabled Students’ Officer Jess O’Brien, who authored the report, suggests that issues with the DRC stem from the fact the DRC is “understaffed, under-resourced, and underfunded.” 

The report, which will be released online this week, found that the university falls below official government guidance on services for disabled students. The Higher Education Funding Council for England’s official guidance on baseline provision for disability services in higher education recommends a ratio of disability adviser to disabled student of one to 200. At present, the DRC’s ratio is one disability advisor to 738 disabled students. 

A graph of the number of disabled students over time

The number of disabled students almost tripled between 2008/9 and 2018/19, but the report claims that there was not a proportional increase in funding. (Source: DRC Annual Reports)

 

To achieve the recommended level of support for disabled students, the DRC should have 16 full-time advisors. The 2018-19 DRC report suggests they have the equivalent of 4.42 full-time roles. 

The DSC report reveals that in 2018-19 the DRC put in a request for four additional members of staff, yet received funding for none, in spite of a 15 per cent annual increase in disabled students. 

In response to the report, a university spokesperson said: “The small sample of anecdotal accounts in this report do not broadly reflect the balance of comments which the DRC receives via its own substantial student survey; which whilst reflecting some of the acknowledged issues regarding response and waiting times, also contains many accounts of the positive experiences students have of support from the DRC (which are in the majority).”

According to the same spokesperson, since the DSC report, the DRC has recruited two new Assistant Disability Advisers and is working with both the university and colleges to further develop an approach to support disabled students across the collegiate university. However, this has since been disputed by the Cambridge SU. 

The SU told The Cambridge Tab: “As the two new posts were filled internally and new recruitment frozen, and the number of disabled students has continued to rise, the ratio of disabled students to DRC advisors remains at approximately 700:1. There was a university project to simplify DRC paperwork and free up staff that way, but due to lack of resources, it has been delayed and will not be implemented in time for the 2021-22 cohort. Nothing has materially improved since this report was written, despite assurances to the contrary.”

The report claims that the underfunding of the DRC has increased communication delays and waiting times for appointments.

A student's email to the DRC

One student was told that the earliest possible appointment was in three months’ time. The student emailed the DRC in early November 2019. [Source: Cambridge Students’ Union report]

Jess O’Brien reported receiving messages from students who had to wait several weeks for the DRC to reply to emails and, in some cases, received no response. One student wrote that they had finished their course before the DRC got back to them. Last year, the DRC reported that the average email response time was four to six weeks, while students also reported long waiting times. A student who emailed the DRC in early November 2019 was told that the earliest appointment was in three months’ time.

Students reported having to wait up to a year to get SSDs circulated and for disability provisions, such as recorded lectures, to be implemented. One student had to wait seven months for a braille embosser and was forced to braille by hand in the interim.

The report has found that problems with the DRC are dissuading students from using the service. One student said: “I’ve been put off seeking help from the DRC, because of the wait times and because of anecdotal experience from friends dealing with these issues at the moment. I also had a friend (who’s got experience with getting help from the DRC) advise me to circumvent the DRC if possible because the waiting times are so bad.”

Camfess post

Some students report positive experiences of the DRC. One Camfess post described the DRC as a “lifesaver”. [Source: Camfess]

According to the SU report, “the only solution is to increase funding for the DRC, and this is long overdue”. 

The 2020/21 Disabled Students’ Officer, Rensa Gaunt, commented: “The results of this report are no surprise to disabled students, as they describe years’ worth of under-resourcing. The University is failing in its legal duty to provide disabled students with access in anticipation of them needing it, not months, years or several intermissions later.

“The university has known about the findings of this report for many months now and I am appalled that no urgent action is being taken.” 

The report can be found, here.

Update – 20th December: The university has since responded to a request for comment in response to the SU’s claims. A university spokesperson said: “The DRC has added two new posts in the last 12 months, recruited for and filled these new posts. Despite the impact on the capacity of the service from current government Covid-19 restrictions and associated staff absences, the DRC has delivered 35% more non-medical help (such as mentoring and study skills) to disabled students than in the same period in the previous year.

“The DRC continues to work hard to ensure students are able to access support.”


Featured image credit: Rebecca Heath

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