Disabled students are people, not problems – HE conference

Universities should see disabled students and staff as individuals rather than as problems to solve, a conference on the priorities for supporting disabled students in higher education heard.

Lawyer Christopher McFarland told the event organised by Westminster Higher Education Forum on Friday 24 February that instead of treating disabled students by virtue of their diagnoses, the UK Equality Act calls on organisations to start by addressing the substantial disadvantage caused by their disability.

Many students find the system “overly procedural and bureaucratic” and it relies on students coming forward to provide evidence of their disability before they receive necessary support, which many students find daunting.

“The process can be intimidating,” said McFarland, director of SinclairsLaw, a claimant-facing law firm specialising in supporting students who have run into difficulties with their universities.

“There are barriers to disclosure and worries about stigma,” he said, adding that while universities usually had standardised procedures for giving extra time to students with dyslexia and more common-place disabilities, they often struggle with more bespoke arrangements, such as the exam format.

He suggested that the way for education institutions to show they are genuinely considering requests is to “focus on the person in front of you, and not simply their diagnosis” and accept that it isn’t always easy for students to get medically diagnosed themselves.

Landmark court case

McFarland highlighted the case of Natasha Abrahart and the University of Bristol which received a lot of media coverage last year.

The university was ordered to pay £50,000 (US$60,000) in damages to the parents of a vulnerable student who took her own life after a senior judge ruled in May 2022 that the university had discriminated against her.

The Guardian said the landmark case had deep implications for other higher education institutions after the parents successfully sued the University of Bristol under the Equality Act.

The newspaper reported that Abrahart (20), a physics undergraduate who suffered from severe social anxiety, died a day before she was due to give a “terrifying” oral exam in front of teachers and fellow students.

Referring to the judgment, McFarland said it was not the obligation of the student to identify adjustments required. “It was up to the university to identify them.”

McFarland told the Westminster Higher Education Forum event focusing on improving the disabled student experience that “while it’s a matter of courtesy to ask a student what adjustments they may require, it’s important to realise that students may not know what is available or what they need”.

“You cannot say you complied with those duties if those difficulties persist. You need to review and reconsider those adjustments if the substantial disadvantage continues.”

McFarland said it was important to note that the University of Bristol has applied for permission to appeal, and it is for the High Court to decide, “and it will be interesting to see if this appeal will be heard”.

The university has already had one attempt to quash the original judgment rejected, as the Bristol Post reported in October 2022.

Beyond a diagnosis-driven approach

McFarland also reminded universities that not everyone can access detailed assessments (of their disability) and he told universities: “It is difficult enough for anyone to see a GP and mental health waiting lists are even longer than most. So, consider doing the assessment yourself if you have an education psychologist on the team.”

“Just because two students have the same diagnosis doesn’t mean the two students have the same impairment. So, look at the student before you and not the diagnosis and tailor your adjustments accordingly and ensure there is at least a review once a year,” he said.

The conference also heard from Dr Sarah Hopp, student disability and neurodiversity manager at City, University London, who has introduced some major changes since being appointed to the position six months ago.

“We’ve gone from a diagnosis- and systems-driven support service to one where personal narrative and relationships based on empathy and trust are at the centre of what we do,” she said.

Teams have been created to coordinate the support offered to disabled students and specialist staff have been appointed. By simplifying access to support services and using just one email address, the number of student ‘declarations ’ has risen from 250 in the last academic year to over 1,000 declarations in just one term, she said.

Professor Claire Turner, pro vice-chancellor for education at Brunel University London, told delegates to the forum that one of the main issues they faced was the initial ‘disclosure’ of a disability and suggested that the wording should be changed to ‘share’ to sound less threatening.

“We have a really low disclosure or sharing rate for people with a disability. That’s especially true of international students and this is going to impact on their experience with us if we don’t know about their disability,” she said.

“Even when they share their experiences, a third of students don’t seek support,” she added, warning that “a lot of the complaints from students were from students with a disability because we are not meeting their needs”.

Turner said there needed to be a “shift in mindset” and suggested that “mandatory training” should take place to increase awareness, accepting that staff were already overwhelmed with work.

She also suggested that “issues around inclusivity should be essential before a new programme is signed off” and that went beyond just considering disabled students.

Thinking ahead

Amelia McLoughlan, network director of Disabled Students UK, welcomed the renewed focus on the Equality Act and other public sector duties, especially the “anticipatory duty” on universities “to think ahead about these things”.

She said it “shouldn’t be a case of students having to declare or share their disability before any adjustments can be considered”, saying that in 2023 organisations shouldn’t be putting up buildings that are not accessible. “You shouldn’t need students like myself to rock up to university and say: ‘Hi, I’m physically disabled and I can’t get up the stairs’,” she told delegates.

McLoughlan told the conference she had just taken part in a higher education forum in Ireland which adopted the United Nations’ convention on the rights of disabled people, and said it “changes the conversation about what is possible when you adopt a more human rights approach, but it needs political backing, which is lacking here”.

She also reminded delegates that there were a lot of disabled staff who didn’t declare their disabilities and said it was important to “normalise disability as part of the academic community” rather than see disability as something that needs fixing.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.