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Disabled Students struggled to find support through pandemic

a male student in a wheelchair
a male student in a wheelchair Image credit:

A study of 69 UK universities and higher education providers shows there was little support provided for disabled students throughout the pandemic.

Only 23.1 per cent of disabled students had the help they needed, but for many they felt they had been “alienated”, “forgotten” and “left behind” by their university staff.

There is pressure for universities to provide more sufficient teaching skills for those who require extra support.

One student said: “There shouldn’t have had to be a pandemic to make things accessible.”

When teaching moved to online and new exam formats were introduced there is significant evidence changes did not take disabled students into consideration.

Research by Disabled Students UK from 326 students across 69 universities between February and April 2021 showed 41 percent faced difficulty with their uni work, from this group half said their concerns had not been addressed a year into the pandemic.

A total of 57.2 percent of disabled students considered leaving university, moving to part-time studies or interrupting their studies because of the lack of support available to them throughout the pandemic.

Some 43 percent told the Higher Education Policy Institute they had contemplated leaving their course.

One student forced to isolate in her halls received “no support, no help and no information”. They added: “It was only when students came back in September that they put up signs and hand sanitiser. I’ve felt alone and forgotten.”

Another student said: “I have felt left behind, as if I am a spare part in the university and alienated from my studies, with my ability to participate and study being second place.”

Finding support was a challenge and for some only those who persevered found the help they needed.

One student had to contact their university “about five times to get support put in place, despite me speaking to them several times and sending them my medical evidence.

“It only got put in place because my course leader emailed the disability team herself.”

Despite providing proof of their disability to their universities 28 percent had to show further evidence before they could receive extra support and 63 per cent said the process finding the help they needed was a slow process or put on hold.

Mette Westander, founder of Disabled Students UK, said the research painted a “nuanced picture” of people’s experiences.

“Most of the benefits that have happened have come from universities making accommodations for all students – this has accidentally been beneficial for disabled students,” said Westander.

“These changes weren’t targeted at them, but they have been disproportionately advantaged by it. However at the same time when it comes to supporting disabled students directly during this time, they have been forgotten about.”

Jess O’Thomson, 23, a law student and disability activist at the University of Cambridge, said the changes to the education system “happened overnight”.

“The pandemic forced people to try and do things differently,” she told The Independent “The exam formats suddenly became a lot more flexible, for example. But a lot of the concern for disabled students right now is that things will go back to how everything was like before.”

The study also found 84.5 percent of disabled students would prefer to continue to work online or have distance teaching.

O’Thomson said the pandemic caused additional problems for students with conditions such as ADHD who struggled with new working environments and not being able to go to a coffee shop or the library.

To find out how to apply for a Disabled Students’ Allowance visit the website.