Students with Disabilities: Is our university doing enough?

University is considered a rite of passage where both education and self-discovery are offered; existing skills are honed, new ones are discovered, cultures meet and, in many cases, independence grows. Some students view it as a path to economic prosperity or at least a chance to set your feet firmly into the arduous job market, for others it is the natural step after high school. For many young people with disabilities the thought of higher education often brings an overwhelming feeling of fear and reluctance; not because they lack the potential, but because there is an uncertainty on their physical and mental capability to commit to it.

Many disabled people confess to having a hard time completing everyday tasks and having days where they find it impossible to get out of bed. However, education should be something accessible to anyone who seeks it; a disability is no indication of limited capabilities. Just look at the dozens of life-altering inventions, findings, and art brought to us by intellectuals living with a disability; from Stephen Hawking, Jonathan Sebastian Bach, to Van Gogh. The list goes on.  

Another great indication is the statistics published by the Office for Students website, which showed that the percentage of students without a disability who graduate with a first or upper second-class degree is only three percent higher than the one for disabled graduates, which sits at 77 percent. That alone shows that university is possible for everyone, regardless of a student’s struggles or background. 

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it is an easy process or one without its flaws.

In an interview with Rebecca Wight, co-campaign coordinator for the Disabled and Dyslexic Student Committee at the University of Sheffield and third-year English Literature student, she described a system that is adequate in its existence but still in urgent need of changes.

“Deciding to come to university was a really scary thing for me because it was like, ‘can I do something as simple as go to the shop by myself, or manage to cook a meal every day, as well as, can I actually do the degree?’

“I ended up coming to Sheffield because they do try a lot more than in other places, and I’m very grateful for that, but the support isn’t great.”

A quick visit to the University of Sheffield website indicates a range of support offered for students with disabilities. According to the site, some of the services include mobility training available for blind or partially-sighted people, copies of lecture notes given in advance or in alternative formats, support workers available for assistance during lectures and workshops, and arranging alternative methods of assessments.

The University of Sheffield is also one of the few universities that offer SAMHS (Student Access to Mental Health Support), a counseling service that offers 45-minute appointments with mental health workers. In addition, thanks to the work of the Disabled and Dyslexic Support Service (DDSS) and DSC, around the campus Quiet Rooms have been set up for overwhelmed students to take a few moments to collect themselves or as a place for them to work away from the usual loud buzz surrounding the occupied spaces. However, according to Rebecca, while all of this is pleasing, there are also fundamental flaws that require attention:“It is a constant battle for disabled students to make sure we get the support, awareness, and help that we deserve.”

The process is as follows. upon arrival at the University of Sheffield, disabled students are advised to make an appointment with the Disabled and Dyslexic Support Service, who go on to set up a learning support plan for them. This plan offers benefits such as extra time during exams, rest breaks or automatically authorised absences from seminars. The issue here lies with the fact that, just because the plan is put in place doesn’t mean it will be implemented accordingly.

“They’re trying to improve that system but a lot of different departments don’t take it seriously. Sometimes your support plan doesn’t feed through exactly well.” said Rebecca.

For example, it would be week six and my seminar tutors will have no idea about my situation.”

Some services provided to all students can also be a vital tool for disabled students. So, when they are disregarded by professors it can have a detrimental effect on their progress as students. An obvious example is the Encore Lecture Capture service that enables any lecture to be recorded and uploaded to the University’s website for students to listen back to. Some use it strictly for revising, but others rely on it to catch up when personal issues prevent them from attending their lectures. There are, of course, professors who argue the system allows students to fall into a lazy and irresponsible routine. However, that argument falls flat in the face of inclusivity.

A similar case is the students’ ability to apply for an essay extension. This particular service is offered to all students going through difficulties or unexpected changes. It is also quite controversial as there are times where the applicant will not find out whether their request was accepted until after the deadline has passed. The waiting can bring a lot of stress and anxiety for any student who applies due to serious family issues, and mental health or disability emergencies. This thought alone can prevent many young disabled people from applying for higher education; knowing that their University won’t provide them support but additional stress to their already strenuous situation.

Sama Ansari Pour, a second-year Journalism student with Multiple Hereditary Exostoses, described her experience with the university support system as ‘disgusting’.

 “I was crying and calling my mum and she said call the university and ask for support, so I did,” Sama said.

She had contacted the University trying to set up a care plan as her condition was getting worse, appointments with hospitals kept taking up more and more days while coursework seemed to be piling up.

She added: “They already had evidence of my disability. I tried to go last year, but it was so difficult because I have days where I can’t get out of bed. So I was like I’m a really urgent case, I need help now. And they said, ‘oh we only have one person who works with that I’m afraid.’ Like, aren’t you the Disability Service? Isn’t it your job?

“I ended up with an appointment for a month later. I’ve waited less for my appointments at Northern General.”

When confronted with these claims, the University highlighted that a recent DDSS survey revealed a 90 per cent satisfaction rate with the service, going on to say: “While DDSS is not an emergency service, we encourage students to attend the weekly drop-ins available or contact the reception team if they have any concerns. Feedback from our students is very important in making sure we’re meeting their needs and expectations and will always be welcomed.”

There is also the problem that specific groups of disabled students are not considered as much as others when developing the support system. Recently, the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) published an article which said that deaf children are half as likely to go to a Russell Group university than their hearing schoolmates. This existing lack of services deters children from reaching their full potential as well as securing a future in a world where university degrees are crucial in obtaining even the smallest roles in companies.

Last July, Susan Daniels, Chief executive at NDCS, urged Russell Group universities to “get a grip on this problem”.

In the end, higher education is not an easy experience. There are endless hours of studying involved, families take out loans and students travel hundreds of miles away from home to get to the school that will give them their best chance. When so much is already sacrificed, the system should aim to make it easier for those that have additional struggles to think of. Just as improving the quality of education is preached by many, inclusivity should also be considered a top priority.

In Adam Braun’s words: “we have every resource necessary to provide access to education for every child on the planet; we just need to commit to enabling it.”

Published at Forge Press:

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