Disabled and chronically ill students feeling forgotten

Lauren Gilbert is Disability Officer at Newcastle University Students Union

As a young, undiagnosed autistic girl with a love for Physics, I dreamt of the day I would finally be able to go to university, meet like-minded people and study a subject I was passionate about.

I researched courses at Oxbridge, planned out how I would progress to PhD level, and aspired to one day be conducting my own research and writing papers.

Around 10 years and 5 disabilities later, the dreams of little eleven-year-old me could not be further from coming true – and this is partly due to higher education itself presenting a variety of barriers.

I’m in the final year of my Physics with Astrophysics degree at Newcastle University and am also the Disability Officer at our SU. The past 2 or 3 years have certainly had their ups and downs as all university experiences do, however, I feel like mine has had more “downs” than the typical student due to being multiply disabled.

The best years of your life?

Throughout my teen years, adults had always told me that your university years are the best years of your life, but all I’ve found is how inaccessible and sometimes traumatic higher education can be for those of us who are disabled, neurodivergent, or chronically ill.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m lucky in that the disability support offered by student wellbeing at Newcastle has been some of the best I’ve seen, however, universities have a long way to go to make the experience enjoyable and equitable for all students.

As highlighted in Disabled Students Commission’s report last academic year, the disabled student experience is not a homogenous one. But one thing many could agree on was having to repeatedly explain to staff your requirements and feeling pressure to “prove” your disability each time made disabled students feel ostracised and “othered”.

Treating people with kindness

One of the largest issues I and other students across the UK have encountered are the attitudes that some academic teaching staff have towards disability and disability support. Whether it’s being refused accommodations, or not being treated with kindness, it is clear that a lot of staff do not have a certain level of understanding around disability.

Personally, I have had many experiences with staff which has left me feeling unwelcome and undeserving of support, and often academics don’t even read the Student Support Plan which details my needs. The latter though may be partly due to staff being overworked and underpaid, so likely don’t have the time or energy.

This lack of understanding around disability not only affects our academic outcomes but also makes us feel that we are not worthy of being at university. It is essential that all student-facing staff are educated about disability and chronic illness, the barriers we face and small adjustments that can make a world of difference so that we can effectively engage with our degree programmes.

Otherwise, there will continue to be a large portion of disabled people who cannot access university, or like myself will not have had the best experience of higher education and now be suffering physically and mentally as a result.

Online provisions beyond lockdown

In the aftermath of the Covid-19 lockdowns, universities also need to ensure that there is suitable provision for students to study remotely if needs be. Many of us may have to shield ourselves at times and be unable to attend lectures, our disability/illness may vary day to day, or the campus itself may be inaccessible due to broken/lack of lifts and other reasons.

If universities can ensure that all lectures are recorded and uploaded online with accurate captions, this would make a huge difference for those of us who often can’t attend through no fault of our own.

I myself have had a member of academic staff inform us that they “don’t care” if we are ill, as “being ill is no excuse to miss a session” and it’s “tough” if we do. Disabled, neurodivergent and chronically ill students are entitled to the same standard of learning as our non-disabled peers and changing attitudes around attendance and making sure that we have options so that we won’t unfairly miss out is essential.

Socials should be fun and inclusive

One of the largest components of university life is the social aspect, however this can also be inaccessible to disabled students. Typically, university students may be associated with drinking copious amounts of alcohol and going out clubbing every day of the week, and whilst many disabled/chronically ill students might enjoy this, many of us physically can’t.

I personally can’t drink alcohol and find clubs inaccessible due to mobility reasons and also being too overwhelming. It can be disappointing to come to university hoping to make friends and find that most activities within societies are centred around drinking and going out, and accessibility isn’t taken into account.

Some SUs have a “Sober Social” society, and other societies may have activities that do not involve drinking, but accessibility is almost always an afterthought. Firstly, what if we don’t want to join a specifically “sober” society, we just want to participate alongside our peers, without being made to feel any different or isolated.

As a bare minimum, societies need to be trained on how socials and events can be tailored to disabled students. If we start having these conversations around accessibility, people often find that it’s really easy to be accessible, and often providing adjustments actually benefits everyone.

Why do I have to self-advocate?

There are plenty of other barriers and issues that disabled, neurodivergent and chronically ill students may face, and conversations around these issues need to be initiated so that improvements can be made. It is great that universities like mine have disability teams which are caring and supportive, but these teams cannot actually help students with aspects of learning, if (for example) academic staff are inconsiderate or simply do not have any knowledge about disabilities.

There is a disconnect between the empathetic support given by specialised support services and that of professional service staff and academics.

As Disability Officer, I hope I can use the full scope of my role as a volunteer to improve the university experience for disabled students at Newcastle, but real change will require a national effort and a shift of perspective that centres disabled people in discussions around our own education.

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