Everyone should be able to access their graduation

Meg Darroch is Academic Experience Officer at Leeds Beckett SU

I am a late diagnosed autistic woman and have a speech impairment.

Even though my needs are complex – and I struggle with things that others don’t – being an officer has been an incredible experience.

I have made a difference both in my remit and in the wider SU. I also graduated in 2021 with a first-class degree – but I had to wait until July 2022 for my official ceremony when I managed to fully celebrate my day in a way that worked for me.

Imagine you have just finished your undergraduate degree in social work, or your master’s in marketing. Gaining a graduate job is definitely at the forefront of your mind, but the celebration with family and friends is the icing on the cake after 1-4 years of hard work.

But then imagine that after all that determination and hard work, you don’t have the opportunity to access your graduation ceremony. How disappointed would you be?

What should be feelings of celebration would quickly turn into isolation and frustration – especially when you have worked your socks off to achieve those grades and have family who are expecting a ceremony.

A final barrier

This, sadly, is the reality every year for thousands of Disabled students whose needs are frequently overlooked. There have been endless reports of venues inaccessible to wheelchair users, issues surrounding sensory overload, and failures to put in the sort of adjustments that blind or deaf students get in lectures for them or their friends and family.

As the sector expands, the need to process thousands of graduations on a single day often exacerbates barriers or creates new ones that were never anticipated (despite the legal duty being, literally, to anticipate them).

And if we put disability aside many graduans miss out due to work commitments, many have moved back home or and costs mean they cannot attend.

That’s why I’m calling on all higher education providers to listen to the voices of students, and ensure that everyone can celebrate in whatever that means for them and ensure that students have their time to shine.

For me, that means adopting these options:

1. Making adjustments

The first option would be to make the adjustments to the core experience that are necessary – both in terms of inclusivity by design (4,000 people in one venue on one day with fireworks and a lack of Disabled parking generates problems that it was surely possible to anticipate) and in terms of explaining to Disabled students what the ceremony will be like and allowing them to raise concerns.

Those in providers that design reasonable adjustment plans should be involved in planning – as should Disabled students themselves – and universities should be confident that external suppliers of gowning, catering and photography understand the needs that Disabled students have too. Talking to other Disabled student leaders around the UK, it’s clear that many don’t.

2. Small is beautiful

Adjustments might not be possible in all cases – so in addition, providers could consider running smaller graduation ceremonies for neurodivergent students and others who may not otherwise attend.

That would mean that all students can celebrate the day without it being rushed, and would ensure that everyone gets the chance to go across the stage and be proud of their achievements.

There are trade-offs here. Not getting to graduate with others from your course and being put into a “neurodivergents” or “Disableds” ceremony would be hugely problematic for some who have already likely spent their student career being separated off from peers.

It might be that some courses are separated off for smaller ceremonies in general – it’s the friends and family that matter. Ideally, of course, all graduation ceremonies would just be smaller.

Why should a student have to pay the price for their university being large? And when it comes to the regs on who should speak and so on, we can probably cope without having a speech from the VC or the Chancellor. It’s our friends and family that count.

3. Just like the real thing

When I graduated the lights were dimmed, I went into the side door of the arena where my ceremony was held, and I got what I would call a VIP experience.

I would also happily have attended a smaller ceremony – ideally with my non-Disabled classmates – had that been available.

But if not, and for whatever reason these things aren’t all possible, there is a third option. Universities seem to obsess over the legal paraphernalia of the ceremony – but as I said, what really matters is the friends and family, the gowning, the glass of fizz and the photo.

If the official ceremony can’t be adjusted, support for a simulation that includes the ingredients above would be welcomed both by those who face barriers due to their Disability, and others who can’t make the main ceremony on the day that it is held for whatever reason.

Overall, the academic experience for many Disabled students is a catalogue of having to battle the system to get adjustments – yet when we get to graduation, the irony is often that there’s one last set of battles just to be allowed to leave.

It really should be the least that universities can do to ensure that the pattern of discrimination faced by Disabled students is interrupted for that final day.

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