For disabled students, access to content isn’t enough

Like many first-year undergrads, I didn’t really expect our first year of university to be quite like this.

While we didn’t know what to expect at all, a nationwide lockdown definitely didn’t come into the agenda.

As universities battle with the logistical nightmare of socially distanced campuses and what the hell a “blended” system of learning even means, disabled students are not only having to worry about how to access their education – in fact for many, including myself, this isn’t even the first of our worries.

The return to “normal”

The fact that we have been in lockdown for so long now – and for many students with disabilities it may have been a lot longer than the average – this lifestyle has become their normal.

Will disabled students who present anxiety around changes to their routine, or being in spaces they are unfamiliar with feel comfortable with the new arrangements and are they even being consulted about what they need?

For shielding students, returning to campus may be the first time they have experienced standing in a queue that is socially distanced or come into contact with people wearing masks.

Universities are going to have to support students in a way they have never thought about before, introducing students to a completely different campus to the one they were used to.

Just getting to campus

It’s not just about what’s on campus either, it’s about getting there. Despite local residents of many university cities insisting that students are the issue with their local parking nightmares, the majority of students rely on already stretched bus services to get around.

For disabled students, not just those with mobility related disabilities either, just getting the bus is going to present a whole host of new fears and challenges.

Many student bus routes are already unreliable, late and overcrowded. Imagine trying to implement social distancing, slashing capacity by over half in an attempt to keep people safe.

Suddenly just “hopping on the bus” to campus comes with enhanced anxiety about missing your very limited contact hours, or potentially contracting the virus as distancing measures relax.

Even timetable changes in order to accommodate an increased service load could be a potential stressor for students with disabilities, who could have caught the same bus to campus every day for their entire time as a student.

Will my DSA support be enough?

Every student who currently receives DSA support was assessed during a pre-COVID world. Where lectures were delivered in lecture halls (and probably not recorded), where the bus service was running at normal and everyone was on campus.

Is the government going to provide reassessment for every DSA recipient to gauge whether their needs have changed in the “blended learning” environment? Is anyone’s DSA funding going to be fit for purpose.

What about students who thought they could get by without a DSA provided laptop and printer, because they had access to library space on campus? What about students who receive face to face educational support, and find it difficult to transfer this to a virtual provision, because they cannot express themselves via email, or don’t like answering the phone and using video calls?

Disabled students not having the correct tools and support around them to even access their online learning is going to be critical moving forward, and how are the government, nor the universities going to understand this if they are not being consulted, or even thinking about this?

The role of the SU

The comments made by the government about SUs and their “niche activism” will only cause more concern for disabled students, who reach to students’ unions in their institutions for much of their advocacy.

Can an SU Education Officer lobbying the university for online learning that supports students with disabilities really be classed as niche campaigning? Is this going to lead to students with disabilities not being supported because they don’t have anyone to advocate for them if the SU voice is silenced?

Disability imposter syndrome

Many students without visible disabilities often struggle with the idea that they are not “disabled enough” because you can’t physically see that they are struggling. Anxiety is often a common companion to other conditions but can be just as debilitating on its own. Are students going to be empowered enough to self-advocate for what they need and deserve?

Unless they are specifically reached out to by those that are employed to support them, there will be disabled students that will just struggle in silence. They’ll feel they’re not disabled enough to be affected by these changes to learning – that everyone is struggling as much as they are or that they simply don’t want to make a fuss or are too embarrassed to state that they are struggling.

For most people, stating your flaws and weaknesses is challenging and for disabled students it can be degrading. Pouring your deepest issues to someone you barely even know and don’t know whether they’re actually going to help you is challenging.

The denial through the NSS that student satisfaction is not affected by Covid-19 is only going to perpetuate this feeling as well, as the “research” seems to suggest that the problem lies at your individual door, and not with the sector as a whole.

Advocacy going forward

It is paramount that SUs reach out to their disabled students through groups and forums to understand the impact that Covid-19 has had on their learning thus far, and tailor the support given to disabled students to their particular needs.

Students may have put up with a difficult situation last semester as we all understood the challenges of going online overnight.

However, with the months of planning, trailing and consultation institutions should and could be doing before September, disabled students will expect to be properly advocated for – and not just in the classroom, or the online learning space.

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