The pandemic has been good for some disabled students – let’s keep it that way

Ruby Jones is VP Welfare & Diversity at the University of Exeter Students Guild

All around the country, students’ unions are starting to be asked about what they’d like to see in relation to digital teaching and learning post the pandemic.

The Office for Students’ Gravity Assist report contains interesting polling on front. It says that almost 30 per cent of students when asked would like ”no part” of their course or student experience to be delivered online.

It highlights for me the need to be careful when feeding into universities’ emerging strategies for the recovery period. Because while Covid-19 and the restrictions have been hugely harmful for many students, many of whom will want to return to an in-person delivery model for their student experience, there has actually been a major upside to the pandemic for some of the students we represent.

Ignored

Disabled students are often ignored at the best of times – and many are speaking out about the positive impact that the pandemic has had on their learning experience.

As a disabled sabbatical officer, the opportunity to work from home has been the main reason that I have been able to actually do my job. I honestly can’t imagine how I would be managing if I was going into the office every day.

The flexibility of working from home (and being able to work from my bed if I need to!) has enabled me to represent and deliver for students effectively without spending excess energy on being physically on campus every day.

Far too many people have previously been denied access to education or work due to the lack of options offered for digital engagement. As a student, I was lucky enough to be able to access recorded versions of my lectures when I wasn’t able to attend, but I know many people on different courses or at different universities who did not have this luxury.

Imagine if all the work that SUs have put in over the years to get recorded lectures put online was to suddenly snap back to the pre-pandemic status quo.

Frustrating times

One disabled student said to me that:

It’s been a good time to examine and address what made face-to-face teaching ableist, and it’s allowed us to get more learning resources or at the very least be able to request them”

…but yet at the same time it has also been “super frustrating”. Disabled students have been requesting better online accessibility and various methods of being able to work from home which were often dismissed as “impossible”. Yet then:

The pandemic happened and suddenly it was imperative”

…that these measures got put in place.

Feedback from other disabled students shows that there is a severe anxiety around whether or not these accessible methods of working from home will be abolished once life returns to “normal”.

For disabled students, “normal” often consists of constantly having to ask for reasonable adjustments, missing out on both teaching and social events due to physical inaccessibility, and just generally a feeling of separation and isolation from non-disabled students.

For me, returning to that “normal” would mean either having to significantly reduce my hours – or to stop working completely.

Of course, while digital learning and engagement should still be an integral part of SU and university access, it is important that institutions do not continue to ignore the issues faced on campus for disabled students as changes still need to happen.

But the pandemic has proved that working from home is both possible and also effective, and any organisations that fail to continue to offer substantial online access as a method of interaction after the pandemic should rightly be regarded as unlawfully ableist.

This isn’t just about disabled students either. The chaos and costs that accompany a model of delivery that requires student parents and those trying to hold down employment opportunities make the learning experience needlessly difficult.

And nor is this just about universities. SUs have learned so much during the pandemic about engaging a different set of students who might not have been at the front of the involvement queue a year ago. Do we really want to throw all of that away, and if not how can both SUs centrally and their clubs and societies retain the activities and engagement we’ve generated?

Overall, it’s crucial that when feeding in on what’s next, while we should listen to the majority that will clamour for campus life, we don’t forget the accidental gains made for those who yearn to continue to access their learning remotely.

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