This article is more than 4 years old

How can disabled students hold universities to account on access?

The case of the disabled student made to sit in the lobby of a lecture theatre has been over the news. Mette Westander thinks through how disabled students can hold unis to account
This article is more than 4 years old

Mette Anwar-Westander is the founding director at Disabled Students UK

Imagine being told that you cannot apply for any form of examination adjustment when you have cancer and are undergoing chemotherapy.

Or imagine being charged more than your peers for your accommodation because you happen to be disabled.

Or imagine – as has been widely reported – being repeatedly made to sit in the stairwell of your lecture and regularly being left with no option but to sit in corners, by entrances, or without a desk to make notes.

In January my university’s Disabled Students Network (DSN), of which I am a member, released a report based on the testimonies of disabled students detailing the ways in which disabled students are denied equal access to education. Our testimonies – stories that are reflected at universities across the UK – show that the sector is failing to inform students of their right to relevant reasonable adjustments, and when students ask for them, they are often denied without legal grounds.

Even when support is there, it is sometimes provided in such a way that puts the student at a “significant disadvantage”. This could look like a 2-month delay to support at the start of their course or the student having to “chase after” support by email each week.

Poor adherence to the 2010 Equality Act in relation to disability is reported at a variety of universities as well as by a number of national reports. This trend has caused the Higher Education Commission to hold an inquiry into disabled students’ experiences in higher education, the results of which will be released in May.

Increased oversight

As the evidence mounts there has been talk of increased oversight – the Higher Education commission went so far as to describe 2020 as a “momentous year for legislation protecting the rights of disabled students”. Disabled students will welcome this change – a decade of universities failing to follow the 2010 Equality Act has demonstrated a need for greater oversight. The Office for Students, which determines if universities are able to charge fees up to £9,250, does not investigate universities’ disability services or disabled students’ experiences.

Instead it asks that universities state how they plan to reduce the difference between outcomes gaps – between disabled students and nondisabled students entering the university, continuing with their studies and performing in their degrees. But what if disabled students struggle on and achieve in an unlawful environment? To my knowledge there is no evidence that “outcomes” measurements reflect to which degree a particular university provides disabled students with reasonable adjustment.

It is also not just about funding. Without oversight, the incentive for universities to invest in equality can easily be trumped by other interests. For instance, in 2016 new Disabled Students Allowance regulations meant that universities were given additional legal responsibilities, including the responsibility to not charge disabled students more if they needed accessible accommodation. And yet four years on many universities are showing no awareness of this aspect of the law, and some direct students to “hardship funds” instead.

Holding universities accountable

One way to increase oversight is to tie universities’ funding and permission to charge students high fees to the implementation of practices designed to enable the university to follow the law. Our report suggests a great number of useful practices, but I want to focus on those practices which empower students to hold their universities accountable to the law. There are currently a number of barriers which prevent disabled students who are experiencing discrimination from calling out their universities.

Information about rights and adjustments

Most of the students who tell me about their issues have no idea that what they are experiencing may be classed as discrimination. Neither do most staff members who discriminate.

OfS, OIA, universities and the government need to understand that It is impossible to speak up for your rights when you do not know your rights. When a university fails to proactively inform students about the existence of specific services and the right to access them, the university is making it very difficult for itself to be informed about the ways in which it is not acting in keeping with the law. Even if the student is directly asked if their rights are being respected, students cannot give an informed answer.

This barrier is compounded when staff who deliver disability services or who evaluate complaints are not aware of disability law. In such cases staff will fail to inform students or misinform the students about their rights.

Whenever I would bring up my situation to my examinations officer he would advise me to either drop out or simply get on with it.”

Reasonable adjustments and raising issues

Universities are consistently failing to provide students with reasonable adjustments. When this happens, the student who is affected (and thus would be ideally suited to complain), often is so disadvantaged that they do not have the time or energy to advocate for themselves or others.

[my lack of support] is directly negatively impacting my ability to keep up with assignments, homework, studying”

This barrier is further compounded when students are not actively supported in raising complaints. Even when there is an SU Disabled Students’ Officer, in all but one university this person is a full-time student. I have yet to hear of a case where a university employs an advocate with knowledge of disability rights. This is partly due to the assumption that the disability services department has the role of helping a disabled student resolve any accessibility dispute. This is not only incorrect but results in a conflict of interest in those cases where the disability services themselves are the target of the complaint.

OfS, OIA, universities and the government need to understand that even when students know their rights, they need qualified independent advocacy.

Internal accountability and oversight

At most universities disability inclusion is handled separately by estates, academic departments, the disability services department etc, with little coordination or oversight by upper management. This causes problems for students in raising complaints. If your supervisor is uninformed about disability law and denies you adjustments, ideally there should be someone above them who you can speak to.

But if the structures of accountability are unclear and there is no group with ultimate responsibility for making sure that each body is acting in accordance with disability law, making it more likely your complaint will be ignored.

[the disability services] did not respond to my complaints for the bullying that I was receiving since 2017 until I met one of the mental health managers in December 2019”

OfS, OIA, universities and the government need to understand that without internal accountability discrimination will not be addressed.


The consequence of these barriers is that many disabled students end up dropping out without ever having made a formal complaint. If a disabled student falls at university, they make no sound.

There are a number of practices that could be implemented to address these barriers. These would be a good start:

  • There should be a centralised body with close ties to upper management which has the ultimate responsibility for building accessibility into all aspects of the university. This body should hold disability services, academic departments, estates etc accountable and be an accessible point of escalation for any disabled student who feels that their disability rights have not been respected.
  • There should be an annual review of universities’ disability approach based on disabled students’ experiences. This review must extend beyond asking if disabled students achieved the same degree outcomes as nondisabled students to instead focus on whether disabled students are being provided with equal access.
  • Information regarding disability support at university and disabled students’ rights must continually be provided to all disabled students, whether they have declared a disability or not. At every level of the disability services and complaints hierarchies, staff must be trained. This includes obligatory training for academic staff such as lecturers and supervisors.

Disabled students are being accepted into universities and asked to pay the same fees as non-disabled students, and yet universities are failing to make the education accessible to us. The suggestions I have put forward as to how students can hold universities accountable are only a part of the puzzle. Others have suggested measures such as using external rather than internal complaints procedures.

The discussion about which legislative changes to make will continue. Given the mounting evidence what is undeniable is that more oversight is needed to safeguard my right to education and that of my disabled peers.

3 responses to “How can disabled students hold universities to account on access?

  1. Articles like this have appeared previously on WONKHE. What needs to be borne in mind is the escalation in the number of students presenting with disabilities, driven overwhelmingly by mental health conditions and special learning needs. The proportion of students with a disability has doubled in under a decade with a more than 5-fold increase in long-term mental health. Higher Education Institutions are in fact responding to disabilities as never before – in many respects taking on the role of the NHS in organising or even funding assessments for such things as ADHD and substituting for CAMHS – services for which there are long wait times (by the time a student is seen, their degree programme can be almost over).

    The author is absolutely correct to set out the entitlements of disabled students although the examples given emphasise mobility-related and visible disabilities (for example, adapted accommodation needs). Likewise the commentary about information and complaint handling is perfectly reasonable.But this does not present a complete picture of the challenges universities face which includes picking up after other UK health services. There is not space here to go over the changes to the funding of disabled students that have aggravated many difficulties. But consider one example: the entitlement to specialist adviser support for special learning needs funded by DSA. The student is allocated the cheapest provider which is often not the University service. If the 3rd party provider is unreliable or uncommunicative, the link between study accommodations and advice/support is broken and more often than not the student receives only a fraction of the hours their support plan says they need.

    If you go to the OfS website you will find a lot of good-sounding commitments to supporting disabled students and holding Universities to account &c &c. But OfS has zero control of how other government departments operate (including disability funding) and zero influence over the NHS. It effectively asks universities to fly a plane without wings or a propeller.

  2. Everything in Disability Services started failing students the moment the Tory party took reign and we saw millions of cuts. But as far back as 2015 my student with chronic illness like kidney dialysis experienced severe discrimination because her kidney dialysis was 3x a week she asked the lecturers by her third year if they would just think about ensuring her 2 lectures and 1 seminar per week be organised for the mornings of Wednesday or on Tuesdays/Thursdays because she was so exhausted after dialysis she couldn’t focus from the severe fatigue after dialysis and was told no- but that’s not the worst part – the worst part is the automated emails continuously telling her she was going to fail or be kicked out constantly weekly and the university didn’t care. We now have ableists in Disability services because they’re pushing all ppl with lived experiences of disability out. It’s scandalous and shocking but unsurprising especially when only 4% of university lecturers identify as disabled – because of the absolute fear of discrimination amongst peers and their managers.

  3. BMJ have just published the following article: “Overstretched NHS services are sending suicidal students back to universities for help”


    “As the student population grows, and larger numbers seek help for more complex mental disorders, many universities are stepping in to fill a gap in NHS care and are employing mental health nurses, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, and specialist GPs, prompting concerns about the emergence of a parallel health service and the duty of care and the carriage of risk that go with it.”

    “Dominique Thompson, a former GP and an expert adviser on student mental health, says that universities are stepping in not out of choice but because overstretched NHS services are discharging students back into their care. It is not uncommon for accident and emergency (A&E) departments to send suicidal or self harming students back to their university without any further communication.”

    “Although things are improving, Thompson believes it is imperative that the NHS joins in the conversation. “There is definitely an attitude where NHS colleagues say to students: ‘Just go to your university. They will provide, whether it’s counselling, therapy, or psychology, or even psychiatry.’ I know they are under pressure and desperate to give that young person an option, but they have a responsibility and should not be pushing students back to the university for things that are not appropriate.””

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