Places and spaces must be accessible by January

Stephen Campbell asks whether it's reasonable during a pandemic to expect students to have equal access to education.

Stephen Campbell is Dyslexia & Disability Coordinator at Leeds Trinity University

As staff and students stagger, exhausted, towards a well earned Christmas break it’s worth reflecting on how this health crisis has brought to attention the very real issue of access – and what it means for access and inclusion to be available for all.

Or not. In some ways the pandemic has acted as a sort of social leveller – these days it’s not just disabled students who can’t access social events, sports teams and other activities, because nobody can. Similarly, it’s not just disabled students who are experiencing difficulties accessing online or face-to-face teaching.

That said, while there is a kind of shared experience felt by all students directly affected by Covid, nonetheless disabled students are again left with an extra layer of problems to manage.

Locked down

Take as an obvious example the ultra-lockdown imposed on students at Manchester and other institutions. Physical restrictions to movements are of course nothing new for physically impaired students. Yet even for students residing in their university’s most accessible and adaptable rooms, in many cases full independence of movement is restricted as much by the need for a support worker as it is their immediate environment.

Providing this sort of care work may be within the financial purview of the university, but generally it is supplied by the student’s local authority. This means that the amount of care the student needs is dependent upon the severity of impairment, which itself results in care being timed to coincide with when the student needs to access it. So being locked in your room waiting for permission to leave is not an entirely new phenomenon.

The requirement for disabled students’ support workers to be the primary facilitators of inclusion also poses a problem for how exactly they are to be utilised during teaching sessions. While local authorities provide medical and social care support, Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) specifically funds non-medical help, which can include note takers, Sign Language interpreters, sighted guides and mentors.

Pre-Covid, the presence of a support worker in the classroom could be arranged in a straightforward enough manner – tutors would if necessary be forewarned that a particular student may wish to discuss how their worker was to proceed. Sign language interpreters, for example, would sit in an acoustically appropriate location and new terminology would be practised prior to the session. Note takers similarly may have seated themselves by the students they were supporting, or discreetly apart. It all rather depended on what worked best for the student.

The imposition of Covid restrictions has made all of this so much harder. For classrooms that set a limit on the number of people allowed inside at any one time, a conscious effort is needed to anticipate the presence of support workers. If an institution failed to plan for such an eventually, then the likely result is again the disabled student missing out.

Virtually inaccessible

Things are no less complicated for disabled students accessing virtual learning environments. Support workers need to help navigate their clients through whatever platform is being used, while not necessarily having access to the system anyway, because they are mostly employed by external agencies.

If Current covid-19 restrictions are to continue, then universities need to reflect on the particular barriers faced by disabled students this year. And by “reflect” I specifically mean systematically review all instances of inaccessibility, breaking down what barriers were experienced by students with particular disabilities.

This would mean detailing the experiences of students with physical/visual/hearing impairments, learning difficulties, mental health etc. Likely, the results would highlight systemic weaknesses in accessibility and inclusion processes, if not policies.

For example, teaching online for some disabled students is only as good as the platform being used. If the technology is shown not to be fully inclusive and accessible, or compatible with students’ DSA funded assistive technology packages, then either the DSA package needs to be adapted or the university needs to make accessible its own virtual spaces. Instances such as this would shine a light on problems that clearly pre-date covid restrictions, but are being exacerbated by the present situation, rather than revealing anything uniquely Covid related.

The same is true for access to physical environments. Here we need to fully appreciate how much universities really do need to integrate and work with external support workers. There needs to be a guidance policy for DSA and social/medical care workers to be familiar with regarding both the university’s access and inclusion process, including key contacts, but also guidance for academic staff on how to include support workers.

This is more than simply allowing them access to classrooms but ensuring lessons are designed and delivered to accommodate support staff. This may necessarily include direct communication with support workers, while allowing external staff access to online teaching platforms.

The anticipation problem

A wholesale review of access and inequitable experiences for disabled students under these extreme conditions would enable universities to effectively stress test the robustness of their approach to anticipatory adjustments. Theoretically, disabled students should have been, to put it bluntly, equally disadvantaged to their non-disabled counterparts. If universities had anticipated the adjustments what would be necessary for disabled students, then as mentioned all would be equally experiencing the same level of inconvenience

It remains to be seen whether 2021 will fare any better for students, particularly disabled students. To be fair to universities, the current crisis has caught so many of us off guard that we are right now working through as best as possible everything that was unanticipated before the academic year started.

But by the time this academic year has come to end, it is not unreasonable to expect all students to have equal access to their education. And it’s both a moral and legal duty that universities anticipate any barriers to achieving to it.

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