Unprecedented – a word that has become all too familiar in 2020, taking centre stage in our day-to-day lives and featured in almost every tweet, news broadcast and article. COVID-19 has changed the world as we know it. Government policies get approved in a matter of days, and systems that were once rigid and reluctant to change are suddenly flexible.

For the UK education system, the switch to virtual, remote learning was effortless. At a glance, it seemed like a perfect remedy to the pandemic’s disruption; course materials readily available online, and lecturers just a Zoom link away.

But temperamental WiFi connections, sporadic communication and the thought of a Virtual Freshers’ Week threw students into panic. This, along with a lack of ‘no-detriment’ at some universities, left students feeling substantially disadvantaged by their institutions – a reality that is anything but unprecedented for disabled students.

woman in wheelchair

Research conducted by OfS (Office for Students) shows that disabled students make up a significant minority of the student population. Figures from 2018-19 reveal that one in seven students declared a disability (14.3%), with learning disabilities (5%) and mental health conditions (3%) being the most common.

To ensure these students stay on track, the DSA (Disabled Students Allowance) allows them to take advantage of specialist support services, such as assistive technology, scribes and extra travel. But the shocking statistics, open letters and student testimonials suggest the exact opposite was happening. After all, institutions were already under fire for their inadequacy long before the pandemic hit.

So, has the universal shift to virtual learning proved beneficial for disabled students? Or has ableism yet again found its way to benefit their non-disabled peers? First, let’s take a look at life before the pandemic.

Higher drop-outs; lower grades

Disabled students are vital to campus life. Their wider perspectives enrich seminar discussions and their very presence creates a more diverse student body. However, recent research reveals that disabled students receive proportionately fewer 1sts and 2:1s than their non-disabled peers – with a 2.5% attainment gap in 2018-19.

woman riding wheelchair near trees

They’re also at an increased risk of experiencing lower rates of employment (74%) compared to non-disabled students (89%). In terms of graduating, figures from 2015 suggest that students with mental health conditions had the lowest continuation rate (52.1%) compared to 64.1% of non-disabled students.

Just 3-months before the pandemic, OfS launched an investigation into the cause of these inequities. The report highlighted how eligible students are unaware of the available support since institutions rely on them to start and lead the process.

Lengthy waiting lists, societal stigma and convoluted applications were also deterrents of students disclosing their disabilities. Such revelations led Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at OfS, to demand universities ‘meet their legal duties’ and consider a more proactive approach in ensuring equal opportunities.

Positive changes

At some universities, the pandemic has allowed them to do just that. The University of Bristol has implemented a portal form that lets students and offer holders disclose their disabilities and support they require, at any stage in their student journey.

Not only does this alleviate pressure off students’ backs, but the service extends to those who may be affected by a peak in Coronavirus cases. For example, those with asthma or weakened immune systems can request online lecture slides and check-ins if they’re instructed to ‘shield’ at a later date.

So for prospective students, the future is looking bright. According to UCAS, 2020 saw an upsurge in mature students applying for university. In January, the number of 35+ applicants stood at 16,630 – a significant increase from the previous year (15,380).

Within just 6-months, this number rose to 27,910 compared to 24,600 in June 2019. These statistics pose an interesting question: How did one of the most unsettling times in living memory make people so sure about their futures?

smiling woman with white background

Second chances

The figures suggest lockdown played a critical role in realigning people with their ambitions. ‘It made many of us reflect on our lives, leading us to redefine our concept of success’ says Dr Rachel Allan, a chartered counselling psychologist based in Glasgow.

Taking proactive steps in a time of uncertainty is empowering. “It’s now or never,” says Becky Slack, 41, who is moving to Brussels in September to study a Masters in Political Strategy and Education.

But for Nikky Cato, 41, the pandemic gave her a second chance. Years ago, Cato dropped out of university after being denied support for chronic fatigue syndrome. But as classes shift online, Nikky seized the opportunity. “Suddenly the pandemic hit and everyone’s like, look at us, we can do everything by Zoom,” she says.

It’s evident that universities’ new-found flexibility has undoubtedly encouraged prospective students, especially those with disabilities, to take the plunge.

pink and white box

How do students feel?

However, the reality for current students is much less promising. The Association of Non-Medical Help Providers highlighted that 81% of disabled students are negatively impacted by changes to their academic work, while 73% said they had issues with access to resources. 

For students with hearing impairments, matters grow more complicated. At home, bustling cities or busy house shares make quiet places to study hard to come by. Even in class students face additional challenges such as poor captioning and underprepared lecture slides.

Becky Morris, a MSc student in Speech and Therapy at City University, has experienced these issues. As someone with mild acquired sensorineural hearing loss and an auditory processing disorder, Becky received support before the pandemic, such as additional tutorials.

“The 1:1 support I received was excellent – however, I raised the lack of captions on the lecture capture service a number of times with no response. I think that’s extremely concerning – especially when one of the modules I sat was about audiology and deafness,” she says.

Since lockdown, these struggles have continued. “Online learning with a high demand on listening is extremely exhausting and even painful for me,” she says. “This meant I had no physical cues, no option for supplementary lip reading and, worst of all, captions were not provided. I found trying to go through these lectures extremely stressful in the build-up to exams and had constant headaches from the strain.”

These issues are a direct result of insufficient training or the computer illiteracy of academic staff. Not only does this highlight how ill-equipped universities are to cater for disabled students, but it reminds us how excluding them from the conversation is routine.

A double-edged sword

That’s not to say that this new academic system hasn’t benefited disabled students. Remote learning has its perks, especially for students with mobility issues or mental health conditions. It eliminates strict attendance requirements so that students can work in their own time and not get penalised.

But it’s important to recognise that disabled students have been requesting this for years, and typically with no avail. “There were many times throughout my degree that I couldn’t access classes,” says a postgraduate student with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Irlen Syndrome and learning difficulties. “Lectures were never recorded or made available online; however, in the pandemic they were.”

Having fought against so many excuses, unnecessary stress and fatigue, the shift sat uncomfortably with some students. It’s shown that the accessibility of online classes before the pandemic was not a utopian dream – it was a choice to not implement them.

Virtual Freshers’ Week

The pandemic has also highlighted what used to work well for disabled students; routine and face-to-face contact. “Structure was vital in keeping my mental health stable. When lockdown happened, I felt very lost and unable to access my usual support for BPD,” said the postgrad student.

For this student, regular 1-1 contact with a mental health tutor and crisis team were hugely beneficial. But having meetings over the phone proved difficult; “I was back home with my family, who worked full time, so I lacked privacy.” As a result, this student discontinued counselling, and to no surprise – social interaction is vital to our physical and mental wellbeing.

man in blue dress shirt smiling beside woman in black and red floral dress

So, what happens when the most sociable time of a student’s life moves entirely online? Outrage. Students are incredibly sceptical of how virtual gatherings or “social bubbles” of 8 students from the same course can replicate the camaraderie of Freshers’ Week. 

“A major part of the university experience is meeting new people, and if the university decides who we can interact with before we even join, this will be near impossible,” says Georgia Edwards, a prospective Cambridge student.

But as more disabled students start university every year, with a 2.5% increase in the number of students enrolling this year at Oxford, this becomes troubling. There’s a significant amount of community support to be had when underrepresented groups come together. For this to be restricted and replaced with eight individuals that may not gel together, sparks concern.

woman wearing headphones using laptop beside the glass window grayscale photo

Starting university is hard enough; there are fears that a Virtual Freshers’ Week will increase rates of loneliness, social anxiety and depression – not just for disabled students, but for everyone. We can only hope that come September; universities’ new-found flexibility will find ways to alleviate this.

More to be done

So, has the pandemic improved access for disabled students? There isn’t a clear-cut answer. Although the shift to flexible, remote learning has undoubtedly helped, it was a little too late. We can’t blame disabled students for not shaking off the feeling that it wasn’t for their best interest – the loop-holes have proven this.

Instead, we must continue to amplify their voices. If there’s anything the pandemic has highlighted, is that ableism continues to influence academic decisions. When life returns to ‘normal’, an improved remote learning should stick around – for the sole purpose that disabled students will benefit from it.