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How Disabled Students Are Losing Out In Lockdown

May 22, 2020

When Harrie Larrington-Spencer was knocked off her bike at the end of the first year of her PhD, she was left with a brachial plexus injury. “My left arm and hand barely work and I have chronic pain,” she says. She knew her injury would affect many aspects of her life, but was surprised to learn just how hard it would be to do her university work as a disabled person.

“No reasonable adjustment would make me not at a disadvantage to my non-disabled peers,” she says. “There is also the ingrained but generally unseen ableism inherent in academia.”

Larrington-Spencer is used to being unable to attend writing retreats or being reprimanded for using her foot to open doors, but the coronavirus pandemic has presented the biggest challenge yet.

“I have some facilities provided at home in terms of desk and office chair but it isn’t set up professionally, and no matter how many YouTube videos I watch I can’t get it right. Without it the pain and difficulties in working are exacerbated,” she says. She also lacks the computer processing power to run the assistive software she needs. “My computer will crash every time.”

Despite this, Larrington-Spencer considers herself one of the lucky ones – she’s entitled to apply for a six-month extension to her PhD. “It’s great, but the fact that I have to apply is ridiculous. I am already registered as disabled with the university and have already had to prove my disadvantage and disability through that process,” she says.

Larrington-Spencer was among the 1,700 signatories of an open letter sent to the research councils this week, urging for automatic funding extensions for all PhD students who are registered as disabled, neurodivergent or chronically ill. The letter also asked for grants for the assistive equipment and technology necessary for working remotely.

Zara Bain, a final-year PhD student who suffers from several conditions affecting her immune system and is one of the organisers of the letter, says many disabled students are so busy trying to adapt to the circumstances that they simply don’t have time to apply for extensions. She sees the bureaucracy as part of a wider misunderstanding of what they’re going through.

“The general absence of any mention, until very recently, from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) or universities of this particular student population – who are higher risk, more pressured and less supported, relative to the pandemic – means we’ve been sort of left to deal with all of that,” she says. “And [also] trying to meet existing PhD deadlines, and weather problems like running out of funding.”

Prof Jennifer Rubin, who works on inclusion at UKRI, says that “any UKRI-supported doctoral student who needs an extension of time because of Covid-19 can request one”. The organisation will review its policy over the summer.

But Penny Andrews, another signatory, says the response from the research councils and some universities belies a lack of understanding. “It feels like we are being fobbed off,” she says. “I am a PhD student struggling to write up, who has already been through major surgery, survived being hit by a car at 40mph, and experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and bereavement, as well as autism, ADHD, cerebral palsy, and anxiety and depression.”

It’s not just PhD students with disabilities who are struggling. Bain and Andrews’s views are echoed in a new report by the National Association of Disability Practitioners, which warned that disabled university students are struggling more than their peers during lockdown.

The report urges universities to provide better training for academic staff to ensure their online teaching is inclusive. It also warns that neurodiverse students and those with visual and hearing impairments are facing problems with access to teaching and course materials, such as poor captioning and underprepared lecture slides.

A separate survey by the Association of Non-Medical Help Providers suggested that 81% of disabled students have been negatively impacted by changes to their academic work due to coronavirus, while 73% said they had issues with access to academic resources such as libraries and workshops, and 57% said access to their teaching had been disrupted.

Piers Wilkinson, disabled students’ officer at the National Union of Students, says he was unsurprised to see these concerns. He would like to see the medical evidence requirements suspended during this time for the Disabled Students’ Allowance, which funds equipment. “Institutions must ensure disabled students can choose what best supports them, and ensure any leave of absences or suspension of studies comes at no cost,” Wilkinson says.

Stephen Campbell, dyslexia and disability coordinator at Leeds Trinity University, says universities have adapted their courses to the lockdown more effectively than he expected. “But you’re supporting more than just the medicalised condition that the student has,” he says, referring to how the lockdown is affecting students’ mental health. “My colleagues in counselling are saying there has been a direct impact from the lockdown. They’ve seen an increase in referrals to secondary care, to organisations like community mental health teams or Crisis.”

Bureaucracy was a problem even before the lockdown, Campbell adds. “If we talk about dyslexic students, there’s already a protracted process of applications and testing before they even get anywhere near their assistive technology,” he says. “Combined with the technology universities are now using to move their courses online, we’re inevitably going to find problems with inclusion in the future.”

The picture is not the same everywhere: some universities are providing better support than others, and certain disabilities have benefited from the shift to online learning. Tiri Hughes, a visually impaired medical student at Trinity College, Oxford, is grateful for her university’s adjustments so far.

“From an accessibility perspective, our remote lectures are brilliant [for visually impaired students],” she says. “We’d been calling for all faculties to do them because they’re vital for disabled students. It was often not done properly, but now we’re in lockdown, a lot of disabled students have even better access to education.”

But she adds: “It’s frustrating, because we’ve been fighting for this for years. Were we not important enough? We’re determined that, when things go back to normal, we don’t lose some of this progress.”

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