What support is a disabled student entitled to in higher education?
As a disabled student in the UK going into higher education, we are entitled to an assessment to allow us to have extra support in the forms of equipment, a budget for notetakers, orientation and mobility lessons by a professional, transcription services and extra time during exams, amongst other things; depending on the individuals needs. This is called disabled students allowance, and an assessment has to be done once you have applied to your chosen universities via the student finance portal.
During my disabled students assessment, I was told I would have proficient orientation and mobility lessons from the local council, which would be arranged for me by the disability department before I arrived, along with a list of my specific requirements such as a list of my equipment, the training I would need in order to use it, and a breakdown of my particular needs: having A note taker during classes, all work to be prepared in in an accessible format ( electronic or 24PT print).
Blindness and university
It was September 2013 and I was preparing for an eye operation that I hoped would restore my vision in my remaining “working” eye.
At this point it was the second time that year I had lost a considerable amount of vision, leaving me unable to read print, see faces or use a computer without extensive magnification. And to say I would struggle with my education if my vision couldn’t be restored was an understatement. I had already faced many issues with the university but I was hopeful.
To give you full context, let’s take you back to the beginning of my University journey.
The first week of university.
I arrived at my university halls on the required dates and with the help of my Dad, unloaded the car and went for a look around the university campus.
I’m not going to sugar coat things and say I wasn’t stressed and overwhelmed about the possibility of finding my way around campus, I’d never been to this part of the UK before so I was learning this place literally blind. I did have just enough useable vision to get around without using a mobility aid such as a long white cane.
Together, my Dad, Sister and I scoped out lecture theaters, the cafeteria and the disability support hub. – Ironically there was no person manning the desk or someone i could talk to, in order to introduce myself and talk about the support I would need during my degree.
I didn’t have names, numbers or email addresses of who to contact so I naively hoped I would find out more information during the registration and induction days on the following Monday and Tuesday.
Not being able to see door numbers or read signs of where to go, I found myself bumbling around, getting lost and even missing one of my induction meetings.
If it wasn’t for my friendly flat mates and tagging along with them, i probably would have been lost a lot more.
I finally managed to track down someone at the disability support services and get them to pass on my information and set up a meeting.
However it didn’t go quite as smoothly as I would have expected.
Meeting with the disability support services.
Receiving an email on the Tuesday asking me to come to the disability support services area, where I would be introduced to the team and given orientation around campus, unsettled me straight away.
The lady I had this correspondence with, was very much aware I was blind, but didn’t offer to meet me at a location point I was familiar with. – My immediate thought was; if i was totally blind and my Dad and I hadn’t found the disabled student support department together, how would she have expected me to know where to go?
When I arrived, she proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes literally pointing out key places on campus as we passed.
She hadn’t tried to secure drop in’s with any of my lecturers so, I had no idea where there offices were or how i could find them at a later date.
I only managed to meet one of them by pure chance and they were not aware I needed the materials in an electronic format ahead of time.
Although I now knew where my seminars were going to be held, and the general area of the psychology department, I didn’t feel particularly confident about locating the lecture theatres and where I could find library books for my course.
This woman who claimed to work as a senior member of the disability department was here pointing and had not arranged orientation and mobility lessons with the local council. (My fault apparently – as I accepted my place AFTER the university had broken up for the summer). This woman acted so blasé about my worry of having no equipment or the study material ahead of my upcoming lectures and seminars.
This quickly made me reluctant to have any faith in the disability department.
University life as a blind student.
I met my note taker the next morning, and we talked through how we would work as a team and what she could do to make life easier for me and my blindness.
I told her of my disastrous meeting and my worries about getting lost. Even though she had never studied at my university, she was willing to meet me before classes and help me navigate my way around campus. Clearly not a part of her job description but it helped ease my anxiety of turning up to the wrong seminar or lecture.
My DSA equipment didn’t turn up until a month into classes, thankfully my note taker saved the proverbial day by giving me something tangible after each lecture.
I never did receive the DSA planned tutorials on how to use my computer with both magnification and speech software but as I was proficient in using the magnification software having used it during my A Levels, I didn’t really push for the training.
I didn’t receive work ahead of time or in an accessible format but as I had the use of a computer, an electronic magnifier to read print, and my note taker to fill in the gaps; my university journey went pretty smoothly all things considered. I built a good rapport with my lecturers and fellow students so I settled in quickly.
Losing my sight at university.
However things changed dramatically after my sight deteriorated so suddenly once again in May 2013 that I could not see my computer screen.
My lecturers and I had several conversations some via email and some face-to-face about how my support would need to be adapted finishing the academic year and continuing onto the next academic year. They were confident they could provide me with materials electronically and ahead of time, I could take exams over the phone and A focus on inclusion throughout lectures and seminars so I was included as a totally blind student.
Feeling positive I took this to the disability department but I was faced with a barrage of questions and brick walls.
- You don’t need this.
- You aren’t entitled to that
- Why didn’t you come and speak to the disability team first?
- You need to sort this out.
- You need to contact A, B, C.
Instead of providing me with the support I desperately needed I was being admonished.
Needless to say that I was not happy with the treatment from the disability team that i received.
Things went from bad to worse. Just before I went back to University for my 2nd year I lost my sight completely, resulting in me taking the first month off of University. University failed me as a blind student.
When I returned I had a meeting with the head of department, my course and the disability department.
There idea was to tell me to defer a year, instead of giving me the tools, support and access I needed to continue my studies.
On paper the University ticked all boxes, but in reality, I was seen as too much hard work.
I was determined to continue with my education, not least because I wanted some assemblence of normality but I wanted to keep striving and pushing to continue on the path I wanted to be on.
I thought the university were on my side but I soon came to realise they were giving me lip service.
Between my iPad and my iPhone I was able to virtually attend classes and email my tutors. At the same time I was having rehabilitation to give me orientation and mobility skills allowing me to get around my town, as well as to- and- from my university, so i could get myself back onto campus and back into the lectures.
University deliberately put barriers in my way.
It was mid November 2013, and I called student finance to see if they would agree to giving me taxi’s to and from university so I could attend my lectures sooner.
It transpired that the university hadn’t enrolled me onto the second year of my course because I had not attended in person and registered. -Even though they knew my circumstances and the reason for my physical absence.
I arranged another face to face meeting which the disability department heavily stressed it would be too much work for my tutors to help me catch up with the learning materials I would need to sit my exams in a few weeks time.
I countered that I could retake the exams in the summer but until they officially enrolled me into my second year I couldn’t get financial support from DSA to re-issue my note taker and get taxi’s to and from campus.
They finally agreed I could take the exams in the summer and any upcoming assignments. They said they would enrol me back onto my course and negotiated that if I still hadn’t learned my route to the university by early January, they would assess whether to continue the academic year or defer a year.
January came, the uni did not enrol me onto my second year, and although I had almost completed my orientation route to and from the campus, the university said they had told the administration that I was deferred until the next academic year.
I was devastated and frustrated but I new in reality it would be too much on me to “start” my academic term when I should be in second term.
Not officially being enrolled into my second year, meant I did not receive the student finance maintenance loan Allowing me to hey my rent which cost a whole extra layer of stress and trepidation. as a disabled person who was not in work yet technically a student, the government would not be willing to support me in a financial manner. I really was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I was beyond fortunate because I had a family that were able to financially support me during this time, when I couldn’t support myself. Yep once again, it made me think of all the people that did not have the same support, how would they have coped?
The University of Bedfordshire discriminated against me.
Once I finally conceded and agreed to defer the academic year, there were several email and phone conversations between myself and the Uni for me to come in over the summer, to put things in place for the next academic year and all the support I would need to continue my degree as a totally blind student.
Although finishing my degree behind my peers, not being able to graduate with them when the time came, and the worry of achieving academically like I had done previously, I was excited to continue my degree and further my education.
At the beginning of June 2014 I consistently emailed the University to finalise things for the next academic year. I was invited into a meeting, this time I took an advocate and also recorded the meeting. I was under the impression that I would be having a meeting with the head of the psychology department, disability student support and each head of department. When I arrived no heads of department were present.
After a lot of beating around the bush and bringing up pointless conversations from previous meetings, I was finally told that I could no longer be enrolled onto the second year of my degree. Trying hard not to explode and break many things in the process, I asked why?
”You never completed your first year.”
“Yes I did.”
“it says here that you didn’t pass foundation in psychology unit exam, therefore you failed the unit, and we cannot accept you onto next years course.”
I took that exam over the phone with Joanne as part of my reasonable adjustments. I did only get a C but I still passed the exam.”
“You should never have taken the exam over the phone, it’s not allowed!”
well I did, and I passed, she is the head of foundations in psychology, I’m sure she would have made a note of it, please can you check.”
“She no longer works here and we have no time to check whether or not she left any records of the exam. As I said, you shouldn’t have taken that exam over the phone, and as she is no longer here to verify it, our system says you have failed the unit. “
“We would be happy to accept you as a student back as a first-year.”
“I am not taking first year again when I’ve already passed all the units! I took the exam over the phone from the head of the department, because I could no longer see to read print, and no one had organised a note taker for me!”
At the time I didn’t realise I was being discriminated against by the University. I knew it wasn’t fair; I knew I was academically capable if only I was given the tools and support to succeed. But after almost 2 years of fighting for access, continuously being dismissed and patronised by the disability support services, and in the process of househunting – knowing that I would then have to learn new roots all over again – I retreated and gave up my ambitions of getting my degree.
COVID-19 and academia.
It’s now December 2021 as I write this, technically it has been sitting in my drafts for about 2 years but I have been unwilling to share it until now. A part of me felt that I failed, maybe if I was more technologically savvy and knew how to use a computer blind, if I were more strong willed in retaining my academic independence, and maybe if I had gone back to university sooner, things may have been different.
With a great deal of hindsight, and the global disaster that is COVID-19, I know barriers to access were put in my Way by the University Time and time again. To them I was more hard work than the minuscule effort they choose to put in. We now know that enrolment, lectures, seminars and exams can be done online.
Does that mean that students should be paying an extortionate fee in both accommodation and academic fees when they are not even been taught properly by the system? No, but it proves that reasonable adjustments and access and inclusion really can be tailor-made for all, specifically disabled students.
The exclusion and discrimination I faced at the hands of the University of Bedfordshire, feeling like I no longer had a place in society, absolutely contributed to The deep depression I sank into in 2015. I should have been able to continue my degree.
But life works in mysterious ways. And here I am, sharing this story in hopes of letting other disabled people know that: university isn’t for everyone, and if A university does not accommodate you, they do not deserve your money.
Tips I would give:
- Chase DSA for the right equipment.
- Know your rights as a student, and your legal rights as a person with a disability.
- Make sure you get in contact with your university before you arrive, so they are fully aware of your needs.
- If you feel that you need more support, don’t hesitate to ask for it.
- If meetings are daunting; take an advocate with you.
- Record everything; whether that is through voice recording or note taking and confirm this with follow up emails to the people involved.