Disabled students deserve better


Non-disabled staff and students alike need to address the current climate of ableism

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Image by Annie Watson

By Ally Smith

I think everyone can agree that the global pandemic is horrific. What a lot of people seem to disagree with is that certain demographics have been impacted disproportionately. In light of this, Labour MP Marsha de Cordova has urged the Equality and Human Rights Commission to investigate the government for breaching the Equality Act with regard to people of colour and disabled people. While many people are now lamenting the second lockdown, most forget that some disabled people have not yet come out of isolation since the first lockdown. The people mourning the loss of the pub have lost sight of the fact that people are losing their lives and that there are still very real implications of Covid.

As a disabled student, the ableism I experienced from staff and students prior to the pandemic hasn’t stopped; it has worsened. I can’t count on two hands the number of panic attacks I’ve had due to issues at university compounded by the pandemic. On top of the barriers I was experiencing beforehand, there is now a whole new level of feeling-like-a-burden. Almost every time I ask for the reasonable adjustments written in my Student Support Plan I am reminded of how much extra stress I am putting on staff in this trying time, as well as the familiar feelings of humiliation for having to continually ask for bare minimum access.

I am shown constantly how much abled people view me as a burden; I see students blatantly giving no regard to lockdown and talking about the situation as if no disabled students have ever existed. I’m even reminded by my tutors, recently having been in a class where the staff member complained about the extra work involved in needing to put captions on their online lectures. It is a particular type of humiliation to hear a member of staff complain about a reasonable adjustment, especially when it was not even granted as a result of the years of campaigning by disabled students. Making content accessible is not ‘extra’ work, it is the bare minimum. To say otherwise is to assume non-disabled students as the archetype, continually relegating disabled students to the margins and reinforcing mentalities that see disability as a burden and as an abnormality.

One of the real ironies in this situation is that most methods of online teaching now used by the university have been what disabled students have needed and campaigned about for years. I have sat in multiple meetings asking for lectures to be recorded, pleading with academics that it is a necessary adjustment for disabled students to have equality of access, only to be told “no.” I’ve sat in the library listening to ‘recorded’ lectures where the lecturer refused to stand in front of the microphone for the hour and so I could only hear fragments of what was being said. I’ve gone to office hours to explain why the narrative of ‘lazy students’ is not a good enough reason to deprive disabled students of reasonable adjustments. None of this made even a smattering of difference.

To then see – in a matter of months – almost all teaching move online and lectures be recorded, without so much as an acknowledgement that disabled students have been asking for this for years, is a kick in the teeth. It brings into question the validity of the arguments against lecture recording and other access requirements prior to the pandemic.

With anxieties running high and everyone feeling stressed by the changes to our learning, now is the time for the university to step up and really support disabled students. As we’ve seen by the implementation of online learning, making our university more accessible is possible. It might not be easy, it might cost money, but we disabled students deserve to experience our education without constantly having to argue our case.