By The Bath Time Editorial Committee & Zeid Truscott

Editors note: This was written prior to the coronavirus outbreak and therefore may not reflect the current situation. It is encouraging to see that the University has made accessible provisions for students in these exceptional circumstances. We hope that this becomes common practice when we return to business as usual. The Editorial Team are thinking of all our readers during this time and wishing you all the best.

In the past few years, universities across the UK have made major strides to increase social mobility and improve student experience by introducing Access and Participation plans that have to be submitted to the regulator: the Office For Students. These sector-wide commitments are made to supposedly ensure equal opportunity in access, success, and progression from Higher Education into employment. However, it is visibly clear that much-needed work remains to be done for these assurances to reach those who are truly in need. 

Just recently, accessibility issues gained national attention when Sarah-Marie Da Silva was left stuck at the top of a stairwell at the University of Hull, unable to access a lecture hall in her wheelchair. Similarly, a student at Oxford University also reported occasions where his friends had to lift him and his wheelchair over a gate due to poor and undignified access arrangements. The unacceptable treatment of disabled students at Oxford has faced further scrutiny after a blind student was allegedly dragged out of his seat at the Oxford Union. This has reportedly increased pressure on disabled students and student carers to mitigate these barriers. It appears that the Access and Participation plans simply aren’t living up to their promises and students are left paying for vital services they can’t access.

much-needed work remains to be done for these assurances to reach those who are truly in need

On the surface, the percentage of disabled students attending university appears to be a success story. In 2010 only 8% of undergraduate students disclosed a disability in England, compared to 13.2% in 2017, according to the Office for Students. Although this increase could reflect disabled people having greater access to university, it may be that students are now more likely to declare their disabilities. In either case, challenges with accessibility still remain. This year, the Office for Students established the Disabled Students’ Commission to help the Higher Education sector to remove barriers for disabled students. Although it aims to drive positive change, it’s disappointing that universities still have some distance to go before they can truly offer an inclusive environment for all students

A 2019 evaluation of Disabled Students Allowances also found that only 40% of students in England were aware of this support before starting their course. Many students with long-term health conditions or mental health issues remain unaware that they are eligible to receive this support. Students are required by DSA to fork out £200 towards any assistive technology needed for their course. Although students at the University of Bath can apply to the Hardship Fund for assistance to cover these costs, it involves further disclosures and yet another process to navigate. It also appears that diversity falls short at the University of Bath following its woeful ranking of 112th out of 115 institutions for social inclusion by the Sunday Times, with only 5.4% of students reporting disabilities. This raises questions about the University’s genuine commitment to its Access and Participation plans which must be submitted in order to charge the maximum tuition fee. Has accessibility simply become a buzzword to draw students to campus?

Physical Disabilities

For members of our community who have physical impairments, there are a number of barriers that prevent campus being truly accessible to them. Both small and large, these are often designed into the buildings that the University inhabits.  

One example is the lift access to parade from the bus stop which is operated via a doorbell system that must be approved by security staff. This was initially introduced and approved by the University Secretary at the time, because of the continued misuse by tradespeople using the lift. However, with multiple incidents of someone not always on the other side to pick up the call, students with physical impairments can find themselves waiting, not knowing when they’ll be able to get up to parade; a brief journey that most able-bodied students would find insignificant in their day-to-day life can become an ordeal for others. These types of barriers create a two-tiered population between those who are fully independent and those who have been made dependent by the University.

In 2013, one parent at an open day was left stranded for over an hour on the 4th floor of 6 East due a lift breaking down. Without an alternative route out of the building they were stuck and even without access to toilet facilities due to a lack of accessible toilets in the building that meets current building regulation standards. The University, as with many other institutions, have utilised a loophole in the 2010 Building Regulations that means there is no legal requirement to bring buildings up to current accessibility standards. Instead, they only have to meet the standards held at the point of construction and ensure they do not make accessibility any worse. Without any legal incentive, the University can retain its current procedure and therefore keep in place the physical barriers that are hindering so many students’ lives.   

The attitude to resolving accessibility issues, especially in recently refurbished buildings, can be highlighted with the case of Virgil Building, with SU Community Officer Alisha Lobo commenting in 2019 that “This building has had several complaints made about its inaccessibility for disabled students which is concerning because it has been open for over two years now and not enough has been rectified especially after we highlighted the multiple issues at Virgil to senior staff”. Whilst changes have been made, not enough has been done to ensure that students with physical impairments have fair access to study space. 

physically impaired students are left dependent and isolated by their own University due to these inadequate provisions

Former student and current SU employee Ben Palmer, investigated campus accessibility and highlighted a number of other access issues. These include lifts being broken down for more than 6 months, lecture halls with the only accessible access being through fire escapes and doors being too heavy. Additionally, the accessible routes that the University has designed are not convenient or useful for students. By failing to make campus truly and equally accessible to all, the University is neglecting the well-being of its students who have paid the same fees for its facilities. In what is supposed to be a time of independence, physically impaired students are left dependent and isolated by their own University due to these inadequate provisions.

Invisible disabilities

The term disability often brings to mind images of those with a visible disability but the reality is that many people live with invisible disabilities, often undetectable to the naked eye. By definition, invisible disabilities capture a whole range of conditions which don’t necessarily encompass outward signs of impairment. This means students with invisible disabilities must confront the challenges rooted in the perceptions of their conditions while also trying to complete their degree. 

The phrases “but you don’t look sick” or “you’re faking it” will be all too familiar to some of you, along with the frustration which follows. The experience of constantly having to prove a disability to others, while managing the challenges of a condition is sadly not uncommon. One student shared with us that, “No-one at uni really believes me when I say I have chronic fatigue. Even if I’ve been confined to my bed all day, my coursemates and my seminar leaders want to see proof that this is medical and not just me making it all up. It’s a lot to deal with.” The expectation of providing evidence for every flare up is exhausting but can also be a real barrier to full and fair participation in university life. 

The phrases “but you don’t look sick” or “you’re faking it” will be all too familiar to some of you

Despite active promotion of accessibility on the University’s website, it is disappointing to find several shortfalls still affect students. Those with invisible disabilities cannot normally use the Individual Mitigating Circumstances process even if their condition is affecting their ability to study. Instead, these students are expected to organise exam arrangements or in the case of a flare up, prove why these measures were insufficient.

The experience of flare ups is very common for disabled students, regardless of any measures they’ve previously put in place. It’s concerning that students can only submit an IMC for a condition once, which makes the system inaccessible to students whose symptoms may fluctuate over time. Students have reported the benefits of receiving extensions for their assignments due to flare ups with their condition. However, others noted that this support is not sustainable in the long-term, stating “it simply delays the inevitable”. 

The Equality Act requires universities to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to reduce any disadvantages faced by disabled students. It is widely recognised across the Higher Education sector that lecture recordings are beneficial for students who are unable to take their own notes due to a disability. Many UK universities, including Sheffield, Manchester and Edinburgh, actually consider access to recordings to be a ‘reasonable adjustment’. Despite years of debate, promises and pledges about lecture recordings, it is disappointing to find no such policy exists on our campus. This leaves Bath lagging behind other institutions when it comes to championing accessibility. 

Although recordings and notes can be requested as part of a Disability Access Plan, it doesn’t guarantee that students will have access to recordings. During periods of ill health, students have reported to us occasions where lecturers have “dismissed DAPs and refused to record lectures” or “felt there was no real need for it”. 

Understandably, this can form a real barrier to learning for disabled students but may also be detrimental for confidence and self-esteem. One student commented,

I feel so lost at University. I’m constantly trying to keep up in my lecturers but my long-term condition makes it impossible. My confidence has taken a big knock and I don’t really know where to go from here. My DAP hasn’t really helped me and I don’t have time to try and make sense of my lectures and reach back out to get more support when it doesn’t change my situation that much”. 

Student Carers

The lack of accessibility on campus can extend to those caring for a disabled person too, often placing the responsibility on student carers to overcome any barriers. Young adult carers look after a relative or friend due to disability, chronic illness, mental health issues or dependency. Understandably, these students need support too and it’s frustrating to see what the University offers is subpar. 

The University does offer a Carer’s Bursary of £500 per academic year for students with caring responsibilities. At first glance this may seem reasonable but it is only offered to new UK Undergraduates under the age of 25. Students also miss out on government support as they are not eligible for the carer’s allowance of £66.15 per week. Support from the government offers a total of £3439.80 every year, making the University’s offer of £500 look measly by comparison. 

The University’s system of providing a blanket amount appears inadequate if you consider that costs of caring can vary dramatically for students. From train fares to covering basic living costs in the absence of the ability to take a student job, student carers are faced with many financial challenges. Also, as you can only apply in first year, this bursary does not account for students who become a carer unexpectedly during their studies or students who started studying before 2017. 

A fairer system would provide means-tested support for carers, such as the Disabled Students Allowance, where the needs of each carer can be assessed to remove the barriers they’re facing. For Chloe, becoming a carer in the middle of her degree means that she was unable to receive the Carer’s Bursary. She has also had to give up part-time work that she needed to survive in previous years of university, leaving her in a precarious and stressful financial situation for her final year. The hardship fund is available for students in this situation, however this process is time-consuming and is a one-off aid and unsustainable in the longer term. 

Leaving her in a stressful and precarious and stressful financial situation for her final year

Mental Health

Despite a significant increase in the reporting of mental health issues, we aren’t seeing an equivalent increase in funding or support for these students within universities. As you’re probably aware, mental health on campus is increasingly becoming an issue worthy of attention across the UK and internationally. As part of a collaboration between the Insight Network and Dig-in, a recent study found that almost half (42.3%) of students at UK universities have experienced “a serious, personal, behavioural or mental health problem for which they needed professional help”. For most, this number won’t seem surprising.

The Equality Act states that you have a disability if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial, adverse, and long-term effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Readers who have personal experience with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or eating disorders to name a few understand that they can be a disability, therefore, the University should treat them as such. At first glance, the University of Bath appears to be relatively good when it comes to dealing with mental health issues.

According to the Student Services webpage, the following services are offered: guided self-help, a range of courses and workshops, mental health advice and one-to-one counselling. There are student run services such as Nightline and Student Minds if you need someone to talk to. Based on this, it would be fair to assume that there are options students facing minor to mild issues can rely upon to get better or manage their symptoms. However, the issue lies in support provided for people suffering from serious mental health issues that require professional support.

It appears that the University is not doing enough to ensure they receive [professional help] in a timely manner

With nearly half of all UK University students requiring “professional help”, it appears that the University is not doing enough to ensure they receive it in a timely manner. For many, one-to-one counselling is necessary to help treat serious mental health issues and yet a large number of students approached by Bath Time expressed that they had to turn to private sources of counselling due to wait times that extended past three months. Many expressed a general dissatisfaction with the ease of access to these services that the University offers. Whilst some service is better than none at all, it seems clear that it needs to be scaled to match the growing needs of a student population becoming increasingly concerned with mental health issues.

Final thoughts

The University must do more to ensure that the student experience is truly accessible and open to all. By failing to make adequate provisions, it is those who are disabled or caring who are left to feel the brunt of these shortfalls. For these individuals, any ‘reasonable adjustments’ are simply not enough for them to be able to go about their student life without feeling hindered by a situation that is out of their control. In order for ‘accessibility’ and ‘equal opportunity’ to not just be seen as buzzwords, the University must ensure it is actually committed to providing equal facilities without any barriers. It is the institution’s duty to provide for all of its students regardless of disability and as a student community we must continue to push for a campus that works for everyone. Only when it works for all students equally, can it truly be called our university.

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