For years, disabled students campaigned to have their accessibility needs properly met. However, universities had always told students that adjustments necessary for their studies were unreasonable or impossible.
For example, when acting as the Disabled Students’ Officer at the University of Cambridge, I was repeatedly told that it was unfeasible to record all lectures and upload them online for disabled students to access. Campaigns across the UK have faced similar obstacles in campaigning for accessibility for their disabled students.
This all changed when the first lockdown began.
Suddenly, many of the accessibility measures that were previously portrayed as unreasonable were quickly put into place as soon as non-disabled students need them.
This rightly enraged disabled student campaigners like myself, who had spent years being told that adjustments were impossible — only to find out that Universities were simply unwilling to implement them when ‘only’ their disabled students needed them.
One student stated that they were ‘frustrated’ throughout their degree by ‘the lack of recorded lectures’ as such recordings ‘would have been really useful to catch up on lectures [they] missed due to chronic illness or mental health.’ However, the University ‘consistently said this wasn’t possible, and then did it immediately during Covid … which really just felt like a slap in the face.’
Another said: ‘I really struggled in my first two years to attend teaching sessions sometimes and campaigning with the department got us nowhere. Suddenly it became possible and doable with Covid.’
Nonetheless, disabled students have massively benefited from many of the accessibility measures put in place because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
One student outlined how online lectures ‘really helped’ them during the final year, and that they ‘would not have done anywhere near as well without the ability to go back over explanations a second or third time.’
Another described how their chronic illness made it unpredictable as to when they would be able to attend lectures in person, and so the presence of recordings made their learning ‘actually accessible for the first time.’
Online lectures are not the only adjustment students have benefited from. Alternative modes of assessment have been a key part of accessibility.
One student’s department moved to online exams during the pandemic exams last year. They released the essay papers all at once and gave students a two-week period to complete them, open-book. This was felt to be much fairer and more accessible, as it removed many of the barriers some disabled students face in a closed-book exam where they are expected to memorise material.
The student stated: ‘Having that two-week period also gives a fair amount of time and reduces the anxiety of a timed exam paper, which can be improved by extra time, but that often doesn’t totally fix the problem, especially if you have severe anxiety. Having that extended period to do exams in our own time was just really freeing, and gave me the agency to manage my anxiety properly and completely, rather than having to do a makeshift job under the pressure of a timed closed-book exam.’
For many, it felt as though the entire culture had changed for the better during the pandemic. The flexibility of working online helped with a variety of impairments, from chronic illness to neurodivergence.
The ability to easily caption live talks assisted many hearing-impaired students. Most importantly, a culture of check-ins developed, encouraging open discussions about mental health and the support that students needed.
However, as we go ‘back to normal’ the world is once again becoming inaccessible for disabled students.
This is true especially for the clinically vulnerable, who with the end of shielding are once again expected to simultaneously avoid catching the virus whilst participating fully in campus life without the same level of support and protection.
Yet, many more disabled students are also affected, and fear losing the improvements in accessibility that have mattered so much. Although Universities have proved that adjustments are reasonable and possible, some are once again unwilling to take the steps necessary to benefit ‘only’ their disabled students.
Many students have shared their fears with me, concerned that lessons about accessibility that should have been learned from the pandemic are now being ignored.
One told me: ‘The pivot towards hybrid learning and supposed return to in-person teaching is dropping all of these online systems that have been created that could benefit so many people long term, and not looking enough at ways to keep the silver linings found going into the future.’
Another expressed resentment towards the removal of online lectures, which has benefited them so much: ‘my department previously didn’t record lectures and now it seems like they’re dropping provisions again already.’
Universities must not simply abandon disabled students, pretending that necessary provisions we have seen are possible are ‘unreasonable’ once again.
Disabled activists must continue to put pressure on institutions and ensure that there is not one rule for non-disabled students and another for us.