Skip to main content Accessibility Statement

4 June 2020

For disabled students, quality education during COVID-19 is about basic access


Molly Smallwood
Vice President (Academic Representation), Edge Hill Students’ Union

The capacity universities have demonstrated to make huge, structural transitions to off-campus provision will most likely come as a surprise to many disabled students. Lots of us had health reasons which made access to physical learning impractical long before the pandemic hit. In March, the House of Commons Library reported on the outcomes gap facing disabled students in higher education; the report noted that “students with a disability are more likely to drop out of courses and those that finish their degree tend to have lower degree results”. 


There is no one size fits all experience for disabled students, but it’s fair to say that we’ve all faced some degree of exclusion. For me, I needed to navigate practical assessments while using a mobility aid for half of my three years, while also trying to control frequent seizures and mental health issues. The barriers to learning I encountered were the reason I became a students’ union education officer; academic quality shouldn’t just be about enhancement, fundamentally it should be about basic access for all students. 


During the current pandemic, part of the role has been to remind the university that disabled students are as much a part of the academic community as anybody. Accessible learning shouldn’t be ‘additional’, but integral; all students deserve quality education. Any new measures on teaching, learning and assessment during the disruption must consider the needs of all students. 


A big difficulty for me has been that while the current crisis is new territory for everyone, it often feels like student officers have been expected to understand the detail of extraordinary measures on our own. We have needed to quickly become experts in things that much of the sector has only known about for months, because students are relying on us to get it right. I would say a majority of officers didn’t run for these roles because they were already experts, but because they were passionate about making positive changes for their communities, yet universities often don’t take this into account or refuse to take student officers seriously due to the difference in experience. 


QAA’s new guidance for SU officers has been a really useful tool to get to grips with the regulations relating to disabled students. Consistent across many of the pieces of different guidance is the importance of accessibility in learning and assessment design. English guidance from the Office for Students, Welsh Government guidance, and UK-wide QAA guidance all stress the importance of building alternative and accessible formats. In my view, communication is the most vital part of this. Although student voice should always be a priority, it's more important than ever for providers to involve students collectively in planning alternative provision. 


As an officer, students have been coming to me with the challenges they have in accessing their teaching. I have students whose mental health has deteriorated as a result of isolation; I have autistic students, reliant on routine and pattern-making, who are learning in entirely new environments; I have students with long-term chronic conditions, who are experiencing the physical strain of sitting at a laptop all day. Where the Students’ Union has been involved in the university’s response planning framework, we’ve been able to voice their concerns. But where we haven’t had a space to do so, often these students’ experiences just go ignored. NUS’ recent survey found that only a tenth of disabled students across the UK had been asked about how their disability may affect their ability to study in relation to COVID-19. 


Many disabled students have been messaging me to ask about exceptional mitigating circumstances (EMC) processes. It’s often expected that students will be able to understand the jargon and navigate processes without using them before, and without access to the usual support resources. One student told me “I feel like there’s been a barrier placed between us in terms of personal and one to one feedback. I haven't been able to get any help, because when they do eventually get back to me I don’t understand half of what’s being said.” 


In England, guidance from Office for Students sets out that these ‘processes should be operated flexibly, accessibly, and sympathetically to resolve a student’s concerns’. This is expanded on in advice from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA): universities should be providing additional, tailored support and communication for disabled students, and relax any requirements for medical evidence from students who need EMCs. 


As the sector moves out of this transition period and starts to plan ahead, our institutions must include student reps in discussions on academic practice. With a significant increase in online teaching planned for next academic year, it is essential to consider the diversity of ways that learning can be delivered and engaged with. Not every student has the same kind of access to technology and skills, and even where they do, access in a general sense doesn’t necessarily equate to access in specific activities.


These issues aren’t new or unique to my university. A lot of the problem lies in the importance of building capacity over time; providers that prepared accessible learning resources years before the crisis have been able to transition much more easily than others. An example raised in QAA’s recent webinar for SU officers was the issue of virtual lectures. A half hour drive away from my university, our Varsity rival UCLan is using British Sign Language interpreters and Microsoft Translate to make its virtual lectures accessible for deaf students. They are able to do so because they had started using Microsoft Teams two years ago as part of a new teaching strategy, which prepared them for the challenge of the pandemic. 


The lesson here is that listening to the needs of disabled students is future-proofing. Many SU education officers and disabled students’ officers have been calling for online accessible learning resources for years – by working with them, providers can build better systems, accessible for all students. 


Molly Smallwood is Vice President (Academic Representation) at Edge Hill Students’ Union.