Open Letter on Behalf of U.K. Disabled, Chronically Ill, and Neurodivergent PhD Students Due to COVID-19

The Open Letter copied below has been circulated by philosophy Ph.D. student Zara Bain and other Ph.D students across the U.K. university system.


An Open Letter Regarding Specific Reasonable Adjustments for Disabled, Chronically Ill and Neurodivergent PhD Students Due to COVID-19

14 May 2020

To: UKRI, UK Research Councils and Research Funding bodies, and UK Universities

Many actions being taken by universities and funding bodies as public institutions do not provide for the differentiated impacts and pressures experienced by disabled, chronically ill (including mental illness, as per EA2010) or neurodivergent students or, if they do, frame them entirely as matters of “health and wellbeing” rather than marginalization, inequity, or structural discrimination. There is also enormous variation in how institutions and funders are operationalising UKRI guidance around COVID-19 measures via local procedures.

Specific reasonable adjustments must be made by Universities and UK Research Institutions to ensure that disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent students are not more disadvantaged during the COVID19 pandemic than their nondisabled peers, and to ensure parity of access to PhD study, especially since existing reasonable adjustments are likely to be no longer accessible or affective, with direct and concrete implications for our ability to complete PhD research and work as normal.

We seek urgent and immediate implementation of the following reasonable adjustments at the national and local levels:

– Immediate and automatic funded extensions of 6 months for all PhD students, not just final year students, and especially students already registered with universities as disabled, chronically ill or neurodivergent.

– End requirements for case-by-case applications for COVID-19 support, which create additional barriers for PhD students in terms of additional workload and which, for registered disabled students or those with a past history of medical leave for long-term or chronic conditions, duplicates past certification requirements.

– End the sector-wide presumption that sick leave, medical leave or other suspension of studies is not only non-discriminatory but a best-practice first-line approach to supporting disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent students, especially for international disabled students for whom leave of absence may jeopardise visa status.

– Specific provision for disabled, chronically ill or neurodivergent PhD students who are also international students and subject to Tier 4 visa rules, with clear national guidance on whether taking medical leave or will result in cancellation of visas, plus guarantees that complaints against failures of disabled access arrangements will not be met with retaliatory reporting to the Home Office by Universities.

– Robust support for self-funded or unfunded PhD students (including writing up/fourth year students), including but not limited to a suspension of course and continuation fees, rebates of fees paid for the current year, and eradication/relaxation of proof of hardship requirements for hardship funds.

– Immediate and automatic provision of aids, adaptations and adjustments for those who now have to work from home without existing DSA provision, preferably through the provision of small grants enabling self-purchasing supported by guidelines reflecting existing DSA best practices.

– Public commitment to maintaining widespread and non-exceptional remote, digital or other distance access to university resources, spaces, events and personnel which enables disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent students (and staff) to participate in teaching and learning as standard (rather than through retro-fitted reasonable adjustment measures).

– Implement all other reasonable measures, as identified by UKRI and Universities, to ensure that disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent PhD students experience no detriment relative to their nondisabled peers from impacts relating directly or indirectly to COVID-19, in line with arguments for UG students.

– Robust and clear guidelines and support package for all disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent PhD students who experience bereavement, especially for immediate family or close relatives, while emergency measures for COVID-19 are in place.

– Immediate contractual guarantee of two years work, at or above current level of remuneration, for all university fixed-term contract staff, especially those who are registered or otherwise identify as disabled, chronically ill or neurodivergent.

– Immediate publication of all equalities impact assessments conducted by UKRI and other relevant agencies on the impact of COVID-19 and the likely outcome of UKRI and sector-wide policies.

This letter is the first of two communiques on behalf of disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent PhD students impacted directly and indirectly by COVID-19, and their supporters, with the second to follow in due course (around the shifting demands of our conditions, circumstances, work and research demands, with which, without these measures, we are doing our best to keep up even marginally, with varying degrees of success). We will share a second letter with a more detailed rationale for these requests (link tbc) as soon as we are able to do so.

If you are affected by these issues, or support those who are, please submit your name and information using the form below (Scroll right to the bottom for the form fields!).


A cross-university collaboration between:

Penny Andrews, PhD candidate, University of Sheffield
Zara Bain, PhD candidate, University of Bristol / Cardiff University
Robin Craig, PhD candidate, Roehampton University
Alex Fitzpatrick, PhD Candidate, University of Bradford
Harrie Larington-Spencer, PhD candidate, University of Manchester
Ellie Munro, PhD candidate, University of Birmingham
Emma Nagouse, PhD Candidate, University of Sheffield
Anneka Owens, PhD student, Cardiff University
Divya M. Persaud, PhD candidate, UCL
Irene Revell, PhD candidate, LCC
Freya Watkins, PhD candidate, University of Birmingham
Fletch Williams, PhD candidate, LSE Law

We currently have over 1580 signatures since publication at noon on 14 May 2020! To see the full letter with signatures, please click here:

To sign the letter, go here.

[All personal data collected by this form letter, including email addresses, will be kept in a password protected database with access only by the aforementioned parties, and will be used only for the purposes stated, i.e. to provide updates on this form letter. By submitting your information, you confirm your consent for your data to be captured, stored and used in this way.]

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