U.K. Disabled Students in The Guardian: A Response to the Open Letter

Earlier in the week, I posted about an Open Letter that Zara Bain and other disabled Ph.D. students across the university system in the U.K. have circulated. The Open Letter calls upon university administrations to address the specific detrimental effects with respect to their educations that disabled students are experiencing due to COVID-19.

Their efforts were given further exposure in an article published in The Guardian yesterday. Unfortunately, the article employs ableist language and tends to advance a medicalized understanding of disability, for the most part setting aside the structural and institutional concerns on which the Open Letter itself concentrates. Nevertheless, I’m happy to know that Zara and her colleagues have been given this platform for their campaign.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Zara Bain, a final-year PhD student who suffers from several conditions affecting her immune system and is one of the organisers of the letter, says many disabled students are so busy trying to adapt to the circumstances that they simply don’t have time to apply for extensions. She sees the bureaucracy as part of a wider misunderstanding of what they’re going through.

“The general absence of any mention, until very recently, from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) or universities of this particular student population – who are higher risk, more pressured and less supported, relative to the pandemic – means we’ve been sort of left to deal with all of that,” she says. “And [also] trying to meet existing PhD deadlines, and weather problems like running out of funding.”

Prof Jennifer Rubin, who works on inclusion at UKRI, says that “any UKRI-supported doctoral student who needs an extension of time because of Covid-19 can request one”. The organisation will review its policy over the summer.

But Penny Andrews, another signatory, says the response from the research councils and some universities belies a lack of understanding. “It feels like we are being fobbed off,” she says. “I am a PhD student struggling to write up, who has already been through major surgery, survived being hit by a car at 40mph, and experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and bereavement, as well as autism, ADHD, cerebral palsy, and anxiety and depression.”

It’s not just PhD students with disabilities who are struggling. Bain and Andrews’s views are echoed in a new report by the National Association of Disability Practitioners, which warned that disabled university students are struggling more than their peers during lockdown.

The report urges universities to provide better training for academic staff to ensure their online teaching is inclusive. It also warns that neurodiverse students and those with visual and hearing impairments are facing problems with access to teaching and course materials, such as poor captioning and underprepared lecture slides.‘Sometimes you feel alone’: studying at university with a disabilityRead more

separate survey by the Association of Non-Medical Help Providers suggested that 81% of disabled students have been negatively impacted by changes to their academic work due to coronavirus, while 73% said they had issues with access to academic resources such as libraries and workshops, and 57% said access to their teaching had been disrupted.

You can read or listen to the article in The Guardian here.

My post about the Open Letter is here.

Zara Bain’s interview in the Dialogues on Disability series is here.

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