The coronavirus crisis has been a challenging time for disabled students in higher education, though it has presented several unexpected opportunities.
People with disabilities navigate a world that is designed and developed for non-disabled people.
This means they are constantly required to overcome obstacles, even when completing simple, everyday tasks, like traveling to and from work or study.
In higher education, steps have been taken to create a more accessible environment for students with disabilities, yet there’s still a lot of work to be done.
In England, for example, the number of disabled students participating in higher education increased by 36% across just four years, with the latest figures revealing that 308,000 disabled students were enrolled at universities across the country in 2018/19.
However, according to the House of Commons: “Disabled people are underrepresented in higher education, and disabled students in higher education have somewhat worse outcomes from higher education than non-disabled students.”
This reflects the issue that disabled students are often restricted by the many obstacles they would likely face during their university experience, such as lack of accessibility and resources, and the fact that they are often not given the right support to succeed at their institution.
The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the way higher education institutions are run, limiting student and staff attendance on campus, and instead, forcing them to rely much more on online resources.
For students with physical disabilities, such as respiratory disorders, blindness, or those who use a wheelchair or mobility scooter to travel, a virtual higher education experience does have its advantages.
For example, the idea of receiving an education entirely online is likely to ease the anxiety some disabled students may have about traveling to and from campus or navigating campus itself.
Remote learning is particularly crucial for those disabled students who are also considered vulnerable to the coronavirus, as it reduces the interaction they have with others.
However, it’s also important to remember that no two experiences of a disability are the same, and it mustn’t be assumed that all students with disabilities share the same views or hesitations about campus life.
Many will be disappointed about the cancellation of in-person teaching and events, and will be looking forward to taking part in the experiences that traditional university life can offer, such as extracurricular clubs and social events.
Equally, while the pandemic has forced the part-closure of campuses for the foreseeable future, the level of in-person teaching will likely increase when the pandemic has subsided.
Therefore, it is crucial that, during this period, universities don’t lose focus on developing an in-person campus environment and experience that is accessible for all disabled students.
The accelerated shift to online learning has merely provided disabled students with greater choice when it comes to accessing higher education.
Another benefit of online education is that it can provide disabled students with a more assisted approach to learning, something that traditional teaching, such as group lectures or seminars, can sometimes struggle to achieve.
In response to the pandemic, the University of Padua, Italy, expanded their internet resources to include “specific support related to online teaching for students with all kind of vulnerabilities.”
Professor Laura Nota, lecturer at the university, told UNESCO about one of their new features: “Students with hearing impairments can benefit from the online stenotype service, which consists of the transcription of both synchronous and asynchronous lectures, that allows them to easily follow their courses.”
While these features can improve the learning process for disabled students, each student, depending on the nature of their disability, will require personalized support in order to navigate and prepare for virtual learning.
While a number of opportunities have arisen as a result of the pandemic, it must also be acknowledged that it has also presented a great number of challenges for disabled people.
According to a recent National Union of Students (NUS) survey of more than 4,000 university students in the UK, 27% of respondents were unable to access online learning during the COVID-19 lockdown; 18% said they lacked the support necessary to deal with COVID-19, such as counselling or financial help; and “disabled students and those with caring responsibilities were more likely to have not received this support.”
In an interview with The Guardian, NUS president Larissa Kennedy stated that she was worried about a lack of consistency in universities’ safety measures: “[Universities are] committing to in-person teaching, which they haven’t necessarily thought through from a safety perspective because they’re in competition with other institutions. Immunocompromised students and disabled students are once again being erased from the conversation, and of course their staff counterparts.”
With this in mind, it’s important to remember that even greater support might be required for students with disabilities during the pandemic. A BBC report in August detailed how the Haylott family, in which both parents and eldest son are blind, have faced many difficulties as a result of the pandemic. Vicky Haylott told reporters: “We can’t observe the one-way systems. We can’t look at the signs. We can’t do the two-meter social distancing thing.”
She continued: “People with disabilities can suffer really terribly with regard to their mental health if we isolate them further by creating barriers where there weren’t any before.”
While the shift to online learning has been a positive change for many students, others may struggle without their usual support systems. As the Office for Students highlights: “Study support – for example, the assistance some students receive from note-takers and sign-language interpreters – may be less readily available.”
For some students, such as those who are hearing or visually impaired, the shift to online learning will present a number of new challenges in itself, and extra steps will need to be taken by staff to ensure these students can access the content they need.
Students will need to be connected to a disability officer, regardless of whether they will be attending campus in the approaching academic year, to ensure they receive the tailored support they need.
Equally, for students with hearing disabilities who rely on lip reading to communicate, mask wearing will present its own challenges when they eventually return to campus.
Institutions must acknowledge that while online learning may be an opportunity for some disabled students, it also presents significant challenges.
The unique obstacles that students with disabilities face must be considered as part of any plans your institution develops to safely return to campus in the future.
For further information on how the coronavirus pandemic is continuing to affect staff and students in higher education, please see our latest report: The Coronavirus Crisis and the Future of Higher Education.