I began University hopeful, if cautious. After a trying year in which the chronic health condition, which I have suffered from since I was twelve, forced me to study entirely from home, I had made my offer and was enthusiastic to begin a BSc in Maths and Philosophy. By the end of the first term I had decided to drop out.
In retrospect this is not surprising. Despite my independence I had underestimated the effectof my health on my ability to regularly complete simple tasks such as walking to the shopsand cooking and despite disclosure of my disability in my UCAS statement I had received noinformation on options for support during the university year. Further, as a disabled studentmy chances weren’t that good in the first place.
Only 20% of disabled people hold a degree (In comparison to the 38% in the general population) and this disparity is even starker in certain subgroups of disability. For example just 17.4% of students with a mental illness hold a degree, whilst only 7% of people with a specific or severe learning difficulty obtain one. This contributes to the significant wage gap between disabled and non-disabled people living in the UK with disabled people significantly more likely to be living in poverty.
The reasons for this qualification gap are varied, each disability is unique with it’s own specific affects and limitations. There are, however, broader systemic issues which increase this gap and provide barriers to disabled students in higher education.
One specific issue is the lack of information on potential support. Whilst the information is out there it can be tricky to find with little clear and easily accessible information on the breadth of support available.
This of course can be difficult for universities with questions of how best to reach those students who require support, an issue exacerbated by a system in which students with multiple disabilities cannot disclose all their disabilities on their UCAS form which only allows for details of their ‘primary’ disability leaving universities with an often incomplete image of the support a prospective student requires. It is clear, however, that a new approach is needed given the amount of students unaware of the support they could receive.
This is of particular importance given the difference between degree attainment for students who receive DSA and university support and those that do not. There is a gap of 2.6% between non-disabled graduates and disabled students in receipt of the DSA, however this gap rises to 2.8% when the disabled student is not in receipt of the DSA.
Unlike many disabled students I was able to complete the first year of my degree. When Covid-19 struck the move to online learning meant I was able to catch up during the last months of the second learning block. If it had not been for the relatively rare circumstance of a global pandemic, however, I have little doubt that I would not currently be in education. Starting my final year at University of Bristol I was uncharacteristically optimistic. Whilst my health had not significantly improved I had finally received a number of recommendations from the DSA (Disabled Students Allowance), was putting the finishing touches on an application to study senior law at Cambridge, and felt confident in my ability to manage the illness through my final year of study.
Six weeks later I am making the difficult decision to split my final year over two years, sacrificing my chance to study law at Cambridge and significantly harming my chances in Masters applications. This is primarily due to falling behind in work as a result of delayed DSA funding.
The impact of student confusion surrounding the often complex bureaucratic processes required to receive support at university can be severe, whilst I am still likely to leave university with a degree many do not. It is clear new and improved systems of advice and support are required given the severe consequences posed by the lack thereof.
When I look back to my eighteen year old self and ask what may have changed their future I realise that the reason they ended up where they did is a complex web of systemic ablism, unfortunate life circumstances, and not least the affect of a chronic, little understood, condition. Whilst clearly the university cannot change the the nature of disabled life in a country which has been charged with breaching international human rights law through it’s treatment of disabled people in a report by Just Fair (an amalgamation of charities including Save the Children and Oxfam), there are a few things it could have done that may have helped me earlier.
Taking a general approach I would argue putting measures in place early to protect against periods of more limiting disability is vital to avoid other students ending up in similar situations as I did. Possible ways to put this in place include organising a meeting with each student who has disclosed a disability on their UCAS form and spotlighting disability in welcome events, I would further argue it would be useful to send an email to all students illustrating help they can get from disability services (include examples) as well as the steps they could take to receive this help at the beginning of each term.
The first of these would be useful as it would enable to university to put in place personalised support for disabled students avoiding situations where their disability becomes unmanageable and help comes too little too late. The latter two would ensure students were aware of the support available, in particular focussing on disability in welcome lectures would limit the amount of students unaware of the services available. Further, emails detailing support would remove barriers that disabled students face, specifically confusions as to what steps need to be taken to receive support and what help the university can give. Ultimately it is likely beyond the capabilities of a university, even one with as dedicated and helpful a support team as Bristol, to completely eliminate the struggled students like me face, it is however possible for measures to be put in place that can reduce these burdens and hopefully reduce the amount of students whose futures are damaged as a result of their disability.
Kia Charles BILT Student Fellow 20/21 – working on the project ‘Experiences of Disabled Students’.