Disabled students were left without support during the pandemic and over half considered leaving full-time education, according to a survey of pupils at 69 UK universities and higher education providers.
Just 23.1 per cent of disabled students received the support they needed over the pandemic, with many saying they felt “left behind”, “alienated”, and “forgotten” by university staff.
Campaigners are calling on universities to maintain a hybrid of online learning and in-person teaching, with one student saying: “There shouldn’t have had to be a pandemic to make things accessible.”
According to new analysis, disabled students were disproportionately advantaged when universities switched to online lectures and new exam formats, but were “forgotten about” when it came to providing targeted help.
A report on the findings said: “Disabled students have been requesting lecture recordings for years. During the pandemic it has suddenly been implemented because abled students need them.”
The survey of 326 students across 69 universities was carried out by Disabled Students UK from the beginning of February to the end of April 2021.
The introduction of new Covid safety measures on campus, such as creating one way systems and removing seating spaces, created issues for disabled students trying to access their studies, however.
Some 41 per cent of people said they had problems and, of these, over half said their concerns had not been addressed a year into the pandemic.
Overall, 57.2 per cent of disabled students surveyed said that they considered leaving their university, interrupting their studies, or switching to part-time studies due to the pandemic. This was a similar rate to the 43 per cent of disabled students who told the Higher Education Policy Institute that they had considered leaving their course.
One student, who had to shield her halls during the pandemic, told researchers that they had “no support, no help and no information”. They added: “It was only when students came back in September that they put up signs and hand sanitiser. I’ve felt alone and forgotten.”
Another student said: “I have felt left behind, as if I am a spare part in the university and alienated from my studies, with my ability to participate and study being second place.”
Many respondents said that there was a huge administrative burden put on disabled people to provide their disabilities and get the help they needed.
One student said that they had to contact university staff “about five times to get support put in place, despite me speaking to them several times and sending them my medical evidence.”
They added: “It only got put in place because my course leader emailed the disability team herself.”
28.3 per cent of people surveyed said that they had to provide further evidence of their disability during the pandemic, despite having already provided to their universities that they were disabled.
63 per cent of students who tried to get disability support during the pandemic found that the process was slowed down or put on hold, and this was particularly high among international and EU students – at 73.5 per cent.
Mette Westander, founder of Disability Students UK, who carried out the research, said that the findings presented a “nuanced picture” of people’s experiences.
She said: “Most of the benefits that have happened have come from universities making accommodations for all students – this has accidentally been beneficial for disabled students.
“These changes weren’t targeted at them, but they have been disproportionately advantaged by it. However at the same time when it comes to supporting disabled students directly during this time, they have been forgotten about.”
Jess O’Thompson, 23, a law student and disability activist at the University of Cambridge, said that when the pandemic hit a lot of the things she had been campaigning for, such as recorded lectures, “happened overnight”.
“The pandemic forced people to try and do things differently,” she told The Independent. “The exam formats suddenly became a lot more flexible, for example. But a lot of the concern for disabled students right now is that things will go back to how everything was like before.”
An overwhelming 84.5 per cent of disabled students surveyed said that they would benefit from online or distance teaching being kept as an option after the pandemic.
Ms O’Thompson said that the law faculty had kept open-book exams as the norm, but that science and maths departments were going back to in-person teaching and exams.
“Different impairments have different needs,” she added. “So we need to keep a variety of different teaching methods.”
She added that some aspects of the pandemic “made access for some disabled students harder”, giving the example of being unable to change her environment and go to a coffee shop or library when she was struggling to concentrate due to her ADHD.
The Independent reported in January that disabled students at the University of Sheffield had experienced bullying, harassment and discrimination.
Documents from the university revealed that they were failing to use support plans designed to help some disabled students with their classes, while some staff with disabilities were feeling anxious and even suicidal due to the lack of help.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.