Disabled students accuse leading university of institutional failings on discrimination

A world-renowned university is facing claims of “institutional failings”, after an investigation by its own disabled students into allegations of disability discrimination.

The Disabled Students’ Network (DSN) of University College London (UCL) is set to publish a report next week which accuses the university of repeatedly failing to make reasonable adjustments for its disabled students and overcharging them for their accessible accommodation.

The report – which has been welcomed by UCL – includes results from a survey of disabled UCL students, which found two-thirds of them (67 per cent) had experienced disablism by UCL and about three-fifths (58 per cent) said they had been made to feel unwelcome by the university because of their impairments.

Last year, UCL was ranked as the world’s eighth best university, as well as the third best in the UK and the fourth best in Europe.

The survey was carried out in November and December 2019 after DSN was approached by several disabled students with “worrying reports of their treatment” by the university.

Many disabled students told DSN they had experienced a deterioration in their health and had thought about quitting their course, as a result of the treatment they had received.

The report says the testimonies collected by DSN “indicate that the average disabled student’s experience at UCL is likely to include being expected to study in spaces that are not accessible to them, encountering ignorant or offensive statements about disabled people from an academic or administrative staff member, not being informed or being misled about their rights” and having to “spend a significant amount of time chasing after a reasonable adjustment and either having it be denied or significantly delayed”.

The reasonable adjustments that have been refused include requests to secure recordings of lectures and applications for extra time for exams.

The report – Disability Discrimination Faced by UCL Students – says DSN was able last term “to ensure that several students, after months without support, finally receive the reasonable adjustments that the law states should be in place when they start their education”.

It adds: “Without our work several of them would have had to terminate their studies.

“At the same time our work has no power to give these students back the first months of their studies.

“Nor are we able to advocate for students who do not know their rights because they do not come to us when they have issues.”

DSN says it hopes the report will achieve “change on an institutional scale and not just individual victories”.

One disabled student told DSN: “The amount of explaining yourself and how much you have to prove how you are being affected by things can make you feel like you are being treated as though you don’t have a disability.

“Like having to explain that autism is permanent and affects you physically, mentally and emotionally over and over again and that all autistic students are different from each other.”

Another said: “Throughout my whole university experience I’ve felt unwelcome and unheard.

“Whenever I would bring up my situation to my examinations officer he would advise me to either drop out or simply get on with it.”

A third student said: “When my mental and physical health worsened last year, I felt that I needed to take some sick-leave.

“Unfortunately, my supervisor and course organiser did not feel that this was in my best interests, and repeatedly discouraged me from applying for leave, or even seeking external advice on this matter.”

Another told DSN: “Access needs are not being met at all at UCL. I cannot get into and out of any classroom or lecture theatre within UCL’s Institute of Education independently – thus surely failing to meet the legal requirements outlaid within the 2010 Equality Act, entirely.”

One student said: “Because I feel so unwelcome here compared to my last institution I’ve thought about dropping out many times.

“Since the lack of support caused my illness to flare up I might not have a choice.”

Michelle Daley, interim director of The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), pointed to an ombudsman’s ruling on Richmond council’s failure to support disabled children, published this week (see separate story), and an ALLFIE report on the failure of schools to be fully inclusive for disabled pupils, due to be published next week.

She said: “It’s just the start of the year and already we are starting to see these failures in disabled people’s education.

“It’s scary to think what the rest of the year might be like.”

Among the report’s recommendations, DSN calls for: a new team of trained staff to address the issues raised by its report; disability equality training for staff running UCL’s facilities; all broken lifts to be fixed; a map of toilets on the university’s campuses in central and east London; training for all heads of department by a disability consultancy; regular surveys of disabled students’ experiences; a more streamlined complaints process; and efforts by UCL to inform disabled students of their rights.

DSN also wants the university to set up a system that will ensure that all students who disclose they are disabled when they apply for a place can set up a “summary of reasonable adjustments” before they begin their studies; and for all lecturers to be told they can no longer refuse requests to record their lectures without providing equally good alternatives.

And it wants the university to contact all disabled students with information about overcharging for accessible accommodation and how they can secure reductions in their rent.

UCL welcomed the report and said it would “take seriously all issues raised” and “implement any necessary improvements to ensure its policies and practices meet best practice and that teaching, learning and student life at UCL are inclusive and accessible”.

A UCL spokesperson said: “We are committed to fostering a welcoming and caring environment for all of our students.

“Ensuring excellent student experience and academic outcomes for all disabled students is an absolute priority for us.

“The wellbeing of disabled students at UCL is of utmost importance and we will be working with the group to make sure their concerns are addressed and the best possible support is in place.”

16 January 2020. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com