Opinion | Do you have to be able to deal with a disability?


Katie Sowerby, First Year, English and History

I am a disabled student and, like many first years, I found the transition to university difficult. This was exacerbated by the slow and lacking response from the disability support services - and I have not suffered this alone.

This is a consistent issue throughout the UK. Many disabled students have received some support in school but on arriving at university this support appears to be minimal or at least very difficult to access.

This is in spite, however, of all the universities that I visited on open days heavily promoting their support services. I clearly did not read the fine print.

A recent study by the Office for Students in 2019 came to the conclusion that ‘universities and colleges are getting better at being accessible, but only some of the time.’ This highlights how significant improvements are still needed in universities for disabled students to enjoy equal opportunities within higher education.

It would have been very easy to give up as email after email fell on stony ground

According to the study, there were ‘numerous incidences of disabled students not receiving support until well into their first term, often meaning they fall behind in their course and in, extreme cases, having to repeat a year.’

Personally I can see why. I completed the relevant paperwork for assistance on time and repeatedly emailed disability services through a range of contacts, but it still took over half of the first term for this to be accepted by the University Disability Service.

It would have been very easy to give up as email after email fell on stony ground; I wonder how many do give up at this stage. The result was that my tutors were only aware of my disability late in my first term, which was a huge hindrance to my studies.

Part of my support was supposed to be in the form of a learning support tutor but there were no clear instructions on how to access this at all. It took me until the beginning of the second term after many unanswered emails for this finally to be sorted.

As a result, I found the beginning of the first year to be more of a struggle than it needed to be. I am not alone in this.

I count myself as lucky because my school were very helpful in directing me towards the appropriate services. Without them, my chances of accessing any services would have been much reduced. This does pose a question. Do you have to be in a privileged position to even access the support functions of the university? I fear many who could and should benefit fall at the first hurdle.

In this context, it is unsurprising that disabled students are more at risk of dropping out and are likely to gain a lower-class degree. This is something that can, and must, be changed.

I fear many who could and should benefit fall at the first hurdle

Epigram approached the University of Bristol for their comment and a spokesperson for the University stated: ‘We are sorry that Katie experienced difficulties while trying to access funded support.

‘The specific assistance Katie required isn’t provided by the University of Bristol and needs to be arranged directly between the student, the provider and Disabled Students Allowance. That being said, we acknowledge that there were some unfortunate delays between Disability Services responding to Katie in October, which led to a delay in her Disability Support Summary being shared with her academic school.

‘We are aware that the service was very stretched at that time but since January 2021 we have employed more staff which has helped to ensure students are able to access appointments more quickly and receive a faster response from our advisers.

‘The University of Bristol remains committed to creating an environment where our disabled students are supported to achieve their full potential and receive maximum benefit from their involvement and contribution to the life of the university.

‘We have reached out to Katie to invite them to a meeting to discuss what happened and to ensure she knows how to access support going forward.’

Featured Image: Epigram

The University's Disability Services can be reached HERE