Higher education was easily accessible to disabled people during Covid. Why are we being shut out now? | Rosie Anfilogoff (2024)

My route to university was never going to be simple. While my friends were flicking through university brochures and choosing Ucas options, I was signing chemotherapy consent forms in the teenage cancer unit at Addenbrooke’s hospital and throwing up in its weirdly tropical island-themed bathrooms. Even before then, my severe chronic illness made attending traditional university unthinkable – until the pandemic happened.

In 2020, for the first time, it became possible to attend a brick-and-mortar university online. Universities became accessible – or at least, more accessible than they had ever been – practically overnight. Accommodations that disabled students had been requesting for years, such as lecture recordings and software that would allow them to take exams from home, were slotted into place so that students could learn remotely. Suddenly, friends at university were having the kind of experience that would have enabled me to join them. But since the “end” of the pandemic, online learning has withered away and thousands of students have been left without sufficient access. By returning to the pre-pandemic state of affairs, universities are failing current and prospective disabled students like me.

The return to solely in-person learning ignores everything experts in the field have recommended and, I believe, neglects universities’ legal duty to make “reasonable adjustments” to ensure people with disabilities are not disadvantaged. Organisations that represent disabled students have made it clear that continued online provision is crucial, with many students requesting the same. “I’d like the option for remote learning to still be given to students who ask for it,” said one student in a report from the Disabled Students’ Commission. “As a disabled student, I have found remote learning – although challenging at times – easier than the challenges I would have to deal with if I had to attend on-campus teaching.”. Similarly, in a survey of 326 disabled students by Disabled Students UK, 84.5% said the option of online learning post-pandemic would benefit them.

Analysis carried out by The Office for Students, the independent regulator of higher education in England, found the achievement gap between disabled and non-disabled students narrowed during the period of pandemic-induced online learning, strongly suggesting many disabled students found online delivery superior to in-person teaching.

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Some disabilities make online learning harder. But for those who would benefit from online programmes, the rewards are clear. The flexibility of online learning is especially important for students, like me, whose symptoms wax and wane, making the ability to study and take exams when able to perform best essential. Students with mobility impairments or executive functioning issues find not having to navigate campus helpful, because they can save their energy for studying, not logistics. Even for disabled students who wish to attend mostly in person, the ability to study online alleviates pressures of attendance requirements, which are still often linked to financial assistance.

According to the Office for National Statistics, only 24.9% of disabled adults aged 21-64 have a degree or above, compared with 42.7% of non-disabled adults. For disabled people, going to university almost halves the disability job gap – the difference in employment levels between disabled and non-disabled people – meaning higher education is the best chance for disabled people to find employment. With recent findings by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showing disabled people now make up nearly half of the country’s most deprived working-age adults, surely this is an urgent issue to confront. One that, in an election year, when the record levels of long-term sickness are frequently used as political fodder, all parties should be pressed into tackling. Particularly when soon the Department for Work and Pensions’ work capability assessment will recognise online work, so disabled people will be required to work remotely, but unable to access most higher education in the same way. Offering disabled people access to online university is an easy intervention to increase their chances of success. When we already know provision is possible, why aren’t we doing everything in our power to make studying more accessible?

Arguments that online programmes aren’t equivalent to traditional courses fall flat, given the disinclination of universities to refund students forced online during the pandemic. If online teaching was good enough then, why isn’t it good enough now, for the people who would benefit most?

I’m not saying the experience of studying online during the peak of Covid-19 was wholly positive; many students struggled. The pandemic was an awful time, made worse by the uncertainty and isolation some students felt after everything moved online. This was exacerbated by sometimes haphazard delivery – quality was a lottery depending on the institution. And yet, in a Disabled Students UK survey, 69.9% found online learning to be equally or more accessible than in-person learning. True, online university can’t offer the social benefits of a traditional experience, but if online learning were widely available, students could choose what was best for them.

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The Open University, home to the UK’s largest disabled student population, while pioneering accessibility, cannot serve everyone. It doesn’t offer every course, and frankly, it shouldn’t be expected to. But disabled students deserve choice, like all students. They shouldn’t have to settle (while paying thousands of pounds) for a course they aren’t passionate about, purely because there’s no other option – especially when we know the resources exist that would allow them to attend other universities.

To politicians and pundits, I’m an economic burden, despite being desperate to study and repeatedly denied access. Years after my friends have graduated, I watch as they go on to jobs and PhDs while I struggle to even get a foot in the door, my request to study remotely refused by university after university.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to go to university anytime soon. But until I can, the system is failing me, and everyone like me. And as disability rates rise, more people than ever are being left behind. Not many of the issues I face as a disabled person are easily solvable, but this one is.

  • Rosie Anfilogoff is a writer and journalist

  • Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure discussion remains on topics raised by the writer. Please be aware there may be a short delay in comments appearing on the site.

Higher education was easily accessible to disabled people during Covid. Why are we being shut out now? | Rosie Anfilogoff (2024)
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