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COVID-19 Guidance

Coronavirus guide for disabled students

This is a living document which is being constantly updated as information changes. Last updated:  24th May 2020. 

New changes:

  • New section 2 for surveys and reports about disabled students and universities
  • DSA section largely updated

We are a loose collective of current and former disabled-students in the UK. You can find us on Twitter and Facebook

The Coronavirus has caused widespread disruption to society in the UK and worldwide, as well as to UK Higher education life. In early March universities were mostly running as normal with extra hand-washing advice – by mid-March this had turned into social-isolation for at-risk groups, universities changing in-person teaching to an online model as well as rapidly shutting down services. 

University communications have often been very long; constantly changing and often fail to mention issues that specifically affect you as disabled students. It can be difficult to contact staff, many universities are insisting on deadlines being maintained (despite our lives being turned upside down) and there is a lot of uncertainty about exams and more. 

You are not alone! 


This guide aims to pull together advice and links to support resources for UK-based disabled students at this time. 

The university’s legal duties to you as a disabled student remain, they should have been thinking of disabled students all along. Don’t be afraid to let them know that you are needing access and support. 

Everyone is affected

It is worth keeping in mind that as the entire world is affected by this virus, many organisations are under-staffed and people who are working in the organisations we refer to are likely to be:

  • Trying to work from home, and or offices with very few staff.  
  • Covering colleagues’ work.
  • Using unfamiliar, slow and now overloaded IT systems. 
  • Managing caring responsibilities on top of work (e.g. children, elders or sick folk).
  • Having unclear messages or limited messages from their own management. 

It is likely that email and online methods will be more effective than phones to contact people and organisations as remote-phone access is probably harder to set up quickly. There are likely to be delays or slow-downs in every area of life. If you can manage automated-systems, we recommend using these where possible so it frees up staff-intensive resources. In this guide we will try to estimate what reasonable response times should be in these circumstances. 

Surveys and reports about universities and disabled students

There have been a number of surveys into UK disabled students’ experiences since Covid-19 kicked off. 

Disabled Students UK

Disabled Students UK has collated information from different surveys in the report “Impact of the Pandemic on Disabled Students and Recommended Measures”

National Association of Disability Practitioners (NADP)

NADP have produced both a shortish survey report and guidance for universities about making their teaching and learning more accessible. https://nadp-uk.org/covid-19-resources-for-members-and-colleagues/ 

Association of Non-Medical Help Providers 

This is a survey of both student recipients of DSA funded ‘non medical helper (NMH) support and of the frontline staff of the providers’ themselves which gives a great ‘both sides’ overview of issues. The first 25 pages are report and summary of findings, the latter 120 pages are the anonymised direct quotes from the surveys: https://nmhproviders.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Your-DSA-support-and-Covid-19-Student-and-NMHP-Survey-Final-Report-v.3.2.pdf

Open Letter to UKRI

A group of disabled postgraduate taught students wrote an open letter to UKRI (UK Research Innovation – formerly the research councils) asking for broader adjustments for extensions and funding in light of Covid-19 as it is not just students in their final 6 months who have been badly affected. See: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScJJR_8srZ1Zmdszud5RiWnjrBwXV0ZmQ7nCj2qWDBDUQhUwA/viewform 

National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN)

NADSN have an entire Covid-19 resources page for disabled staff working at universities at https://nadsn-uk.org/resources/. Under Section 2 they have published their position paper about the immediate future. Many disabled students also work as disabled staff and issues that affect disabled students often also affect disabled university staff (whether current students or not).

Stress and anxiety

While most people are anxious right now, many of us have impairments that make uncertainty more practically difficult to deal with as well as more distressing. For students with mental health or autism spectrum conditions for example, saying “just think about something else” is a lot easier said than done. For students with some impairments managing disruptions to health and social care is taking up all your time and energy. 

We don’t claim to have a magic fix, but we list a few resources or ideas which might help.

Student Minds

Student Minds have created a Corona Virus resources page at https://www.studentminds.org.uk/coronavirus.html. While these may not fix everything, some basic self-care strategies like taking time away from the computer, making efforts to stay in contact with close people, and doing non-virus and non-academic tasks, can really help reduce background levels of stress and anxiety.

Online therapy

Remember that many therapists are able to work online (and more will probably be moving online in this situation). Here are some free therapy and counseling options: 

Mutual aid and volunteering opportunities

Some students have set up social media groups specifically for virus related issues or joined their local Covid-19 Mutual Aid group (see https://covidmutualaid.org/) which is highly localised and provides opportunities to help one another out with a range of issues from food to support and advice. Sometimes doing something can feel better and be better for managing anxiety than feeling like you’re doing nothing. There are ways to help remotely if in-person assistance isn’t possible. 

Resources for social interaction and self development 

Finally, if you are able to, do take advantage of the many resources that are now moving online. From online dance parties and collective exercising to drawing tutorials, Your local mutual aid facebook group will probably be a good source of information about these.

Collective social media group

A collective of disabled people have set up a Facebook group called The Bunker: https://www.facebook.com/groups/thebunkerUK/ for disabled people to share and offer advice and links to relevant guidance for disabled people. It is largely focused on personal and social care issues. New-joiners have to answer some questions to join and agree to follow community rules for everyone’s safety. 

Students’ Union

Your students’ union may have useful sources of support and will know your university and local area well. Do look for information on their websites and social media. You may be able to contribute as well as receive support. 

  1. Housing/Finance

We are aware of a number of financial and housing difficulties disabled students may face, including:

  • Having to leave university accommodation early. 
  • Needing to self-isolate and having risks to your health from housemates’ behaviour.
  • Managing financial issues like rent and bills.
  • Incurring additional costs to maintain hygiene and safety.
  • Paying for extra or more expensive support.

Rent and landlords

If you are struggling with paying rent contact your landlord and explain your difficulties. Ask if they can agree to a break in paying rent, reduced rent or something else. 

Shelter is widely considered a reliable source of information for housing queries in the UK: https://www.shelter.org.uk/

Bills and financial difficulties

If you are struggling with bills, many utility companies have hardship funds especially for disabled people. Contact them and ask for hardship support and if relevant to you, ask if they have any priority support for disabled people (some orgs like water companies will do things like bring you bottled water in the event of an outage if you are disabled). 

If you are likely to go into debt or overdrafts, contact your bank and let them know you are struggling and ask if they can help. 

Template email to an organisation:

“Dear COMPANY,

My name is XXX, my customer reference number is XXX.

I am a disabled person who is experiencing additional financial and practical difficulties as a result of the Corona virus outbreak. <<Explain issue as briefly as possible>>.

Please can COMPANY provide me with <<Make request for help briefly here>> 

If you need me to provide further information please let me know. The most accessible contact method for me right now is XXX. <<If you have unwanted contact e.g. phone, say so “Please do not contact me by phone, I am unable to hear/answer it right now”>>

Many thanks,

SIGNOFF”. 

University hardship fund

Your university may also have additional hardship funds available because of the virus – sometimes they have even relaxed their criteria for use. Go and look at their website and contact the student finance team. If you email them, allow at least 3 days for a reply unless any auto-reply says it will be longer. If they have any online forms or automated systems and you can manage those that is best as it frees up the human-assistance for people who need it most.

If you have non-disability related issues such as childcare, caring or are at risk of, or are in an abusive situation, do also mention this to the university as they are supposed to be extra aware of these situations.

A template email to the hardship fund:
“Hi,

My name is XXX, My student number is XXX.

I am a disabled student in my XXth year of a XXX degree at University-Name. I am struggling financially because of the Coronavirus. <<Insert brief explanation of what you’re struggling with>>. 

Is it possible for the university to provide me with any financial or other assistance <<briefly explain what you need – give costings if possible>>. 

If you need me to provide more information, please let me know. 

Accessible contact methods for me are XXX and XXX. <<If you have unwanted contact e.g. phone, say so “Please do not contact me by phone, I am unable to hear/answer it right now”>>

Many thanks

SIGNOFF”

Mutual aid and collectives 

If you are struggling with practicalities of moving or finances, search for your local Covid-19 Mutual Aid group: https://covidmutualaid.org/, or Students’ Union as they may be able to help. Some of them have small pools of money to help people financially.

  1. Personal and Social Care 

Many disabled students are currently struggling with personal and social care support being disrupted by the virus, and increased risks to health from having Personal Care Assistants (PCAs) coming in and out of their accommodation. As of May 2020, the government has produced some guidance for Direct Payments users at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-for-people-receiving-direct-payments.

Managing care

Grassroots guides for managing PCAs and Covid19

Support plan creation tool

While you may not have or need a full support plan, this tool by the West England Centre for Independent Living (WECIL) and funded by Department for Health: https://www.createmysupportplan.co.uk/?fbclid=IwAR16Hh9CoClXJP95uZpMLZ_1geEYxBEN0JRrCIDL8DdsRe_uCzeBaW77lzM may be useful to help you consider your needs and articulate them clearly. 

Guidance for care providers

Skills for Care have produced various pieces of guidance (being updated regularly) for care providers around Corona Virus at: https://www.skillsforcare.org.uk/About/News/COVID-19.aspx?utm_source=Social%20media&utm_medium=Facebook&utm_campaign=COVID-19&fbclid=IwAR3djQ2_CgkOrOLUEdQlyGliz2AFV5k1_bEjAVDFKLKm6U5WDL65o8RykNQ

Collective social media group

A collective of disabled people have set up a Facebook group called The Bunker: https://www.facebook.com/groups/thebunkerUK/ for disabled people to share and offer advice and links to relevant guidance for disabled people. It is largely focused on personal and social care issues. New-joiners have to answer some questions to join and agree to follow community rules for everyone’s safety. No question is “too stupid” so if you are lost, this is a great place to ask for help and knowledgeable people are usually quick to reply and kind (and if they’re not, report to admins and they will remove unkind posts!). 

Government vulnerable person list

If you feel you may be extra vulnerable, the UK government is about to set up a service where you can register to get assistance probably with food and meds deliveries (As of May 2020, assistance through this seems to vary by local authority). See: https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus-extremely-vulnerable

  1. Assignment deadlines

As of May 2020, some universities have permitted automatic or sympathetic-deadlines systems. Each institution is different your Students’ Union, disability service or academic department may be able to help you find out your university’s rules. 

You may feel the automatic extensions aren’t good enough or are too difficult to access. In that case we recommend emailing the person you have most contact with or your personal tutor and explaining that you need more than the standard extension with your reasons. It is worth stressing in your request that as a disabled person you are more impacted than a non-disabled person would be in the same circumstances and that it is not feasible right now to obtain the usually demanded medical evidence. 

Non-exhaustive list of possible additional difficulties:

  • Managing disability, health and social care needs.
  • Disruption or changes to any 1:1 support e.g. change of mentoring to remote.
  • Experiencing more difficulties accessing online teaching e.g. difficulty hearing in online seminars.
  • Worsening of your impairments because of stress and anxiety.
  • Additional childcare or other responsibilities because of schools and services closing. 
  • Increased risk of being badly affected by the virus, so needing more strict isolation or quarantine.
  • Housing difficulties. 
  • Needing to relocate to a different address. 

Sample extensions request email:

“Dear PERSON,

My name is XXX. My student number is XXX. I am a student in MODULE-NAME, which has coursework XXX due to be submitted on DATE.  I would like to request a two-week <<ASK for longer if you think you need it>> extension until DATE for the following reasons:

As a result of the Coronavirus outbreak and my disability I have been experiencing significant disruptions to my ability to study and complete my assignment on time <<Insert very brief outline of issues here>>. 

I am unable to provide additional medical evidence at this time as healthcare services are closing down all but emergency care and Coronavirus treatment. <<If you are losing out on regular care, outline this here as it may help your case>>. 

I understand university staff are also significantly affected by the rapid changes to university life, but I hope you can respond to this request as soon as possible, preferably no later than 5-7 days from now. <<If you have unwanted contact e.g. phone, say so “Please do not contact me by phone, I am unable to hear/answer it right now”>>

I hope you are able to keep safe and well. 

SIGNOFF

NAME”

  1. Exams

Every university seems to have done something different about exams. Some changed the formats, some turned exams to coursework and some cancelled exams outright. A common term in relation to exams is something called “no detriment” so it is worth investigating what your university is doing for this. 

Requesting further adjustments

Once exam arrangements are published, you may find they are poorly accessible to you. You should carefully consider whether your issues are ‘want’ or ‘need’ as the situation is not ideal for anyone. The legal test for being entitled to request reasonable adjustments for exams is if you feel you are ‘put at a substantial disadvantage compared to other students without your disability’. It is worth talking to your personal tutor, department exams tutor and or disability adviser about further exam adjustments. A template email for request Coronavirus exam adjustments could be:

“Dear NAME AND NAME, 

My name is XXX and my student number is XXX. I am a disabled student in the XXXth year of a XXXth degree in DEPARTMENT. 

My summer exams appear to be NEWFORMAT with XXX adjustments already in place <<XX could be no adjustments>>.  I am concerned that NEWFORMAT will put me at a substantial disadvantage for <<Give reasons briefly>> because of my disability. 

I know it has been difficult for university staff to make the huge changes needed because of Coronavirus disruption, but would the university be willing to agree XXX adjustment instead, <<or discuss further adjustments with me>> by XXX method to come to a solution that will be more accessible for me while still manageable for the university. 

I am happy to discuss this further, <<If you have unwanted contact e.g. phone, say so “Please do not contact me by phone, I am unable to hear/answer it right now”>>

Many thanks, 

SIGNOFF”

Deferring exams

One option is to defer some exams from May/June to August if that would help you by having the issue made less immediate. It is not clear how supportive universities will be of deferral requests, but it can be worth asking for. Universities usually have exam deferral processes published online, so go and look at those for how to do it. 

If you can’t find a process, or find it too overwhelming, a template email to your personal tutor or named exams tutor in your department may help: 

“Dear name, 

My name is XXX. My student number is XXX. I am a XXXth year student on the XXX course in DEPARTMENT. I am also a disabled student who is experiencing additional impacts on my life as a result of the Coronavirus. I have been unable to <<find or manage the university’s formal process at the moment>>. Please accept this as a formal exam deferral request. 

In order to focus on my health and reduce stress and anxiety, I would like to defer my exams from XXXMonth to XXXMonth. This is because <<outline issues you’re having cos of the virus and any disability specific impacts here>>.

I am unable to provide additional medical evidence at this time as NHS services are now totally focused on emergency-only and Coronavirus care. One issue I face in addition to everything else is more difficulty accessing my ongoing healthcare <<outline relevant impact here>> which adds to my immediate and medium term difficulties. 

I hope someone can respond to me within the next 5-7 days. <<If you have unwanted contact e.g. phone, say so “Please do not contact me by phone, I am unable to hear/answer it right now”>>

I hope you keeping safe and well at this time. 

Many thanks, 

SIGNOFF”

  1. Difficulties accessing online teaching and learning

While online teaching and learning are a bonus for some disabled students, they can present additional barriers for others. Learning online is very different to “in person”. Martin Weller from the Open University, world leaders in distance learning, has written a guide for students at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2020/03/13/the-covid-19-online-pivot-the-student-perspective/ 

Many students who are deaf or have any kind of hearing or processing difficulty may find the sound quality of online lectures is poorer than they are accustomed to. Group discussions by audio or video may also be inaccessible or overwhelming. A number of options to improve access to these are possible:

Deaf and hard of hearing students

If you are deaf you may be able to change or add communication support by asking the university to:

  • Help you invite your BSL/English interpreter, (Speech to Text Reporting) STTR operator or notetaker to teaching sessions so you get real-time notes and access. 
  • Add accurate captions to the video of online lectures within 5-10 days.
  • Ensure that a set of real-time summary notes of an online lecture or key points in seminars are made and sent to you (and maybe other students in general. 

Students with other impairments

If you are not deaf you may have difficulty accessing real-time teaching session support but you may be able to ask your university to:

  • Add accurate captions to the videos of online lectures within 5-10 days.
  • Arrange provision of a note-taker so a set of summary notes can be taken. 

Postgraduate/researchers

If you are a postgraduate researcher you may have had moderate to severe disruption to your programme:

  • Closure of specialist facilities such as labs, computer suites and studios.
  • Loss or reduced access to research data. 
  • Reduced contact with your research group or contact methods being poorly accessible.
  • Concerns about maintaining your supervisor-supervisee relationships.

The best contact is probably your PhD or research group leader or graduate support departments as they will have most knowledge of your working area. You may wish to contact disability services for advice if your academic and graduate schools cannot help. 

If you are concerned about delays to research and funding, consider asking your funding bodies or universities about any hardship funds or extensions to funding that are available. 

Difficulties navigating online systems

If you are struggling to access online systems, first talk to any mentor or study tutors you have. If you do not have this support, contact your personal tutor or a friendly tutor and ask if they would help you work things out. You may also find fellow students helpful as they may have experienced similar confusion to you. 

You may wish to share this twitter thread for academic staff about making things accessible: https://twitter.com/AngharadBeckett/status/1238925930711650306 

Difficulties accessing university services e.g. welfare

Universities may still be running services with reduced staffing and overworking staff who are available. You should still ask for support and if responses are unsuitable and slow, ask to talk to the management as universities should now be stabilising their staffing. 

Free assistive technology

Here is a list of free assistive technology and other resources: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/accessibility/free-assistive-technology-and-resources-during-covid-period

  1. DSA issues

DSA is legally logistically separate from your university in England and Wales. Your first contact for any DSA issues should usually be your support provider (workers or equipment) or the Needs Assessment Centre (use the main centre contacts as individual staff may be unavailable whereas the central office can redirect your query to the best person to help). 

If you have to extend your planned graduation date, you should inform your funding body then your assessment centre. 

If you haven’t been using your support, you can start using it now. You can also enter/continue the DSA process at any point. Contact the providers on your “DSA 2” award letter and ask them to help. If you have not heard from your providers and need help, do contact them. If you don’t hear back or are not happy, contact your Needs Assessment Centre for help. 

Support providers, assessment centres and funding bodies (and universities where assessments are done there) are all still experiencing disruption but should have improved since March and April. We hope our guidance will help you navigate these systems as efficiently for you and them as possible to minimise the delays to getting solutions in place. 

Support Providers

If you are having issues accessing or using support workers then the first point of contact is either the usual method you use to contact the worker or the agency. If you find a worker doesn’t reply in 3-5 days, go to the agency as the worker may be unavailable because of current virus disruption. 

“Dear SUPPORT-WORKER/AGENCY,

My name is XXX. I receive XXX support through DSA. I am experiencing <<explain your difficulty>> and would like to <<explain outcome you want>>. 

Please can you let me know if you can assist me directly or tell me who I need to speak to with my problem. 

I hope you are all staying safe and well at this time. 

SIGNOFF”

If any of your equipment is breaking down, you need to speak to your equipment providers. Again, email may be best while phone systems are re-set up. They should be able to respond within 5-10 days to start sorting your issue out. There are restrictions on physically handling equipment so they may need to suggest alternatives at the moment. If you are not getting a satisfactory response, you may need to make a formal complaint to them and talk to your needs assessment centre who may be able to help. 

Needs Assessment Centres

If you need your DSA recommendations changed you should email your Needs Assessment Centre. It helps if you can provide your Funding Body reference number and a moderate amount of detail about what you need and why it is a disability-related need. Centres should respond to an email within 3-5 days and may be able to request changes from funding bodies for you once they understand what you need. If you need a phone or video call chat, ask for this. 

Applying for DSA

You can and should still apply for DSA – sooner rather than later!

You can find a needs assessment centre at https://www.gov.uk/disabled-students-allowances-assessment-centre. If the assessment is remote, you may wish to consider centres close to the university postcode as they will probably know more about the local universities. 

Useful DSA information

If you know any prospective disabled students – tell them to talk to their university disability team and apply for DSA as soon as possible – so if there’s any issues there is time to fix them! 

Evidence for DSA (Specific Learning Differences (SpLDs) like dyslexia/dyspraxia)

The SpLD Assessment Standards Committee (SASC) have considered the issues but had to decide it is not possible to do an entire diagnostic assessment remotely. They recommend doing remote interim interviews as a short term solution during the pandemic with a top-up in person at a later date. This is all explained (especially in Section 6) of this SASC document: https://sasc.org.uk/SASCDocuments/Physical%20Distancing%20and%20SpLD%20Assessment%20SASC%20Guidance%20May2020.pdf 

Student Finance England (SFE) have announced that they will accept some interim assessment reports with a top-up once things become more normal. This is explained in an “SSIN” (student support information note) called SSIN 04 (20 SASC DIAGNOSTIC ASSESSMENT at https://t.co/nCaiQj3haz (If this link breaks, try searching for the title of the document and please let us know!  The document date is nonsense). 

SFE: Evidence for other conditions

There has been less clear guidance published, but SFE say to apply and submit what evidence you have and they will let you know if it is sufficient. 

You may also find that by now (May 2020) GPs are more able to fill in the DSA evidence form at https://media.slc.co.uk/sfe/2021/ft/sfe_dsa_disability_evidence_form_2021_o.pdf if you can email or post it to them. They can also write a letter for you and email it back to you – as long it’s a scan of headed paper it should be acceptable to SFE. 

SFE: Section 5 for DSA long form only

If you are a part-time or postgraduate student (or don’t have a student loan) and are using the longer English DSA application form. Instead of getting Section 5 physically stamped, Student Finance England (SFE) will accept an email to [email protected] from the student’s Higher Education Provider from an academic email address which confirms the following:

  • Student’s name
  • Student’s Customer Reference Number (CRN)
  • Course name
  • Course start date
  • Course end date
  • Student’s year of study (e.g. second year)
  • Level of study (undergraduate or postgraduate) 
  • Intensity of study e.g full or part time (if part time, what percentage e.g. 50% or 75%). 

DSA Needs Assessments will still go ahead during the Coronavirus outbreak, probably largely by telephone or remote video systems. Remote will be documented in DSA reports so that if recommendations are not as good as they should be, funding bodies are asked to be more flexible with reviews. If video or phone won’t work for you, or you need support like a BSL/English interpreter, talk to the assessment centre about your concerns – there may be relaxation times when face to face assessments can be offered. 

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