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Thank you very much for inviting me to speak today.

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I want to start by saying that as this event does not have captions I have put the transcript of this presentation at I also want to mention that my presentation will involve topics like institutional ableism which may be triggering.

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My name is Mette Westander and I am the Founding Director of Disabled Students UK. We are a disabled student led organisation working to increase accessibility in Higher Education. Our members include disabled student representatives from over 60 universities. We lift disabled students voices and produced research on the impact of the pandemic. Our latest survey of 300 disabled students provides insight into causes and solutions to mental health issues in this group.

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Disabled people have higher rate of mental health conditions overall and 82 percent of disabled students who responded to our survey state that their mental health has worsened during the pandemic. This compared to 52 percent of students overall. The vast majority report reduced energy and concentration and increased loneliness and anxiety.

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To understand why disabled students are experiencing such poor mental health right now we asked our participants which factors have been causing them stress. We found that many of their stressors in the last year have centred around survival.

66 percent of disabled students report worrying about getting the virus, reflecting the fact that over half our participants believe that they are at increased risk compared to the general population and 1 in 5 have been told to shield. It also reflects a worry about whether our lives will be considered worthy of saving if we contract the virus. As reported by the Care Quality Commission some have been incorrectly given Do not resuscitate orders or told that due to their condition they might be deprioritised for treatment if they were to get seriously ill from the virus.

64 percent of respondents report difficulties accessing healthcare, therapy or personal assistance and 33 percent report difficulties accessing food, PPE or other essential items. There is a general sense that our access has been deprioritised, with new safety measures being been put in place without consideration for how disabled people are going to access much needed services.

Finally, it’s become acceptable in the last year to argue that the lives of sick people are not worth the same as the lives of others. Unsurprisingly this seems to have been accompanied by an increase in disability related harassment and half of our participants now report feeling worried by an increase in displays of ableism in society.

It’s important to recognise this precarious context of having our lives devalued, our services deprioritised and our access revoked as a reason behind disabled students’ poor mental health. So let us look at what universities can do to address these issues?

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Well the systems and attitudes discussed can either be replicated or ameliorated by the university. Disabled students are coming to the university with questions like

Is my life worth your consideration?

Some universities have responded with a resounding yes. They have made sure that vulnerable students can continue their education without being put at risk, prioritised safe teaching and provided clear communication and guidance specifically for disabled students.

Other universities seem to have forgotten that they even have students at increased risk – they have encouraged unsafe policies and provided poor communication. In fact our survey shows that 71 percent of disabled students feel that during the pandemic their university has provided too little communication or advice to disabled students.

Students are asking questions like

When we are all under pressure, will you deprioritise my services as I need them the most?

Over half of our respondents report needing additional disability support during the pandemic. Some universities have honoured this by lowered the administrative barriers and meeting disabled students increased need.

However, many disabled students instead report funding for disability services being cut and being asked to go through extended administrative processes to receive support. For instance, a staggering 34 percent of respondents report having been asked to provide additional medical evidence of their disability related needs during the pandemic, despite having already proven their disability to the university once. As you can imagine, getting medical evidence during the pandemic has not been easy and the process of having to prove your disability can itself become a stressor. When such barriers exist, it is unsurprising that only 23 percent of disabled students report receiving the disability support they require during the pandemic.

A third question we ask as disabled students is:

When teaching modes change, will my access to education disappear?

Because a disabled person’s access needs have as much to do with their environment as they do with the persons impairments, when the digital and physical environment changes so do disabled students’ access needs. A student who is hard of hearing may have been able to lipread to understand what was being said before the pandemic. But with patchy internet connection during online teaching and mask use during in-person teaching the same person may now instead require captioning and BSL interpretation. 40 percent of disabled students report new accessibility issues on campus and 63 percent report new accessibility issues with online teaching.

Some universities have proactively asked disabled students about these changes and addressed issues when raised. However, they are a minority. Only 5 percent of our respondents state that disabled students were proactively consulted on how to make the course accessible when teaching methods changed and more than a year into the pandemic 44 percent of students with online accessibility issues state that their university has still not addressed these.

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In short, while there are exceptional universities out there, under pressure, many universities have failed to signal that they value disabled students lives, disabled student services and disabled students access to education. In fact only 9 percent of disabled students believe that accessibility has been a priority for their university during this pandemic.

Now it’s not all doom and gloom because while this has been happening, huge progress has been made in other areas.

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First of all, the disabled community has been campaigning for years for the widespread implementation of lecture recordings and the option of take-home exams. That this is finally in place marks significant progress in terms of university accessibility. In fact 85 percent of our students state that they would benefit from online teaching being an option for them after the pandemic.

During the pandemic we have also seen changes toward more compassionate attitudes to any difficulties that the wider student population may be experiencing due to the pandemic, including reducing the administration involved in asking for support. If attitudes of compassion and understanding were to be extended to non-pandemic related difficult circumstances experienced by disabled students, this would have a significant positive impact on the group.

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But as we look a little closer we can see a pattern emerging. It seems that whether services are provided depends on who needs them. Before the pandemic disabled students asked for certain accommodations and were told they were impossible. Then when the pandemic hit and all students needed the same services, they were quickly put in place. At the same time most universities actually reduced disabled student specific accommodations. Of-course the continuation of this pattern is that as the pandemic passes and the main beneficiaries of services like lecture recordings are once again disabled students, these services will disappear and the progress that has been made will be lost.

But what I want to leave you with is that this doesn’t have to happen.

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We are in a better position than ever to improve the way we deal with disabled students’ and thereby improve their mental health. This because universities have now proved that they are capable of doing things that they previously said were impossible. They are capable of providing online teaching, they are capable of lowering the administrative barriers for support, and capable of showing compassion in the face of students’ difficulties.

This makes it clear that the pattern of poor access for disabled students truly is a matter of choice. Moving out of lockdown we have the tools to choose a different path.

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Instead of going back to how things were, we can choose to maintain the progress that has already been made and improve accommodations for disabled students overall. This way we make it clear to disabled students that they are valued and pave the way for their improved mental health.

Thank you

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