University of Glasgow accused of failure to support a disabled member of the student body

Published

Credit: Copland family

Sam Doak
Investigations Editor

The ability of the University of Glasgow to provide adequate support to its disabled students is being called into question due to the institution’s treatment of a visually impaired member of the student body. After enduring four years of allegedly sub-standard support by the university’s disability service, Gary Copland, an undergraduate law student who has been enrolled since 2015, is making his grievances public. First shared with the BBC on the 28 August, Copland’s account of his time as an undergraduate serves as a damning indictment of the University’s commitment to support its disabled students.

Talking about its approach to supporting disabled students and their distinct requirements the University stated: “The University of Glasgow is committed to promoting and implementing equality of opportunity in the learning, teaching, research and working environment. The University’s Disability Service, and its distributed network of Disability Co-ordinators including in each of our academic areas, provides a dedicated service for students with disabilities and/or impairments, assessing and putting in place appropriate provision to assist with their learning.  We do all that we can to support our students to be effective learners.”

According to a relative, it was during Copland’s first academic year that concerns were raised about the standard of support he was receiving from the University. Initially attracted to study at the University of Glasgow in part due to the institution’s touting of its supposedly exceptional disability service, Copland soon found that the vast majority of his reading list was not made available to him in an accessible format. Having been registered blind since birth, Copland requires reading materials to be reformatted in order to read them. After making the university aware of this and having received assurances that he would be accommodated appropriately, Copland was ultimately provided with a readable copy of only one of the approximately six hundred assigned course texts.

In spite of repeated efforts by Copland and his family to bring his difficulties to the attention of the University and its law school, the institution has failed to provide him with an adequate selection of course readings in each of his subsequent academic years. According to a member of the Copland family, during Gary’s second year of study he was provided with only four of roughly five hundred assigned texts. Copland estimates that over the course of the 2018/2019 academic year he was provided with a mere 3% of such materials.

While the University’s track record as it relates to provision of accessible reading material is in itself reason for concern, the institution’s failure to adequately accommodate the needs of Gary Copland is not limited to this area alone. Speaking to the BBC, Copland described his experience as a student at the University as “characterised by multiple barriers, failings, misunderstandings, stress, anxiety and a sense that there is no way forward to resolve the numerous issues”.

It is during examinations that Copland claims to have encountered many of the more serious “numerous issues” he has faced during his time as an undergraduate. During Copland’s exams he claims to have experienced a wide array of difficulties. According to Copland, he has had exams that have been halted due to technical errors and, on other occasions, have lasted for approximately five hours. On these occasions it is claimed that Copland was offered no screen breaks nor opportunities to medicate his eyes. The seriousness of this is perhaps best understood by taking into account that it is a legal requirement within the workplace that employers offer workers the opportunity to take such breaks when working with display screen equipment. 

Even in cases in which the University has taken steps to accommodate him during examinations, issues have arisen. Speaking to the BBC, Copland, who has been diagnosed as autistic, described one such instance. In this case, the university rightly assented to Copland bringing a support worker to accompany him during an exam. Copland claims, however, that his care worker was turned away upon arriving at the exam venue. This, it has been claimed, was due to a failure by the university to communicate effectively with members of staff assigned to oversee Copland’s exam.

According to a member of Copland’s family who has been intimately involved in his disputes with the university, the institution’s incompetence has not been limited to inadequate exam preparations and provision of reading materials. Speaking to The Glasgow Guardian, Professor Simon Harding (Gary’s uncle) described one such instance. When his nephew was advised by the university on how best to utilise financial assistance available to disabled members of the student body, Copland was, according to Harding, advised to purchase a specific make and model of camera that he was assured would be suitable for reformatting the texts on his reading list. In Harding’s account, not only did the camera cost approximately £2000 and prove to be completely unsuitable for this application but the University failed to accept any responsibility for the incorrect advice given to Copland. Having used his financial assistance to purchase the camera recommended by the university, he was unable to utilise these funds in any useful way, claimed Harding.

To date, 19 formal complaints have been made by Gary Copland and members of his family relating to his time at the University of Glasgow. One of these complaints, relating to the University’s failure to provide accessible reading materials, was upheld by Scottish Public Services Ombudsman in April of this year. According to the BBC, the body, which investigates complaints made against public institutions in Scotland, is currently investigating a number of other complaints relating to Copland’s case.

Copland has formally requested that his grades be moderated to take into account the difficulties and institutional failures he claims to have experienced. To date, the University has refused this request, but have stated to The Glasgow Guardian:

“We always seek to address the needs of individuals students and to tailor the package of support appropriately.  In some cases where the needs are complex and multi-faceted, this can take some time to get right. In this instance, huge efforts have been made by both academic and professional support colleagues (aided by expert external advice) to ensure that the student can progress his studies effectively.

“We are pleased that he is progressing well at an academic level. Preparations for his next year of study have been under way for some time and we are confident that we will be able to continue to support him effectively through to the completion of his studies”

Copland is less optimistic in his assessment of the University’s preparation for what will be his final year of study. Speaking to the BBC, Copland stated that he has had “numerous doubts” as to whether he will be able to complete his higher education. Communicating the uncertainty of his situation, Copland went on to say: “I do not know what I will do or what will happen if this does not get resolved.”

Edit 29/08/19 to add comment from the University