Credit: AJ Duncan

Online learning: Accessibility out of convenience isn’t enough

By Hailie Pentleton

In response to the switch to online learning, Views Editor Hailie Pentleton discusses ableism at university.

I have a joke about requiring access to lecture recordings, but you’ll probably think it’s unfair to other students. 

We’re all doing our best to embrace the “new normal” social media forewarned of. This way of life includes all sorts of terrible stuff, like holding the health of others in higher regard than before, implementing safety measures to prevent the spread of a deadly virus, and staying out of one another’s personal space until the coast is clear. For students, it means accepting that you’ll rarely set foot in a lecture theatre, clubs will be off-limits, and an unexpected spike in illness may prevent you from the “full” student experience. For many disabled students, this already described our experiences pre-pandemic. 

Historically, disabled people have been the object of studies rather than the purveyors; dissected by the abled as problems to be fixed. Universities were designed to accentuate ability, so it isn’t surprising that disabled people rarely made it past the front gates. This has changed in recent years, with a major increase in the number of disabled students entering UK universities. With this, there is an increased demand for accessibility across all aspects of campus life. More often than not, however, these adjustments are sub-par or non-existent entirely. 

In 2017, approximately 94,000 disabled students started their studies in the UK. In Scotland, the number of students who disclosed a mental health condition or a diagnosis of autism has trebled over the past five years. Disabled students are not anomalies; you can find us all over campus. We have rightfully earned our places here, so why isn’t there enough space for us? 

It’s not uncommon for disabled students to be met with an outright refusal of their accommodation requests. A number of conversations with peers have revealed that staff often consider these adjustments to give us an “unfair” advantage over other students. Believe me when I say that there is nothing advantageous about having to go into excruciating detail about how your conditions have derailed your life every time you require an extra day on an assignment. I will never forget the time a member of staff refused to grant my request for an extension because, while my conditions are long term, they aren’t chronic. Unless I could prove I had become more autistic than I was the week before, I could kiss goodbye to passing that module. 

It’s no wonder that retention rates are considerably lower amongst disabled students. It isn’t uncommon for us to leave university without the shiny certificate we came for. I’m on my second attempt at securing an MA after a year spent isolated on the other side of the country. If you opt to stay at university and fight for the adjustments you deserve, it’s likely you’ll be told to drop out and focus on getting better: “your needs aren’t worth our time”, “come back when you’re not disabled!” I heard similar remarks from an advisor last year, just two days after my mental health landed me in hospital. The accommodations I required were unreasonable: “You’re going to have to drop out.”

When Covid-19 reared its ugly head, disabled students across the country were met with similar sentiments. If being on campus was a risk to your health, perhaps it was best to take some time out until the whole silly thing disappeared. Then able people started dying, and online alternatives became the hot new thing. In May, the BBC announced that Cambridge planned to hold all lectures online for 2020-21 and other universities soon followed suit. After previously refusing to provide a number of their students with necessary accommodations, including access to lecture recordings and digital materials, universities will now host lectures in a virtual classroom. Apparently, all it takes is a pandemic for universities to consider accessible alternatives to in-person teaching.

Our switch to online learning throughout semester one means that many disabled students will be able to participate fully in classes for the first time since enrollment. This is an exciting prospect, but one that’s long overdue. University should be fully accessible to all students from their start date. It shouldn’t take a global health crisis before a university properly supports its disabled students.

The shift in attitude towards working online has been revolutionary. Our university experience is changing, and I for one welcome that change. We can only hope that these new methods of learning remain when face-to-face teaching is reinstated. Health difficulties can derail your life when you least expect, as has been made clear during these turbulent times. Accessibility matters all year round, not just when a majority demands it.

The University of Glasgow welcomes world changers – it’s time to make that world accessible to them.


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