The University of Glasgow failed to provide a disabled student with the necessary software for 31 weeks, preventing him from being able to study at home and complete his degree.
The University of Glasgow is accused of failing to provide reasonable adjustments to a visually impaired student during the Covid-19 pandemic. Gary Copland, who was born blind, was in his final year of studying Law when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. In consequence of the crisis, he had no access to his course materials, reading lists, study resources, or dissertation for 31 weeks of the academic year.
He alleges, as a result of the University’s failure to provide him with functioning IT equipment, he was unable to graduate this year and has spent his summer trying to catch up with work. The senior honours student says he has been unable to seek further employment or education opportunities as a result of the actions taken by the University.
He requires ZoomText to complete his studies. ZoomText is a magnification and reading program designed for visually impaired users. Copland requires the assistive technology because it allows him to enlarge text on the computer screen and to listen to documents and webpages. The technology is incompatible with NVIDIA software, which is a graphics processing unit that is installed on University-provided laptops and PCs.
According to Simon Harding, Copland’s uncle and representative, Copland raised this concern with the University in the first week that the problem occurred and repeatedly raised this as an issue. The University rejected his complaint, claiming that the technical issue was due to his “home environment”.
However, an email sent to the family from the University of Glasgow’s Information Services confirmed that the problem was with the University of Glasgow’s incompatible software, and not Copland’s home environment. Sight and Sound Ltd, the UK’s leading provider of hardware and software to the blind and visually impaired, confirmed that the issue could and should have been resolved within one week.
Harding told The Glasgow Guardian that his nephew’s ordeal is “the worst example of discrimination” he has ever seen, adding that whenever an issue is raised with the University, they “reject, deflect, and deny”. The professor, who is a Disability Champion at three universities, said that universities “have an anticipatory duty to put the arrangements in place” in line with the Equality Act 2010. This means that the University had a duty to arrange suitable support for Copland before he started his studies, rather than waiting until a complaint was made and failure to do this is unlawful.
Copland planned to apply for a diploma in Legal Practice at the University of Glasgow after he completed his undergraduate studies, which required him to submit an academic reference as part of his application form. When he requested that the University provided him with an academic reference, the University rejected his request. As a result of this, the University refused his application. Harding claims that his nephew’s “law studies career in the UK is effectively ended by this”.
According to Harding, when the family requested that Copland’s grades were reviewed to account for the extenuating circumstances, they did not review the grades but instead put a post-it note on his final degree certificate. He also alleges that the Senate threatened him with sanctions for submitting requests for an apology. He added that such treatment amounts to victimisation under the Equality Act 2010 and is unlawful.
Throughout the course of his degree, Copland has been unable to access online learning for 43 weeks, which amounts to one and a half years of his academic study. As a result of these circumstances, Copland claims to have lost 25.5kg in weight and struggled with mental health issues. After requesting help from the Counselling and Psychological Services, Copland waited for four months to receive any treatment for his mental health.
Harding said that staff at the University “are not properly certified for needs assessments”, and that “none of the IT personnel are accredited in Assistive Technology”. The University employed an external consultant from the University of Leeds in order to fix the technical issues with the laptop that they provided to Copland. Harding, who has been an equalities expert at the Met Police for 22 years, said that “the level of ineptitude is staggering”.
The difficulties that Copland faced during the Covid-19 pandemic are just the tip of the iceberg of a five-year-long issue. Last year, The Glasgow Guardian reported on these events. One persistent problem that the Law student faced was with the reformatting of reading materials. As a Law student, Copland required a total of 1,270 books during the course of his degree. However, due to the University’s failure to reformat these texts, he had access to just five. As a result, he had to complete exams based entirely on memory. On one occasion, Copland asked the University for reading materials but was provided with a reading list instead.
On another occasion, the University asked Copland to purchase a ZoomText camera himself, which costs £2,000. A screenshot of the digitised reading materials obtained from this device shows an illegible text, with errors on one page totalling 100. Further still, a member of staff at the University asked Copland to choose between having more texts of lower quality, or fewer texts of higher quality, telling Harding in an email that “there is balance to be struck between accuracy and expediency”.
The University could be held "vicariously liable" for the actions taken by some members of staff if it is found that they failed to take reasonable steps to prevent these actions from occurring. They could be penalised for failing to provide appropriate training for staff, or developing and distributing up-to-date policies and guidelines, in line with the Equality Act 2010.
The family complained to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO), who found that the University “did not reasonably communicate with [Harding] regarding their failure to investigate his complaints... in line with timescales noted in their complaints handling procedure” and “unreasonably failed to provide a copy of the support action plan for [Copland] when it was requested”. The ombudsman asked the University to apologise to Harding and Copland by 1 October 2020, but they have yet to do this at the time of writing (2 October 2020).
The Glasgow Guardian contacted the University for comment: “We believe that we have responded to the needs of the student in a fair, timely and equitable way, and we have invested a significant amount of time and effort to ensure there is access to the support required, including two computers and specialist software.
“The University of Glasgow is committed to equality of opportunity in all learning, teaching, research and working environments. Our Disability Service and network of Disability Coordinators provide a dedicated service for students with disabilities and/or impairments, assessing and putting in place appropriate provision to assist with their learning.”
Harding told The Glasgow Guardian that his nephew chose the University because of the Disability Services. Having achieved 98% in a graded HNC assessment at Motherwell College, he was thrilled to be able to study this subject and had high hopes for the course. However, Harding has found that the University’s Disability Services have not succeeded in their duty of care, saying that staff are “arrogant and inconsistent”. He added: “The University is wholly anti-student. There has been blatant and outrageous discrimination. Every level has been problematic. There is no management, oversight, ownership or accountability. This has been an unending nightmare."
If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, you can visit disabilityrightsuk.org where information and support can be found.
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