Social Secretary Ella Kipling reports on disabled students’ difficulties with UoB’s administrative system
Following an onslaught of posts about the treatment of disabled students by the University on ‘Brumfess,’ the anonymous confession page used by UoB students, several students have detailed their experiences with Redbrick.
One student, Megan, faced difficulties with the University’s communication when she joined UoB in 2016. Megan was diagnosed with autism at ten years-old, and during her A-levels she was assessed by an educational psychologist who determined that she should get 25% extra time, 25% time as rest breaks, the use of a laptop and a quieter room during exams. In her Disabled Student Allowance application Megan included these recommendations, and the assessor agreed. However, due to miscommunications, Megan had to fight for these accommodations every year during her degree. The biggest issue she faced was with exams, and in first year she was alarmed after being given a seat number in the exam hall, given that she was supposed to be in a private room. After going to her department’s office and raising her concerns, Megan was told that they had no information about reasonable adjustments for her at all, and the key worker she had been assigned has never forwarded the DSA report to the department.
Megan was assigned a key worker in her first year, but ‘didn’t even get to meet the first key worker’ before another one was reassigned to her. ‘I think I met him once in my entire three years of uni,’ Megan told Redbrick.
Miscommunication throughout the exam period was a constant theme in Megan’s time at university, and she shared her experience with her final exam in first year with Redbrick.
‘It was my only afternoon exam and my timetable said it was at 2pm. At about 1.10pm I set off to uni, but I got a phone call while I was on the way to say I was late. It turns out that afternoon exams with extra time start at 1pm, but nobody had told me this. I had to run to my exam and it caused me a lot of anxiety to the point where I struggled to speak to the office staff.’
However, the problems persisted and in final year Megan showed up to an exam to find that she had no laptop. It transpired that the key worker had skimmed the file and missed out that she was supposed to have a laptop in exams.
Another student, who has chosen to remain anonymous, was diagnosed with dyspraxia in November of their second year, and did not get a full RAP drafted until February. However, they told Redbrick that there were ‘so many problems with it’ that they did not start getting any adjustments for exams until April, when the year was nearly over. The student explained that they were given a ‘generic’ disabilities email to send questions to, but it took them a ‘whole month’ to reply to her email about getting help to change her RAP. She told Redbrick: ‘I just felt very on my own and let down, like nobody really cared or wanted to help.’
The student waited so long for the necessary adjustments to be put in place and said they knew they could have done ‘so much better’ in certain assignments had these adjustments been put in place sooner.
In terms of how the situation can be improved, the student told us: ‘It would also be good if there were disability advisors or an office you could physically go in and see to voice your concerns, as half the time email just doesn’t cut it. The department is clearly underfunded and not prioritised hence why it takes so long to get stuff done.’
After speaking with another student, Will, it appears the speed of putting accommodations into place is a recurring problem. Will had informed the University that he had additional needs around a month before term started in September. It took the disabilities team an additional three weeks into term for them to get in contact with him. ‘The advisor I dealt with was helpful, we talked about different things but it felt like a tick-box exercise rather than something that was directed to me personally,’ he told Redbrick.
Kitty, a second year LANS student, was first diagnosed with slow processing speed when she started high school, and has had extra time in exams since year seven. On her open day at UoB, Kitty was told by the disability support team that she probably would not get extra time in exams due to a Russell Group policy which dictated that support can only be given to students with ‘Specific Learning Need.’ Other universities, however, such as King’s College London, said that Kitty would receive extra time. This was one of the reasons which led to Kitty choosing KCL over UoB initially, and she told Redbrick, ‘when I was at King’s, I had no problem accessing the required support, but I decided to transfer to UoB for other reasons.’
At UoB, Kitty applied for extra time in exams, which is what the report from her educational psychologist said that she needed, but the email response from disability support said that she would not be getting any adjustments because the evidence of slow processing speed ‘does not meet the criteria in our Accessing Support guide.’
‘It really felt like they’d drawn some arbitrary line in the sand that said certain things (i.e the most common learning difficulties and the ones that are most well known) were disabled enough but others weren’t, without any rhyme or reason. I wasn’t asking for special treatment or anything unreasonable, I just wanted the same adjustments I’ve had since I was eleven.’
Eventually UoB said that if the psychologist who assessed Kitty could confirm that she has a disability ‘in accordance with the Equality Act definition,’ they would reassess her case. For Kitty, it felt like they only cared about ‘doing the bare minimum legally rather than actually supporting the students they are supposed to help.’ Kitty was able to submit the exact passages of the Equality Act and where this coincides with her report as well as the passages that reference the SpLD Working Group. After all this, UoB finally accepted Kitty’s request for extra time.
Head of the Student Disability Service Alison Bottrill told Redbrick that they are always keen to improve the process of getting RAPs put into place and want students to have ‘a positive experience.’
Meanwhile, Jon Elsmore, Director of Student Affairs, explained that UoB is currently developing a new program called STARS, an ‘administrative transformation program across the whole university,’ to try and make the long processes of putting RAPs into place much simpler.
Another concern raised by disabled students is the changes made in extra time for take-home exams. An email sent out by the Law Exams email address stated that ‘RAP holding students have previously been offered examination adjustments of extra writing time and rest breaks’ which were used when exams were held ‘in exam halls.’ However, the email explained that the move to online assessment has brought the ‘opportunity to offer fully inclusive assessments where the design and timing of the assessment can encompass the extra writing time and breaks.’
If an assessment is 24 hours or longer, the extra writing time and breaks are deemed inclusive which means that the ‘standard length of the take-home paper is the length for those who hold a RAP and those who do not.’ But, if an assessment is shorter than 24 hours then they are subject to examination adjustments ‘on account that they are similar to proctored examinations that would have been held on campus.’ The email states that where a student has rest-breaks and extra writing time, ‘this is factored into one, whole amount of time.’
One student, ‘R,’ explained that ‘people with a RAP that designates they need extra time need extra time,’ and that although ‘you’d think that would be obvious to the uni,’ it is apparently not. The change in extra time has created a ‘huge sense of anxiety’ for R who has always relied on it in case she has a symptomatic day or becomes particularly anxious. ‘Extra time isn’t just given out for free, RAP students have had to argue for it with medical certificates and doctors’ notes and all manner of invasive documents to “prove” we need it,’ they told Redbrick.
Another student, who has ADHD and Chronic Pain problems, explained that this change will mean a drop in their grades. They claimed that UoB has said this is fair because they can still use the whole 24 hours, but this disadvantages them because they will ‘not be able to use all that time however someone without a disability could.’
Rachel opened up to Redbrick about how this change has affected her during the exam period. Having no extra time as rest breaks are incorporated ‘doesn’t really work’ because if she takes the same breaks as a non-RAP student (such as to eat, sleep, and rest) she is not left with the additional rest needed for fatigue or pain. ‘So every time I was forced to stop and break because of my condition I was losing out on time compared to the people who didn’t need those extra breaks.’ This led to Rachel feeling ‘dismissed and ignored’ by the University.
The student, C, who posted the original Brumfess about RAPs told Redbrick, ‘this means if I have problems in the exam caused by my conditions they expect me to recover and carry on in the standard time limit.’
The fact that the email announcing these changes was sent out so close to the end of term (10th December) caused serious stress for C, who explained that her disabled student allowance support worker believes that the University has put her ‘at risk’ because she not only have a physical sensory disability, but also suffers with mental health conditions such as chronic anxiety and depression.
Furthermore, C explained that the University has not ‘followed proper procedure,’ and her ‘RAP can only be amended officially by an official reassessment with all relevant parties involved.’ However, most of them are on annual leave, so she has been unable to exercise her ‘human right to reply,’ and is therefore ‘struggling to fight this change.’
‘As far as I am concerned my RAP is a legal document that is valid and still stands, but if I take my 72 hours I’m entitled to because of my disabilities I will be penalised by having marks removed for every day late and I could fail my exams just based on penalisations alone, not including the impact on my work because I would have to struggle twice as hard as students without disabilities in the standard student time,’ they told us.
When discussing online exams being inclusive of RAPs, Elsmore told Redbrick: ‘We’ve ‘baked in’ the additional time so the students who need it, to take a rest break, or need extra time to mitigate for their slower processing speeds, those students have got that extra time baked into the window.’
He also explained that this approach is ‘not uncommon in the sector’ with lots of other universities doing ‘exactly the same thing.’
Finally, when asked what message he would like disabled students to hear, Elsmore said, ‘We’re always listening, we’re always continuously improving, have we got everything right today? No we haven’t. Are we trying to work on all of those things to make those better? Yes, we are, and students with disabilities are absolutely a priority group.’
Bottrill also encouraged any students who expressed concern or disappointment over the university’s handling of their case to reach out to the team so that they can check if there is anything more they can be doing.
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