It’s been common knowledge that students commencing or returning to university for the start of the 2020/21 academic year in the U.K. will experience student life in a manner wholly different from that of their predecessors.
For Generation Covid, who attained adulthood in the year of the pandemic, heaving nightclubs, vibrant house parties and packed lecture halls will be replaced by social distancing, hand sanitizing stations and a vastly increased use of virtual platforms across the board.
As is almost always the case, many of these impacts are likely to disproportionately affect disabled students, who are thought to constitute at least 14.3% of the country’s student body.
In fact, concerns around the welfare of disabled students during these challenging times has been so pronounced, that, earlier this month, the President of the National Union of Students Larissa Kennedy declared in a webinar hosted by the University and College Union (UCU) that students had been “sold a lie for months” that “going back to [university as] normal is possible, viable, safe.”
She went on to suggest that, as a group with unique needs and protected characteristics, disabled students should be allowed back on campus but that non-disabled students should stay at home to mitigate the risk of universities becoming the care homes of the pandemic’s second wave.
Unfortunately, it appears that at the precise moment that U.K. universities are opening their doors to the new student cohort, early rumblings of a second wave of coronavirus are indeed being sensed.
On Monday, the U.K. government upgraded its coronavirus alert level from Level 3 to Level 4 denoting “transmission is high or rising exponentially.”
This was then followed by the introduction of a raft of new measures to curb the spread of the virus, including a requirement for pubs, bars and restaurants to close at 22:00 and an increase in fines for breaking rules around social gatherings and the wearing of face coverings.
Challenges encountered during the pandemic
Since the onset of the lockdown, and continuing through to the new academic year, disabled students have had to contend with a slew of specific challenges related to the new normal.
These have ranged from clinically vulnerable students being unable to shield themselves in shared accommodation facilities to applicants with disabilities not being allowed to visit campuses during the lockdown to evaluate their accessibility.
Additionally, administrative staff being furloughed or required to work from home has led to delays in processing applications for Disabled Students Allowance or DSA, resulting in heightened anxiety.
As the new academic cycle begins, this is likely to be further exacerbated by key induction events aimed at networking and helping students settle in, being either canceled or moved exclusively online.
Speaking of online, it is perhaps the transition to a blended learning approach, involving a combination of both distance learning and face-to-face teaching which will represent the most significant hurdle for many disabled students.
That being said, within this segment of the student population, there are already clear winners and losers emerging from the pivot to digital e-learning.
By means of an example, a student with significant mobility impairments but no computer access issues may well welcome the opportunity to view recorded lectures and browse research documents online without needing to travel in for lectures.
On the flip side, students with sensory issues such as vision impairment or hearing loss will find themselves at the mercy of the accessibility of their institution’s course materials.
The pandemic doesn’t just have implications on teaching in higher education but also on how work is assessed in the context of a blended learning approach.
This is likely to impact on a range of different areas from the practicality of using scribes in exams to the potential for developing new assessment protocols, such as recorded video presentations.
Whatever new provisions are instituted, unless accessibility considerations are prioritized at the outset, disabled students reporting higher levels of dissatisfaction with how their course is run than their non-disabled counterparts, as evidenced in the 2019 National Student Survey, are almost certain to prevail.
An opportunity to enhance universal design
The good news, at least in relation to the learning experience, is that Covid needn’t be viewed as an all-consuming drain on an institution’s bandwidth and resources, leaving insufficient time to focus on digital accessibility.
On the contrary, the pandemic has the potential to underscore and accelerate important trends related to accessibility in higher education that were already well underway before anyone had ever heard of Covid-19.
These relate to what Professor Geoff Layer Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton and Chair of the Disabled Students’ Commission refers to as a shift away from “the deficit model of education.”
This deficit model closely tracks the traditional Medical Model of disability which focuses on the infirmity of the individual as the root cause for barriers to participation in wider society.
Nowadays, higher education providers are encouraged to adopt a more enlightened Social Model approach to disability, in which they acknowledge their responsibilities in creating and removing these avoidable barriers.
Layer is a strong proponent, for example, of institutions going a lot further than simply partially funding a laptop with appropriate access software for disabled students.
He would like to see full investment in accessibility training for all course providers and for access software to be incorporated onto university public access computers.
When asked about the potential cost implications Layer says, “It is expensive but this is because we are trying to retrofit.”
He continues, “Within our science labs students use chemicals, within our design and engineering courses students use materials and within the performing arts departments people use Apple Macs.
“Over many years these provisions have been built into a University’s cost base, so it is simply about reprofiling how that works. Universities have to provide the facilities a student needs to technically learn and professionally learn so why not for the accessibility of learning too?”
Far from being an afterthought, digital accessibility, if tackled correctly and with ambition can ride on the coattails of an accelerated shift to blended learning and be understood as a marker of excellence and maturity in pedagogy.
In the shorter term, those who understand how rich and fulfilling university and college life can be in “regular,” happier times, will hope that students of all abilities will have the opportunity to experience it for themselves later next year.
Perhaps, by then, rather than taking university life for granted like many of their predecessors, Generation Covid will have already learned the value in savoring every precious moment.