Disabled students left behind amid coronavirus chaos

The Council for the Defence of British Universities would like to express their support for disabled, neurodivergent, and chronically ill PhD students who are currently appealing for specific reasonable adjustments due to the disruption of COVID-19. We believe that the need for these adjustments sheds light on serious inequalities in academia, and the urgent need for better representation and accessibility for disabled students within academic spaces.

Penny Andrews, PhD Candidate at the University of Sheffield and co-author of the open letter, told CDBU:

“The pandemic only makes starker inequalities that already exist in academia for all minority groups, but especially disabled people. PGRs are an afterthought compared with taught students, and disabled PGRs at the bottom of the pile. We are offered Leave of Absence or nothing whenever crisis hits, and we are required to provide reams of evidence at the expense of our health and wellbeing. It is epistemic injustice at its finest.”

The authors of the open letter have kindly agreed to share the following press release with CDBU:

Disabled, chronically ill & neurodivergent UK PhD Researchers call upon UKRI and other funders for reasonable adjustments during COVID-19 pandemic. 

Recognising the impact of COVID-19 on PhD research, UKRI recently announced a range of measures including up to 6-month funded studentship extensions (on a case-by-case basis) for all final year PhD researchers. Support from university level has been varied, with some students being offered automatic 6 month extensions only to have this later changed, other students being identified individually and invited to apply, and still others, especially those already registered as disabled, chronically ill, neurodivergent or with experience of mental illness, being told that routine sick leave procedures ought to be taken regardless of pandemic-related disruption. There is no existing support for self-funded PhD students, or candidates outside of their funded period of study (often, in our case, due to previous disruptions or interruptions of studies). No specific support has been announced for disabled, chronically ill or neurodivergent PhD students. 

Navigating this pandemic is difficult and disruptive for everyone working in academia. Yet the impacts upon disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent PhD researchers will be significant and disproportionate. COVID-19 is more likely to be life-threatening, to inordinately increase health, family and professional pressures, to exacerbate pre-existing conditions and push mental health into crisis. The disruption of work will be greater and likely longer impacting than for non-disabled peers, and will include disruption of access to existing reasonable adjustments built around work on campus or outside of home. 

Disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent people are already an under-represented population within all levels of academia. Universities and UKRI must provide pandemic-specific reasonable adjustments, urgently and without creating additional administrative barriers like case-by-case assessments, to ensure that they are not more disadvantaged during the COVID-19 pandemic than non-disabled peers, that they can complete their PhDs, and that they can continue to work in academia. 

The following open letter has been written by a cross-institutional collaboration of disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent PhD researchers, outlining the specific and reasonable adjustments required from UKRI, UK Universities and other research funders that would enable this.

An Open Letter regarding Specific Reasonable Adjustments for Disabled, Chronically Ill and Neurodivergent PhD Students Due to COVID-19

The specific reasonable adjustments are as follows:

– Immediate and automatic funded extensions of 6 months for all PhD students, not just final year students, and especially students already registered with universities as disabled, chronically ill or neurodivergent.

– End requirements for case-by-case applications for COVID-19 support, which create additional barriers for PhD students in terms of additional workload and which, for registered disabled students or those with a past history of medical leave for long-term or chronic conditions, duplicates past certification requirements.

– End the sector-wide presumption that sick leave, medical leave or other suspension of studies is not only non-discriminatory but a best-practice first-line approach to supporting disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent students, especially for international disabled students for whom leave of absence may jeopardise visa status.

– Specific provision for disabled, chronically ill or neurodivergent PhD students who are also international students and subject to Tier 4 visa rules, with clear national guidance on whether taking medical leave or will result in cancellation of visas, plus guarantees that complaints against failures of disabled access arrangements will not be met with retaliatory reporting to the Home Office by Universities.

– Robust support for self-funded or unfunded PhD students (including writing up/fourth year students), including but not limited to a suspension of course and continuation fees, rebates of fees paid for the current year, and eradication/relaxation of proof of hardship requirements for hardship funds.

– Immediate and automatic provision of aids, adaptations and adjustments for those who now have to work from home without existing DSA provision, preferably through the provision of small grants enabling self-purchasing supported by guidelines reflecting existing DSA best practices.

– Public commitment to maintaining widespread and non-exceptional remote, digital or other distance access to university resources, spaces, events and personnel which enables disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent students (and staff) to participate in teaching and learning as standard (rather than through retro-fitted reasonable adjustment measures).

– Implement all other reasonable measures, as identified by UKRI and Universities, to ensure that disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent PhD students experience no detriment relative to their nondisabled peers from impacts relating directly or indirectly to COVID-19, in line with arguments for UG students.

– Robust and clear guidelines and support package for all disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent PhD students who experience bereavement, especially for immediate family or close relatives, while emergency measures for COVID-19 are in place.

– Immediate contractual guarantee of two years work, at or above current level of remuneration, for all university fixed-term contract staff, especially those who are registered or otherwise identify as disabled, chronically ill or neurodivergent.

– Immediate publication of all equalities impact assessments conducted by UKRI and other relevant agencies on the impact of COVID-19 and the likely outcome of UKRI and sector-wide policies.

Please join us in supporting this cause by signing the open letter: An Open Letter regarding Specific Reasonable Adjustments for Disabled, Chronically Ill and Neurodivergent PhD Students Due to COVID-19

See also: ‘Why disabled students are losing out in lockdown’, The Guardian