Hannah Baker-Millington is well worn to adversity.
Diagnosed with leukaemia in her second year at the University of Edinburgh, she saw her academic experience put on immediate hold, finding herself fighting her condition through an intensive succession of chemotherapy treatments over the course of six months.
The physical and mental challenges were immense. Overcoming them proved a triumph of willpower. Yet as Baker-Millington’s treatment took effect, and her condition began to stabilise, she felt the draw of her former university life take hold, and committed herself to improving quickly to return to her friends and her studies.
It was then that a new obstacle emerged.
With her studies interrupted, Baker-Millington had been removed from her course and seen her matriculation suspended. The University was now asking her to re-matriculate through the standard admissions process, delaying her university experience by a year. The option to study remotely was not offered.
What followed was an exhausting battle involving chains of emails, bureaucratic intransigence, parental intervention, and a last-ditch flight to argue her case in person, mid-treatment. Provisions to make academic accommodations for her condition were consistently refused, and the administrative pushback continued even after her eventual return to her studies.
It was an experience that would open her eyes to a problem she had never before considered, and put her on a path of investigating and challenging the administration throughout her time at University.
It was also an experience that was far from unique. An investigation by The Student has revealed deep-set discontentment across campus with the University of Edinburgh’s provisions for disabled students.
Dozens of anonymous anecdotes and statements made to The Student have brought to light a range of negative experiences by students with disabilities, who claim their University tutors and professors are ill-equipped and condescending when dealing with their issues. A survey of university professors has demonstrated patchy awareness with disability-related teaching issues and a lack of widespread experience with the Student Disability Service.
Conversations with several former and current Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA) representatives have highlighted a sluggish record of progress by the administration. Student satisfaction survey figures and fiscal statements revealed through Freedom of Information have shown a disconnect between University funding levels and results. Despite a doubling of investment into the Student Disabilities Service in the last five years, fewer than 50 per cent of disabled students have reported their learning adjustments being fully met.
Senior administration officials say they are aware of the problem are doing what they can to address it. In an interview responding to a summary of The Student‘s findings, Jane Norman, Vice Principal People and Culture, called the situation “disappointing,” and said the University was “working very hard to sort this out.”
But the stakes are high. By failing to provide adequate services to its students, the University may be in breach of the Equality Act 2010, according to an internal report reviewed by The Student. Litigation is a possibility.
Meanwhile, activists are mobilising to extremes. On Thursday a motion to be voted on at Student Council will call for the Principal of the University, Sir Timothy O’Shea, to resign from his post, and for the Students’ Association to maintain a position of no-confidence until learning adjustments are enforced across the University.
“Disabled students should not be disenfranchised from their education,” the motion reads. “A call for resignation is a last resort that should not be taken lightly.”
Whatever its merits, the motion’s motivations are rooted in a grim reality. The following is an examination of the current state of support for students with disabilities at The University of Edinburgh.
For Baker-Millington, returning to her studies and her life at university was a key motivation to get through her treatment.
Diagnosed in May 2012, at the end of her second year, her treatment continued through the first semester of third year. But her debilitations were physical, not mental, rendering her stuck in a hospital bed through the autumn weeks with full faculties to continue studying but no means to do so.
“My entire life was here,” she told The Student, referring to the University. “That’s what I viewed it as. I viewed it as: I have to get back there, otherwise there’s no point getting better.”
Eager to keep on track, and with autumn classes resuming, Baker-Millington reached out to the University, eventually being put in touch with the dean of admissions at the time, Alan Brown. After a flurry of emails, Brown responded with paternalism, telling Baker-Millington that she wasn’t “in a right state of mind to be emailing this right now” and asking to speak with her mother, she told The Student.
Baker-Millington, then just short of 20 years old, was incensed. “Apparently he thought the cancer was in my brain; that’s the kind of image I got,” she recalled.
She handed over control to her mother. But if Brown was expecting a different outcome, he was quickly proven wrong. Taking over correspondence, Ms Baker-Millington held her ground, telling Brown that her daughter had full mental capability to continue studying in hospital and requesting provisions be made for audio-recorded lectures and Powerpoint slides.
Brown responded dismissively. “He wrote an email to my mum saying ‘I think you’re pushing your daughter into this. I think you’re being pushy’,” Baker-Millington said. “Despite the fact he had asked to talk to her. So then I had to take over again.”
She continued: “They were thinking in terms of a business, like: ‘Well we can’t look after you.’ I wasn’t asking them to look after me; I’m an adult. And I had doctor’s approval to study from hospital and to return.”
The back and forth soon reached a fever pitch. Exasperated by the progress made, Baker-Millington flew up to the University to argue her case in person, pleading to the Admissions Office: “Admit me.” She was still on chemotherapy treatment at the time.
At the end of her efforts, Baker-Millington was eventually restored to her course and allowed to continue. But the administration made clear its persisting reservations toward the decision, she said. Months after her return, she missed an exam due to lingering fatigue from her treatment. She attempted to apply for special circumstances and was rebuffed, informed that because her original return had been against the wishes of the University, no special circumstances would be granted. The decision, she said, came from Alan Brown.
“I think it was him being some sort of ‘ivory towers academic’,” she told The Student. “It was him being a bit of a jobsworth and being like ‘Well you didn’t listen to me, so I’m going to punish you.'”
She continued: “I think it was him very much not wanting to take responsibility for the fact that someone could—he just wanted to look at it like a normal student [situation], and didn’t want to deal with any difficulties, and I think that’s the way a lot of the university looks at disabled students.”
A University official declined to directly comment on the case and others raised by The Student, citing a policy to not comment on internal matters with individual students.
Shortly after the time of Baker-Millington’s return, another student, Zaic Holbrook, was experiencing coursework difficulties directly related to their disability.
Holbrook, an American student in their second year, had recently been diagnosed with a disability preventing them from attending morning classes. In their second semester, after consistently missing tutorials, Holbrook received a warning from the University that repeated absences would prompt a report to the Home Office, a development that could impact their visa status.
Holbrook responded explaining their situation and asking for arrangements to be made to adjust their timetable. The University had a better idea: why not take the rest of the year off until they felt better?
Holbrook declined. Under the rules for international student visas, an absence of that length would automatically lead to a cancellation of sponsorship, a forced flight back home, and the months-long, expensive process of reapplying for a new visa over the summer.
The problem was too minor and the solution too drastic to be taken seriously, they concluded.
“It would have been a year longer, and all these immigration problems that come with it,” they told The Student.
The response Holbrook received would prove to be part of a trend. Both Baker-Millington and Holbrook were early subjects of a recently bolstered system by the University hoping to alleviate issues faced by students with emergencies: authorised interruptions of studies (AIS). Under the system, students facing a serious crisis may request an interruption of studies during which they will not be penalised for absences or late assignments. The default maximum is 14 days; any longer and permission is required by the Head of School. Absences longer than 60 days require suspension of studies for the rest of the year.
The system appears to be successfully reducing the number of outright withdrawals from University. According to figures from the last five years released by Freedom of Information and reviewed and analysed by The Student, the number of voluntary student withdrawals from University fell from 1,038 in 2010/11 to 881 in 2014/15. As a proportion of the student population, the change represented a fall from 3.27 per cent of students overall to 2.45 per cent.
Meanwhile, the number of authorised interruptions of studies has increased from 1,031 to 1,326 over the same time period, a difference of 0.43 percentage points.
But while the provisions have proven to be beneficial for students with short-term disabilities and injuries, activists for those with lifelong conditions say the University is using AIS as a blanket solution to any disability-related issue that gets too complicated for it to address directly.
Rather than suggest interruptions and push the issues back a year, activists say, the University should be increasing its support on campus to provide services that would allow students to continue studying.
“The issue is, there’s no one person a student can go to for support with any mental health issues or any chronic issues that they have,” Jessica Killeen, current EUSA Mental Health Convener, told The Student. “So as soon as they say ‘Oh I’m going to need to take a week out because I have this issue,’ because it’s such a hands-off approach, the immediate reaction from the University is: ‘Take a year out. We don’t know how to deal with you. We don’t have anyone with enough training to deal with you. We don’t know how to make these provisions for you, so just take a year out, and then come back when you’re better.’
“Which is really unfair to students because with a chronic mental illness or chronic longterm illness, you will never be better,” she added. “You know, you’re just managing at a different level.”
Holbrook added their belief that the University’s motivations were tactical.
“They’re very keen on pushing interruptions of studies if they think it’s going to harm their ranking,” they told The Student. “If you take an authorised interruption of study, you can’t fail the rest of your course then. Whereas if you take the full time and you do fail your course, that does affect the ranking. If there’s anything that can help them ensure their standings, they will do that.”
University officials say the issue is more complicated than that. Asked by The Student whether authorised interruptions of studies were appropriate fixes to bigger problems, Professor Jane Norman, Vice Principal People and Culture, said the situations should be determined case by case.
“We want every student who comes to Edinburgh to leave with the degree that they deserve and they want,” she said in an interview. “I think what you’re saying is that an interruption of studies is not always the best way to do that, that students would prefer to struggle on. I’m not sure that you can make any kind of blanket judgements about what can happen in individual cases, but I would hope the students’ feelings and wishes would be taken into account when decisions are made about whether it’s better for students to continue or not continue.”
Norman added that the idea of a policy to address all concerns and mitigate all circumstances was potentially unrealistic.
“It’s quite hard to have a policy where you allow students to sit exams and if they’re successful it counts, but if they’re not successful it’s not counted,” she told The Student. “And maybe this is behind some of the interruptions of studies issue. As the student spends six months at uni and they’re not in full health, then that participation does not get them to goals that they want to achieve, [and] it’s perhaps hard to go back and repeat that.”
But activists insist the issue is systemic, and solvable. To them, the University’s preference for temporary departures from classes hints at an even more widespread problem: a lack of effort to improve, administer, and enforce learning adjustments for disabled students on campus.
Leah Morgan had no issues fighting to stay in University. For her, it was the lack of disability support within her courses that proved the most distressing.
After receiving a diagnosis for depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in 2014, Morgan went through the usual channels for support.
The University of Edinburgh’s Student Disability Service (SDS) provides a range of support mechanisms for students who have received diagnoses and apply for assistance. Central to accessing many of its provisions is a Needs Assessment for Disability Services Allowance (DSA) funding, as well as the creation of a Learning Profile, which lists the student’s disability and any adjustments that the Disability Service has approved.
Learning adjustments cover a variety of options depending on the condition, such as options for lectures to be audio recorded, extra time to be allotted on exams, and adjustments to prevent multiple exams in one day. The adjustments recommended are added to the Learning Profile and intended to be shared and carried out with all relevant people within that student’s School.
Morgan applied for an array of services, receiving promises for DSA and a range of learning adjustments. But the University did not make it easy, she told The Student. She had to return five separate times to the SDS to get the adjustments she had been promised enforced. Basic provisions such as access rooms, coursework extensions and a main contact at the SDS proved elusive, and she received little help in securing her DSA funds.
Meanwhile, her interactions with academics outside the SDS—with the exception of her personal tutor, whom she called an “absolute hero”—began to aggravate. Lecturers and tutors showed consistent lack of awareness and respect for her condition, which would manifest itself in her coursework and in person. Their advice was either harsh and insensitive or well-intentioned but misguided, she said.
“They would speak to me and approach me because of my work,” Morgan told The Student. “I’ve had feedback on essays essentially attacking my disability because I don’t pay attention, as if I don’t give a shit. And I do.”
In handling her depression, Morgan said the academics were particularly oblivious.
“I had a couple comments of essentially ‘cheer up’,” she said. “That’s very frustrating. Then, only a couple months ago I was then diagnosed with ADHD, to which I received discrimination from staff.”
Attempting to help, Morgan said, course organisers would often suggest a different path.
“With my career goals they’re like: ‘Oh you should try something else. Something a bit easier’, ” she recounted. “And it’s like well no, this is not what I’m here for. This is not why I’m doing this for.”
Soon, she too was receiving suggestions to leave her studies. But they weren’t in the form of AIS, she said. They felt more like an ultimatum. “I had: ‘stay here or bugger off,’ essentially” she told The Student. “Which was very frustrating because I’m valued here, I fought my way here, and I’m being asked to give up because of something I can’t help.”
“It’s been a big struggle, and I’m fed up with it, to be honest,” she added.
Morgan continues to push for her adjustments. In that struggle, she’s hardly alone.
An anonymous survey by The Student of those who identify as disabled has revealed a catalogue of unsatisfactory experiences with the disabilities provisions at The University of Edinburgh.
Students have expressed difficulties with getting adjustments enforced; poor communication between departments, course organisers, and the SDS; a lack of awareness and training on the part of personal tutors; mistrust and disdain by university officials in response to complaints; and personal experiences ranging from advice to “do better” to outright mockery.
Broadly, the survey respondents praised the Student Disability Service specifically, a trend that corresponds with the latest Student Evaluation figures from 2014/15, which found an 81 per cent approval rating for the SDS . But the majority of complaints centre around a perceived disconnect between the services and recommendations of the SDS and their implementation by the academic organs of the University.
One fourth-year law student said that promises made had been consistently broken. “I have been entitled to adjustments because of my disability throughout my degree, but these have rarely been enforced,” the student said. “I sought help from the mental health mentor service within the disability service in 2015. After an initial meeting which seemed fine, I was left high and dry with no support.”
Another student said that enforcement of adjustments was never complete and that physical accessibility was sub-par. “I’ve nearly finished my degree now and four years later I am yet to have a a class with all my learning arrangements met, as laid out by the Student Disability Service,” the student said. “I’ve been put into classes which I have trouble physically accessing and I need to take a painkiller whenever I have a meeting in the SDS and the lift in the library is broken.”
They added: “The Student Disability Service is fabulous, but it is absolutely powerless in enforcing the things it sets out for students.”
Some respondents recounted frustrating and harrowing personal experiences with support.
One fourth-year student said: “At times my personal tutor hasn’t been the least bit helpful (on one occasion he pressed me to ‘do better next semester’ as though I could consciously choose to be unaffected by mental illness and to perform better academically) which has clearly been an issue for many.”
They continued: “A personal tutor shouldn’t be the first person I’m encouraged to reach out to when I’m struggling and I don’t expect them to provide support, but they could signpost or at least have an inkling of who their tutees are.”
Another, who said they were based in New College, said that the interactions they had received were mortifying.
“I’ve been advised to drop out of uni, look at different career goals, and even been told to not be so ‘ambitious’, which made my blood boil,” the student said, adding: “I’ve had to fight for the last two years to get what I’m entitled.”
They continued: “I’ve faced discrimination because of my disability, which no one took seriously. I took it to the New College admin and they essentially laughed it off, and I was told that it wasn’t discrimination.
“It’s upsetting and frustrating. I’m far away from my family, who act as my carers, and it’s unfair how disabled students in Edinburgh are treated.”
Others cited a critical lack of communication between departments.
“They do not set up correct communication networks between academic class tutors, administration and Disability Service,” one student said. “I shouldn’t have to explain my disability’s effects every time I encounter a personal problem. It’s humiliating and makes me feel like a liar.”
Some chose not to put their perspectives into words. Responding to the question “Have you experienced difficulties with disability support at the University of Edinburgh,” they simply replied “yes”.
For Baker-Millington, Killeen and Morgan, the complaints are very familiar. The three are the past, current and future EUSA Disability and Mental Wellbeing conveners, and each have heard scores of similar experiences over the years from friends and acquaintances.
The trends are also supported by broader survey data, commissioned by the SDS itself. The 2014/15 Student Evaluation survey revealed that only 47 per cent of students at the University who have used the SDS have reported having all their adjustments met. The number is the lowest proportion in four years, after a high of 61 per cent in 2011.
The numbers also revealed a disparity between the proportion of students not receiving some of their adjustments and those that raised complaints. Despite 53 per cent of respondents being denied at least one adjustment, 86 per cent of said in a separate question that they had never registered a complaint, indicating a possible shortfall in the accountability procedure.
The EUSA conveners say that the feedback demonstrates a willingness by the University to set objectives, but a lethargic approach to actually complete them.
“I think it’s very much the procedure that needs to change,” said Baker-Millington. “‘Cause a lot of personal tutors, they’re pretty nice. It’s just, you know, it’s not their job. And yeah, I think it depends on disability as well. I think there’s just some misunderstanding of disability.”
Baker-Millington contrasted the immediate sympathy she would receive for her leukaemia to the reactions to other, more hidden disabilities.
“People were very understanding of having cancer, because they see it as some kind of like – I hesitate to say glamorous, but it is one of those kind of like ‘oh big’,” she told The Student. “But I have multiple learning disabilities, I have synesthesia, I have ADHD, dyspraxia, discalculus. And people have been less understanding of those things because they’re just like “I don’t know what that is”.
Disclosing learning disabilities, Baker-Millington added, often led to a stigma of lack of intelligence.
“[They assume] you’re not intelligent, when actually most of us are very intelligent, she said. “It’s kind of the offside of having learning disabilities, is you tend to be pretty intelligent. But they treat you like you’re not.”
Killeen also added that problems arose from poor reporting procedures.
“The issue is that students can’t report that they aren’t receiving their mainstream learning adjustments until the end of the year, which then makes it a moot point, because they’ve gone the entire year without those adjustments,” she said. “And by not enforcing the adjustments, the University is doing a real disservice to disabled students who have the right and should be able to fulfil that right to get an education at the same level as anybody else.”
For its part, The University says it is aware of the problem. Its annual review appears to support that.
Deep within the 2013/14 Student Disability Service Annual Report lies a chilling sentence. The report details findings of the Evaluation Survey regarding the number of adjustments being fully met—in that year, 50 per cent. Then it issues a warning: “It is a legal risk to the University that some students are not receiving the support to which they are entitled and which has been recommended by the Student Disability Service.”
Not mentioned but implicit in the warning is the Equality Act 2010. Passed by the UK Parliament, the act was a concerted effort to codify disparate discrimination law into one compact statute that would apply to a range of institutions, businesses and venues across the country. Provisions are specifically targeted to the institution in question. Section 91(2) details a range of prohibited areas of discrimination in higher education. Provision d) stipulates a violation being “not affording the student access to a benefit, facility or service.”
The 2013/14 report recommended a focus be made on adjustments to address the litigation risk. But one year on, the proportion of students reporting all adjustments met has decreased to 47 per cent, according to the latest Evaluation Survey. The full 2014/15 SDS report, published separately, has not been released.
In an interview with The Student, Vice Principal People and Culture Jane Norman said that the University was continually committed to broadening its accessibility, and highlighted the strides that had been made in the past year.
“I’m really disappointed to hear some of the concerns,” she said, “and I’ll certainly go away and look into this.”
She continued: “As a university we’re really keen to make this the best place to come and study. Whether you’re disabled, not disabled, regardless of your gender, ethnic background, and other characteristics. We’re really keen to make sure that everyone has a great experience here, and that includes people with disabilities.”
Norman cited several metrics indicating the University’s commitment. In the past six years, the University has doubled its investment in the Student Disabilities Service—increasing from £428,000 in 2011 to £886,000 in 2016, according to figures cited by Norman and confirmed by The Student from a review of Freedom of Information requests. Adjusted for inflation, the final number represents a 79.1 per cent increase of financing, according to an analysis by The Student.
Moreover, the number of students reporting their disabilities to the SDS has increased by 52 per cent over the past five years, Norman said, calling it an impressive demonstration of an increase of awareness. The number of students who reported the SDS contributing positively to their life at university had been consistently in the high 70s and low 80s, she added.
“Our understanding is it works really well,” she concluded, speaking on the Disability Service.
But the increase in funding has seemingly done little to improve the structural issues stopping learning adjustments from being administered. Rather, as the funds to the SDS have increased, and the service has improved, the actual enforcement of those adjustments has decreased.
Pressed by The Student, Norman expressed dismay at the falling proportions of students reporting their adjustments met. “I think it’s disappointing,” she said. “To be honest, I think even that high number of 61 per cent [in 2011]—that’s not good enough is it. We need 100 per cent of learning adjustments to be implemented, and that’s absolutely what we’re working towards.”
She added: “The University is very concerned, and you know, is actively trying to have a process by which the adjustments the Disability Service recommends are implemented in full. And I think, you know, that’s not because it’s our legal duty—although it is our legal duty—it’s because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s the right thing to do for all the wonderful students we have.”
Norman said the issues between departments came down to a lack of awareness, and that the University was in meetings to improve it.
“The tack I think we will take is to raise awareness in the first instance and make sure that all academic staff really understand the reasons to do this, she said. “And I would hope that that will address the issue in the majority of cases.”
“I think that we accept that what we want to do and what we manage to do are not always quite the same in terms of implementing the adjustments,” Norman concluded.
“We’re working very hard to sort this out.”
According to current EUSA Disability and Mental Wellbeing Convener Jessica Killeen, that effort has not been enough.
To Killeen, the departmental communication breakdowns can be ascribed to lecturers’ fear, ignorance, and laziness. At the root of it all, she says, is a basic lack of training in mental health issues.
“A lot of the issue with that is because a lot of personal tutors are terrified of mental health, because they’re so worried about being liable for something,” she told The Student. “Which is why mental health training for tutors should be mandatory.”
Killeen added that more enforcement mechanisms were necessary with regard to learning adjustments, describing a current system where standards were not systemised and compliance was treated as optional.
She recounted a situation where a lecturer was failing to upload presentation slides in advance of their lecturers. Seeking to enforce adherence, she emailed the course convener, only to find that the convener was the same person. The experience encapsulated Killeen’s frustration with the accountability procedure across the University, the decentralised system of standards, and the potential for conflicts of interest.
“The issue with the lack of enforcement with mainstream learning adjustments is just because it’s almost like an individual basis by lecturer,” Killeen said. “You might have a lecturer who is excellent, who uploads their slides, who does everything they’re supposed to do with the seven strands of mainstream learning adjustments, but then there’s others who do none of it, who don’t think they need to, who think it’s a waste of time. And the University is routinely failing to enforce this.”
Killeen echoed the sentiment that the issue was not with the Disabilities Service but with the broader organs across campus.
“The Disabilities Service is very good,” she told The Student. “They have an excellent staff, they make recommendations, they make recommended learning adjustments, it’s just that these adjustments are not followed through. And the University has a responsibility to fulfil that under the Equality Act, and they are not doing that.”
Lecturers and tutors themselves say they do try and meet the requests and adjustments of their students, even if they aren’t personally aware of all the issues. In correspondence with The Student, academics in the University have highlighted an uneven, if broadly positive, familiarity with the Student Disability Service.
An informal, voluntary survey of 19 academics across nine schools in the University showed good intentions by individuals, but a lack of standardisation across departments. The academics were given anonymity to allow them to speak freely.
Awareness of the SDS was high. 12 out of 19 of respondents said that they had been in contact with the SDS at some point in their careers. In some cases, the SDS had contacted them about specific students; in others, they had outreached personally to seek help for students who had reached them. Yet the results were not consistent, and some academics’ only interaction with the SDS came in the form of annual training sessions organised by their department.
Asked whether they had personally experienced students approaching them about issues with their disability, slightly more than half the respondents said they had, although some stipulated that it was very rare.
“Approaches from students are rare; most students who hold adjustments do not approach lecturers or tutors about them,” commented one lecturer in the school of History Classics and Architecture (HCA). The lecturer said the most common direct requests were regarding personal recording of lectures and extensions, both of which have been mainstreamed (enforced widely) by the University and both of which are regularly granted.
“Approaches about more unusual adjustments (the ones for which we’ll have to go further out of our way) tend to come from the SDS rather than the student,” the lecturer added, “which may be an indication that the SDS is doing a good job.”
Another split emerged from a question asking academics whether they felt that they and their peers were adequately equipped to handle issues with disabilities in their teaching. Ten respondents said they were, eight said no, and one said “mostly”.
In comments, many respondents said that direct training opportunities were patchy. Some mentioned yearly workshops hosted by their schools, but stressed that the training was voluntary, making its effectiveness reliant on academics already engaged with the issue.
One academic said that a training session was given in HCA every year that they felt equipped them for “basic situations”, but that the service was voluntary.
Another, a physiology lecturer, said they had to personally seek out their training. “I’m aware of some of the issues but only because of a teaching course which I was neither required not recommended to take,” the lecturer said.
Some academics said that while they might not be familiar with the issues themselves, they felt comfortable being able to ask for help within their department with specific student issues. One academic in the Edinburgh College of Art said that their 20 years of teaching experience made them feel at ease with handling a range of issues presented to them. Another, in the HCA, said that they did feel equipped, but “only because our SSO [Student Support Office] is really good.”
One academic in the school of mathematics said that they had a “Student Learning Advisor [who is] very well informed on these matters.” They continued: “That seems to me to make more sense than trying to make everybody [a] half expert.”
Still others pointed to disparities in their departments depending on seniority of teaching staff. A lecturer in the English Literature department said the divide in training fell between full-time lecturers and part-time tutors.
“Full-time permanent staff get training on this – although they are so overworked, with intense stress and workload, that they don’t have much time to act on disability issues,” the lecturer told The Student. “Hourly-paid staff (which in my own department make up more than half of staff, and teach almost all pre-honours tutorials) receive no training on this, but have to seek this out themselves and try to find training possibilities.”
The lecturer added that most hourly-paid staff don’t actually end up seeking out those training possibilities “as courses are scarce, and unpaid, so these staff members can’t afford to do free work.”
Another academic, in the school of medicine, said that the yearly training sessions were helpful, but that the faces attending were always the same.
“The training sessions, which draw on folk from the disability office and others, are excellent,” they said. “Unfortunately, although continuous professional development via these courses or equivalents is expected of academic staff, I always seem to see the same ‘usual suspects’ and there are many staff who almost never come to anything.”
As the Disability Service continues to furnish Learning Profiles and push them through a disjointed university-wide system, sabbatical officers at Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA) have been working around the edges to try and build bridges between academic factions and raise awareness.
But in many instances, the efforts are hindered by the kinds of bureaucratic stumbling blocks that allow progress to be declared without results actually achieved.
“Obviously from our position, we would like to do everything we can in order to help,” Imogen Wilson, Vice President Academic Affairs, told The Student. Referring to the concerns raised by disabled students, she added: “A lot of this stuff has come as a surprise, and then there are some things that we knew already, and that we have already been working on this year.”
Wilson said that the issue was often question of adjustments being made mainstream at the top, but lecturers at the bottom not receiving the message.
“We knew that the mainstream learning adjustments weren’t being properly enforced around the University, and we have been trying to raise awareness about that with reps, so that they can bring it up,” she told The Student. “Because these are things that every class is supposed to be doing. But yeah, there are definitely instances where staff have just said no,” she said. “And I don’t think the University is doing a good job in explaining to everyone why they’re important and why we need to be doing them.”
Amid the oftentimes absurdist struggle, the administration has shown its own dedication to fixing the problem, Wilson said, as evidenced by the recent major funding increases. The disconnect, she suggested, comes from large ambitions that are not yet supported by the structural framework below.
It is this dynamic that could explain the proportional drop in learning adjustments met.
“I don’t like to sound like I’m making excuses for the University,” she said, adding “I do think that they are getting on board with their own schemes and with EUSA’s schemes in raising awareness about these issues. I think the number of students who are going to the Disability’s Service in the first place is going up a huge amount, and that can only be a positive thing.”
She continued: “I think now there are lots of people who just wouldn’t have bothered before, but now they’re going to their Learning Profiles, which is good, but now there’s a lower proportion that’s being met because now the University is playing catch up with the larger demands.”
Yet the problems are exacerbated by the disconnect. Describing her efforts to push for enforcement, Wilson detailed a frustrating process where all the members of university senior command were already in agreement. Despite pushing on an open door with high level staff in meetings, the message was still getting continually lost.
“[It’s] quite a common issue in the University, that we can set policy centrally, but it being implemented locally within schools is always patchy, and with this particular issue, it’s particularly bad,” she said. “So it’s something that we’ve been trying to bring up in as many forums as possible, but our main contacts in the University already think it’s a good idea, and I think it’s a massive communications issue.”
Despite persisting issues with adjustments, EUSA has secured improvements to the system overall. A newly revised policy for extensions and special circumstances will be rolled out in September, allowing for a one week extension to be granted before students resort to special circumstances, and allowing submission of a wider variety of supporting documentation to prove the situation.
“A lot of our reasons for pushing for that were for helping out disabled students, because applying for special circumstances where something goes wrong academically is not a very accessible thing to do at the moment,” Wilson said.
She pointed to the introduction of a seven day self-certification window, where students can use testimonies from flatmates, friends and parents to corroborate their situations rather than just doctor notes, which she said “don’t reflect very well on students with mental health.”
And in perhaps EUSA’s biggest advocacy coup, the University of Edinburgh announced this month that it would give all personal tutors mental health training by 2018, after a sustained campaign from the students’ association.
Speaking on the new measures Wilson explained that their intention was “not to turn them into counsellors, but to give them first aid training so they know what to do if a student comes to them in crisis.”
Despite welcoming the news, activists themselves are divided on how effective personal tutor training will be for improving conditions for disabled students.
Some say it is an overdue improvement. To Killeen, the entire system needs to be changed from the bottom up. To do that, she said, training tutors is paramount.
In an interview before the training scheme was announced, Killeen said: “The most pressing thing would be to get personal tutors to understand they have a responsibility. Because in your entire four years at university, the only staff member who you are required to have contact with is your personal tutor. And if they aren’t going to notice that you’re falling off the grid, that you’re not getting your adjustments, that something is wrong—if they’re not going to notice that, no one is. No one will notice.”
But others said they were less sure it was a major improvement.
“From my own personal feedback from people who identify as disabled, we don’t know how effective that’s actually going to be,” Morgan, the newly elected Disability and Mental Wellbeing convener said. “Because they’re not psychologists, they’re not psychiatric doctors, they’re not there for that.”
She continued: “I don’t think training them in that way would stop what I’ve experienced, and the way that I feel the sabb officers have treated this, as if we’re going to approach our personal tutors and have a little counselling session. They’re not there for that, and it’s not how it should be.”
Baker-Millington agreed, saying that it wasn’t about training, but about forcing academics to accept conditions without argument.
“We don’t necessarily need them to be well versed in disability lingo and what to say and what not,” she said. “We just kind of need them to accept that we do have a disability and just to get on with it. And to not make a big deal of it at all, and to just follow through on procedure.”
Moreover, argued Baker-Millington, the personal tutor awareness could not itself reverse the University’s overall intransigence. For that, she concluded, she would need to resort to stronger actions.
After concluding her term as EUSA Disability and Mental Wellbeing convener in 2015, during which she had pressured the University on improving the issues with authorised interruptions of studies, Baker-Millington decided she wanted to continue the fight.
It was around then that she joined Holbrook to help found a new society, separate from the EUSA liberation group. The intention was to create a group specialising in discussing and advocating for “radical views of disability”, and “campaigning to remove the barriers faced by disabled students.” They named it the Black Triangle Society.
“We were just like, well, there’s the Women’s Liberation Group, and there’s FemSoc; and there’s the LGBT liberation group and then there’s BLOGS, and there’s all these things that are happening, and disabilities doesn’t really have one of those” said Baker-Millington, currently the society’s co-treasurer. “I think we wanted to create a society where you don’t have to be disabled to join; it’s about reaching to other people and being like ‘we are here’.”
As Holbrook and Baker-Millington talked to more students and examined the records in the annual Student Disability Service, they began to harden their resolve against the current system. For them, that started with improving visibility, and changing the entire approach to the problem.
Holbrook, the society’s President, explained it came down to two distinct ways to treat disabilities.
“A lot of [our approach] was like how we look at disability, and might think about radically how we can change that,” Holbrook said. “Because there are two ways to look at it: there’s a medical model and a social model. And the medical model is basically like ‘Oh you’re disabled because of this impairment’, as if the rest of society isn’t to blame for your lack of access. And that anything they do to help you access things, they’re being accommodating, and it’s taking up [space for] them.”
In contrast, they added: “If you look at the social/society model, it’s very much: ‘Yeah I have this impairment, but I’m disabled from society for lots and lots of reasons. Why can’t I access this new building that you’ve built? You know there are wheelchair users. And so it’s just a matter of trying to change people’s perspectives on disability in that regard.”
Baker-Millington added that part of the change in approach had to do with directness.
“We want to do things and make ourselves a lot more visible, and not just be like ‘Hi we’re disabled, but we’re lovely; please listen’,” she explained. “More be like ‘Well you have to listen, actually.'”
At first, Black Triangle focused on pressing the University on the fulfilment of learning adjustments (“Black Triangle has been yelling at them a lot,” Holbrook said.) But then, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by Holbrook in November would uncover a new focus for their campaign.
The FOI, which included a request for expenditure records for the Student Counselling Service, Student Disability Service, and Estates disability funding, revealed that the University had only been provisioning £90,000 toward improving disability access in University buildings every year. Because the number was not adjusted for inflation, it represented a 13.5 per cent real term cut over time, according to an analysis by Black Triangle corroborated by The Student.
With sparse disability access mechanisms in place across campus, despite a £33 million pound development underway in Bristo Square, Black Triangle had found their movement’s catalyst.
“Because of inflation there ends up being a roughly £20,000 cut that the University has made [toward Estates accessibility funding],” Holbrook explained. “And then you’ve got that monstrous glass box outside that’s costing millions of pounds.”
Baker-Millington expressed her own exasperation. “It’s just to look good,” she said of the development. “Bottom line, they want to look good. And I think it’s really sad that they put that before students, the aesthetic of the Uni. Same with accessibility; they’d rather the buildings were pretty.”
Armed with grievances, Black Triangle Society decided to take their campaign to Student Council.
The motion drafted is extreme. Titled “The Principal Must Resign”, its objectives are as clear as they are unorthodox.
“The EUSA President, as well as the rest of the sabbatical team, will write to the principal of the university calling for his resignation before the start of the next Academic Year,” the motion reads.
It continues: “EUSA will maintain a position of no-confidence in the administration of the university until the principal has resigned and the lack of building accessibility on our campuses has been rectified.”
Listed among the background reasons in the motion are the standard complaints associated with the disability service.
The motion, if approved, would bind the newly elected sabbatical team into a position of “no-confidence” with regard to the University administration. It was unclear what that would mean in practical terms, but it appeared to include a lapse of coordination and meetings until the requirements in the motion are reached.
A spokesperson for the University said that the University would not comment on the content of the motion.
Despite its severity, the motion’s authors said they believe the approach was necessary.
“What’s happening is just taking the mick right now,” said Morgan, the newly elected Disability and Mental Wellbeing convener. “When we bring this sort of motion forward, putting it on the line there’s no other way of saying look we need to be taken seriously. We can say that, but nothing is still done.”
Holbrook said they thought that the tough language in the text would ultimately be effective.
“I’ve got lots of people saying that they’re supporting it,” Holbrook said. “I’ve had newly elected sabbs have said that they’ll support the motion. So I think it can get a lot of support.”
Asked by The Student, Imogen Wilson, current EUSA Vice President Academic Affairs, said that the optics of the motion could allow for the future EUSA sabbatical officers to use greater leverage against the University.
“I think it’s certainly a good thing that so many students are passionately getting involve with this, and it’s much harder for the University to ignore it when they know that there’s significant demand for it,” she said. “It’s really hard to push anything ever when we only have three or four students to back it up. So this’ll make our jobs a lot easier.”
However, Wilson was critical of the motion’s text. “I do think that asking us to write a letter asking the Principal to resign is not a particularly useful thing to do,” Wilson added. “There are lots of things that we can do moving forward to lobby the University to change things as a result of this motion. But asking the Principal to resign ultimately won’t get him to resign, and might not do great things to our relationship in asking him.”
To others, the symbolism of the motion mattered more than its effectiveness.
“[It’s] almost meant as like a wake-up call for the University,” Killeen, the current Disability and Mental Wellbeing convener said. “Calling for his resignation is saying: ‘This is happening. You have not doing anything about it for the past five years. You are continuing to not do anything about it. You’re actively ignoring the demands of students. Someone needs to be held accountable.'”
“This isn’t an isolated issue,” she added. “This is happening repeatedly for years and years now. There are generations of students who have gone through this University and none of them have had their needs met.”
Wilson agreed. “I think it’s a really good thing that this is coming to a head and that students are mobilising around it, and I think that there has now been enough of a furore for the University to not pay attention,” she said.
“I don’t think they can ignore it now.”
Image: Patrick Down