The University of Edinburgh will be holding a formal review of its support for students with disabilities, after years of pressure by student activists, concerns voiced by students, and a student council motion calling on the Principal to resign.
The effort, to be led by Vice Principal People and Culture Jane Norman, was described as “a review of our current arrangements to support students with disabilities.” It will be advised by a EUSA sabbatical officer, a member of University Court and the Deputy Secretary Student Experience, the University announced.
The announcement was accompanied by a promise to make “further improvements to teaching spaces” by building more ramps and induction loops around buildings.
In a statement, a spokesperson said: “The University attaches the utmost importance to supporting all our students to study and thrive, and we work closely with student representatives on this.”
The decision comes after mounting pressure by student activists, and an investigation by The Student that uncovered widespread dissatisfaction among students with disabilities and major structural problems with the University’s support system.
Responding to an anonymous survey commissioned by The Student, students identifying as disabled said they had received uneven support provisions and that tutors and professors had often dismissed or even mocked their conditions when raised. (To read the full investigation click here.)
“At times my personal tutor hasn’t been the least bit helpful,” one student said, adding: “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.”
“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,” another student said.
Summarising the situation, one student remarked:“The Student Disability Service is fabulous, but it is absolutely powerless in enforcing the things it sets out for students.”
Among the two biggest demands made by disability activists and students over the years are for the University to enforce the implementation of learning adjustments (special provisions given to students with disabilities to aid their studies) and for physical accessibility to be increased in academic buildings.
A motion submitted at student council last Thursday called for the resignation of Sir Timothy O’Shea, University Principal, if improvements were not made. While that motion ultimately failed, a separate one focusing on learning disabilities passed, mandating Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA) take a position of no-confidence until the measures were met. The decision by the University was made the Monday after the student council vote, EUSA President Jonny Ross-Tatam told The Student.
Reacting to Tuesday’s announcement, activists were jubilant.
“I am elated that the University has heard us and has acknowledged the lack of support that disabled students faced,” Jessica Killeen, current Disability and Mental Wellbeing Convener for EUSA), told The Student.
“We have opened up a dialogue with the university and I am excited about the positive, mandatory changes that this review will bring about,” she continued. “Student activism works, and the University has taken the first step to addressing the issues faced by disabled students.”
Zaic Holbrook, president of the Black Triangle Society, an activist pressure group that submitted the student council motions and has spent the last year lobbying the University to change, expressed excitement at the decision, but with reservations.
“We’re really happy the review will take place though obviously we’re not being complacent about it and want to make sure that something actually comes from the review,” Holbrook told The Student.
Both Holbrook and Killeen cautioned that for any review to be acceptable, it would need adequate participation from representatives for disabled students.
“I hope that the review will include the Disabilities and Mental Wellbeing Liberation Group convener and that disabled students will be given a platform to discuss the issues they are facing,” Killeen said.
Holbrook added that a representative from the staff trade unions should be present at the review, as many of the issues also affected staff members with disabilities.
Jonny Ross-Tatam, EUSA President, said that EUSA would press the University to follow through on its promise.
“We’re going to keep pressing to make sure that the key problems that were highlighted by students—learning adjustments not being met for disabled students and not having enough access for buildings,” he told The Student. “We need to make sure these problems are fixed as soon as possible.”
He added: “It’s good there’s a review happening, but a review without fixing the issues doesn’t solve the problem.”