Open Letter From the Disabled Students’ Network

disabled students' network

Dear Provost,

Six weeks ago the UCL Disabled Students’ Network released a report based on the testimonies of 33 disabled students. This report described patterns of disability discrimination at UCL and the institutional failings that caused them.

When we released the report it received praise from students, staff and experts, as well as significant media attention. Upon reading the report you acknowledged that there was an issue with how the university handles accessibility and set up the Improving the Disabled Student Experience Working Group to address this. We appreciate this step however we are concerned by the fact that few concrete commitments have been made to tackle the issues raised.

We feel it is important to draw your attention to new testimonies showing that students who responded to our initial survey have still not received help from UCL in resolving their individual cases of disability discrimination. These students have been desperately asking different staff members for assistance with these issues, but are being denied help and pushed from person to person:

BA student: “The student advice service helped me write to my course tutor, but instead of offering to help me the tutor implied I was unsuited for the course. I have contacted the UCL Disability Champion, but she just referred me on to someone else. I am incredibly stressed at the moment; I’m not sure I can face having to contact more people. If I fail this module it would in effect force me to leave UCL.”

MSc student: “I contacted everyone – the student advice service was too busy, the mediator said she couldn’t help, and SSW and my department kept passing me back and forth between them. Halfway through my degree I still don’t have all my support in place. I arrived at UCL on a scholarship and was supposed to go on to do a PhD, but now I don’t even know if I’ll be able to finish my degree.”

BA student: “Despite declaring my disability at the beginning of my course, no arrangements were put in place for me. Upon consulting my examinations officer, he told me that UCL expects a “minimal level of functionality” from its students, and if I could not meet that, there was nothing anybody could do to support me. I have contacted the mediator, and whilst she was empathetic about my situation, practically speaking her power is quite limited. A common response to my pleads for more support has been to take an interruption of study – which I already have done once.”

As you are aware, disabled students who are denied support are particularly disadvantaged and often need assistance in rectifying the situation. In the current UCL disability support structure, there is no one to whom disabled students can reliably turn for support when they have faced institutionalised disability discrimination. We have asked for UCL to hire a full-time staff member with knowledge of disability law who can advocate for individual disabled students to resolve these cases, but UCL has so far refused to take this step. This has led to several students reaching a point where they may have to leave their degree.

In our report we asked the university to take certain interim measures by March 2nd, six weeks after its release. Within this time limit we expected UCL to promise concrete institutional changes which would lay the groundwork for change. We asked UCL to make a “PACT”, to show that they understand the structural nature of the problem and will invest money to resolve it. The deadline has now passed and we can report little in the way of concrete commitments from UCL to align their practices with the 2010 Equality Act.

Despite our request, UCL has not yet created a plan to:

  1. Form a body responsible for university-wide accessibility which can coordinate and hold different bodies accountable. This body must employ at least one full-time professional with knowledge of accessibility and disability law. With expert guidance, the Improving the Disabled Student Experience Working Group can be an excellent group for identifying much of the work to be done. However, it does not employ full-time professionals dedicated to university-wide accessibility and so lacks the resources for timely coordinated implementation and follow-up.
  2. Hire an additional professional with knowledge of accessibility and disability law to help disabled students resolve situations in which staff are not providing them with their reasonable adjustments, either informally or through formal complaints.
  3. Hire external accessibility consultants and professionals who can train UCL staff in disability law.

The importance of such structural changes is demonstrated by the insufficiency of the steps taken by the working group to respond to the report so far.

The working group has asked for and received preliminary internal plans from SSW and from Estates. However, no plan has been produced to address the problems which relate to academic departments or UCL’s overarching accessibility approach. We believe this is because there is no UCL employee with responsibility for accessibility in these areas.

The lack of expert oversight has also made it possible for some bodies to refuse change. The plan from Estates clearly addresses the interim measures set out in our report and suggests concrete, measurable solutions in a collaborative and responsible way. On the other hand, the response from SSW does not present transparent, measurable outcomes for meeting the report’s recommendations and continues an approach of denying missteps.

Most clear cut is the implicit refusal to acknowledge SSW and Accommodation’s responsibility for the overcharging of disabled students for accessible accommodation from 2016-2020, in breach of UCL’s responsibilities under the 2016 DSA changes. Without acknowledgement of wrongdoing, UCL has not been able to apologise or reimburse the disabled students affected, as would be appropriate. The Accommodation website still states at the time of this letter, “We will not apply the adjustment to accommodation contracts for previous academic years, held with UCL”. In order for our collaboration to be successful and to effect real change for the disabled students at UCL it is important that all parties are open to taking responsibility.

Provost, at our initial meeting we were very encouraged to hear you acknowledge that UCL has a lot of work to do in the area of accessibility. In light of the continued discrimination experienced by disabled students and the lack of promised structural change, we feel that further external guidance is needed to ensure the success of this work. In addition to the requests already made, we would like to ask UCL to bring in an external investigator to audit and improve adherence to disability law and best practices at UCL. It is crucial that UCL acknowledge the scale of this problem and the structural changes needed to address it. As long as disabled students’ desperate need for change remains unmet, the DSN must look into external avenues for achieving justice for disabled students at UCL.

Thank you for the time you have taken to read this letter; we look forward to continuing to collaborate with you to improve accessibility at UCL.

Yours sincerely,

UCL Disabled Students’ Network committee