Leaked recording highlights UCL’s disability discrimination problem

Disabled Student Newtwork

By Rob Davidson & Stephanie Frank

“I wasn’t expecting just full ableism in front of my face”

The member of staff responsible for implementing Summary of Reasonable Adjustments (SoRAs) within UCL’s School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS) has been accused of ableism by a member of a complaints panel. The panel was convened after a disabled student claimed that the department failed to implement his SoRA. The complaint was upheld. A recording of the meeting, which was made available to the student, includes the accusation made after both the member of staff and the student had left the meeting. Another member of the panel added, “I found his attitude quite scary actually”.

The student’s SoRA required that audio-visual ‘Lecturecast’ recordings of teaching and a competent note-taker would be provided to assist their learning. Despite this being an established requisite, Lecturecast was only provided in one module the student took in the 2019/20 academic year, and the notetaker did not speak the language being taught. Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) guidance requires note-takers to have a “familiarity with subject specific vocabulary”, while Equality Act 2010 Technical Guidance notes, “it is unlikely that an education provider will discharge its reasonable adjustments duty if the adjustment made provides little benefit to the student”. It seems UCL has, in this case, failed to carry out this duty. The discrimination faced here is another addition to the examples of disabled students being systematically let down by the university, which was highlighted in the Disabled Students’ Network (DSN) report publlished in January 2020.

Under Chapter 4, Section 5: Reasonable Adjustments of UCL’s Academic Manual, the university vows to ‘make reasonable adjustments to learning, teaching and assessment to support students with a disability or other ongoing medical or mental health condition’. Government changes to Disabled Students’ Allowances in 2016 mean that universities are responsible for the provision of note-takers.

The member of staff reported the department’s main justification for not allowing audio-visual recording in language classes to be a pedagogical one, as they were concerned that students would contribute less to the conversation if they knew they were being recorded. However, no students on this module were consulted to check if this might be the case.

During the recorded meeting, the member of staff from SELCS stated: “I can’t help you run a marathon, you have to do it with your own legs. I can guide you and give you as much advice as I can, but ultimately if you don’t follow through on that advice I’m not sure what progress you can realistically make”. The panel repeatedly mentioned that the student’s ability at the subject is not pertinent to the issue of whether the SoRA was implemented.

In an email from the staff member to the student read aloud by the panel, he said there existed “a mismatch between [the student’s] intellectual strengths and learning preferences and those of language learning”. These words, which may suggest learning a language simply isn’t for students who require these adjustments, are strikingly similar to a testimony from Part 4: Academic departments of the Disabled Student Network’s (DSN) 2020 report, where a student “was even told by a senior member of staff that UCL is an ‘institution that expects a minimal level of functionality from its students.”

The member of staff from SELCS further justified prohibiting Lecturecast by claiming: “It’s not like actually the four hours [of language classes] per week is the be-all and end-all. You don’t understand how to express a past action in [the taught language]?… Well the coursebook and the revision exercises are there for that”. His words could be seen to contradict the rationale behind UCL’s 70% attendance requirement, which was in place when much of this course was taught.

Unfortunately, this deeply concerning incident is not an isolated one. Last year, The Cheese Grater investigated an occurrence of ableism against a deaf student, whose provided note-taker was hard of hearing himself – something the note-taker had not disclosed. Both note-takers were provided by Randstad, an agency UCL uses regularly. This worrying resistance to fulfilling students’ additional requirements has meant that students such as Mette Westander, an MSc Cognitive and Decision Sciences student, left UCL last year due to the university’s perceived unwillingness to accommodate her SoRA.

A lack of knowledge surrounding disabled students’ rights to reasonable adjustments may be partially to blame for these issues. The DSN report outlines how module leaders are often unaware of whether a student even has a SoRA, or how it can be accessed.

When asked whether the services of Student Support and Wellbeing (SSW) were helpful, the disabled student in question maintains: “I feel overall SSW did their best, but my understanding is that at the time (and maybe still? I don’t know) SSW were not actually allowed to force departments to act if they chose not to implement SORA or other disability-related adjustments”. Ultimately, a top-down approach from UCL may be required to elicit change – and to manage improved disability support within all aspects of the institution.

A spokesperson for UCL said: “All UCL students with a disability or longterm condition have the right to high quality support, ensuring they can demonstrate the full extent of their academic abilities and achieve the very best results… We have apologised to the student and both the Student Support and Wellbeing Team and the department will ensure all the recommendations made by the Panel are implemented and the best support is provided to the student moving forward.”

SSW has started to recruit disability support workers directly from student communities within departments where speciality knowledge is needed. Last year, the UCL Student Experience Committee set up a Task and Finish Group, to look at the experiences of disabled students and with a view to making positive improvements. They have asked SSW and Disability Rights UK to review the student journey at UCL. This includes reviewing SoRA implementation and the complaints process. The Committee’s co-chair, Professor Deborah Gill, praised their work so far, adding: “We very much welcome Professor Sasha Roseneil’s appointment [to the role of Pro Vice-Provost (Equity and Inclusion)] to carry on and augment some of the important work started by this group.”

In spite of recent measures perceived to improve disability support for students at UCL, substantive changes have been few and far between. Although this incident has momentarily spotlighted UCL’s failure to uphold its responsibility to disabled students, many cases still go unnoticed due to a lack of knowledge and transparency surrounding disability rights.

This appeared in CG Issue 76