University can be a struggle for anyone; however, studying with a disability can give students an extra challenge. Getting around campus, keeping up in lectures or receiving support may be more difficult if you have additional needs.
In 2016 the University of Stirling launched the new Student Services Hub, hoping to be a “one stop shop for all UofS student enquiries” – including those relating to disabilities through the Accessibility and Inclusion Service.
Brig spoke to three disabled students to ask them about their experiences studying at the university and the support that they receive, particularly through this new Hub.
Hetty Mochrie is a fourth-year Sociology and Social Policy student. She is also the Disabled Equality Officer for the Students’ Union. Hetty has Asperger’s, a form of autism, and also dyspraxia, which means she has poor hand-eye coordination, so struggles with tasks such as tying shoelaces. She also has Meares-Irlen Syndrome, which affects how words are ‘seen’ on the page and makes it difficult to read.
Sarah McLean is doing an MLitt Masters in Creative Writing. She has Leber’s amaurosis, which is a serious visual impairment, so she has no sight at all and is a braille user.
Brig also spoke to Student C, an anonymous postgraduate Business Management student, who has dyslexia, dyspraxia, and Meares-Irlen Syndrome.
Each of these conditions means that the students need extra academic support. Hetty said “I find it quite hard to take notes quickly enough in class – I’ll often find myself being a slide or two behind once I’ve finished writing notes for the first one.” She has found the compulsory use of ListenAgain in lectures useful for catching up.
Sarah said that for her everything needs to be in braille technologically. The Accessible Formats team within Accessibility and Inclusion will convert books for her, so they’ll look for an online copy if one exists and they’ll put it into Microsoft Word so she is able to access it.
Student C said that classes cause them a great deal of stress. “It takes me a lot longer than people without the disability to read and write. Because of the Meares-Irlen Syndrome I have to read things over and over again until I understand them. It affects me in lectures as I can’t always read fast enough and lecturers skip slides too fast. I fall behind easily.”
Despite these struggles, they feel that tutors don’t always provide the extra help they need. “I suggested they provide lecture slides beforehand, but this didn’t happen.”
Hetty has found her tutors have been more helpful. She said “My tutors have been mostly supportive. I’ve never had an extension turned down.”
Sarah has also found teaching staff supportive, calling the Creative Writing department “spot on”: “There’s four tutors, and they go over and above. When we had our induction day they all came up to me and said to just let us know whatever you need. Anything I email to them they get back to me straight away – they make sure things are in the right format.”
Sarah’s course-mates also accommodate her condition. “For workshops we critique each other’s pieces, and they’re always in Microsoft Word format. Other students will send my feedback by email, rather than writing it on the document, so that’s helpful.”
Hetty has not had the same support from her fellow students. She said: “There was one guy I was friends with before who wasn’t very supportive and who was saying that I shouldn’t be getting extensions and that I shouldn’t be getting support in exams – that I was too lazy to work.”
Student C said: “The other students seem to think I get treated like a ‘special snowflake’. Most do not understand why I get extra time in exams and find it unfair. I do explain my conditions – although I should not have to – but this rarely helps. I feel I’ve been a bit isolated as a result.”
When meeting with an advisor from the Accessibility and Inclusion Service, some students found it more difficult than others. Hetty said: “The system was completely different when I started, because at the moment it is all centralised which is rubbish to be honest. There used to be different offices for different things – such as disabled services, financial advice and lost property office. How they’ve changed it now is that all the student services are located in the Student Services Hub.”
Hetty says there are a lot of other issues surrounding it as well. “The Hub is an open-plan office, so you take your ticket and you sit in the waiting area to wait to be seen by an advisor and where the advisor actually talks to you is within earshot of everyone else in the room. And since it’s all centralised now it could be anything – something as trivial as getting a new photo taken for your student ID card or something as serious as reporting sexual assault.
“When you’re talking to an advisor it can be quite distressing as everyone else who’s waiting can hear you and everyone else in the office can hear you. There’s not much confidentiality going on there.”
Student C agrees, and sees the Hub as a “barrier” to contacting an advisor. They believe the Hub in its current form should be scrapped altogether: “We need more trained staff and more drop-in sessions. Disability advisors need to be more accessible.
“I found on a few occasions that staff members at reception have spoken to me in a condescending manner. This really isn’t required and made me apprehensive about approaching the service staff again.
“It’s difficult enough – there is stigma from non-understanding people but you’d expect staff working in the Accessibility and Inclusion service to treat people with more respect.”
However, Sarah defended the Hub, especially when comparing it to her experiences as an undergraduate at the University of Glasgow. “I think the Hub is a lot nicer, it’s a lot more spacious and more accessible, ironically enough. I think modern buildings are really good for accessibility.”
So what can be done to improve the experience of these students? “Make the Hub better, more accessible, more confidential,” said Hetty. “Basically making it more like it was before.”
She believed there are other things that would make studying easier for disabled students too. “I think we need more study spaces and more accessible study spaces, and more study spaces that have computers with assistive technology on them for all sorts of disabilities.”
Student C sums up their experience, saying “I can’t help but feel staff aren’t concerned with my disability. They see me as the problem student, an annoyance, an inconvenience and don’t see my potential.”
The Student Services Hub said: “We always welcome feedback and following the issue of students feeling they could be overheard as the Hub desks being brought to our attention, we have introduced some new measures. We have invested in privacy panels around front line desk, and have signs which students can point to or ask that they are seen in a more private area.
“Also, in response to this feedback we recently launched a new competition for the re-design of the Hub, and are currently working in partnership with the Student Union, and in particular the Disabled student group, to encourage competitors to re-design the Hub themselves using a software package. The winner will have their design realised and a new Hub layout will be created with maximum privacy a key intended outcome, obviously not withstanding the actual space restrictions.”
Union President Astrid Smallenbroek said: “The lack of privacy is certainly something that the Students’ Union is aware of as in issue within the current Student Services Hub. I have worked with Student Support Services this year to try and find the best solution for the space that the hub is in at the moment. We are creating an online opportunity for students to re-design the current layout of the student services hub to make it suit students’ needs better.
In terms of a long term solution, I have also conducted a survey to get student feedback on the student hub. This information will feed into the design of the new student services hub to ensure it is fit for purpose in the atrium re-development. However, moving forward there will still be consultations held with students regarding the layout and design of the student services hub within the atrium redevelopment project.”