This week Cherwell analysed the provision offered by the University of Oxford to disabled students, and how disabled students at Oxford rate this provision. As part of our investigation we phoned up individual colleges to find out what facilities are provided for students at a college level; however, much of the time we were referred to the University Press Office, which provided information and statistics for the university as a whole, but referred us back to individual colleges for more specific information. While speaking to individual students about their personal experiences, Cherwell found that this lack of coordination between University and College authorities is currently the biggest hindrance to provision for disabled students.
The 2010 Equality Act defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.” This can range from dyslexia or ADHD to long term physical impairments.
Admissions statistics show that 150 students with a declared disability were admitted into the university in 2012, compared to 181 in 2011. Disabled students applying for 2012 entry had a success rate of 18.7%, very close to the 18.8% success rate of applicants overall. However, students with mobility impairments had an unusually low acceptance rate of 8% in 2012. In previous years this has been much higher, at 18.8% in 2011, and was as high as 21.9% in 2010.
However, these statistics are clouded by the fact that many disabilities, especially those related to mental health, go unreported: these are the so-called ‘invisible’ disabilities. The Disability Advisory Service (DAS), which provides support for disabled students at the University of Oxford, has 1730 registered students, which suggests that many students only report their disabilities once they have started their course.
On a national scale, the NUS has campaigned against this discrimination, highlighting the fact that one third of disabled people between the ages of 16-24 feel they have been discouraged because of their disabilities. The NUS also stresses the fact that it is against the law for universities, colleges and students’ unions not to be accessible to disabled students. The Disabled Students’ Allowance provides students with special needs with up to £10,000 in financial support, and the University matches this for non-UK students who require it.
The official statistics seem to draw a positive light on Oxford’s provision for disabled students: 9.8% of Oxford students currently have a disability, a figure which is in line with the Russell Group average. Furthermore, 4.7% of Oxford students have a mobility impairment, which is above the national average of 3.5%.
A spokesperson for the University of Oxford told Cherwell, “The budget of the central disability advice service is £1 million and the service employs four full time specialist disability advisors, two part-time disability advisors, and the head of the Disability Advisory Service. There are many more disability contacts in colleges.
“The central disability advice service works in collaboration with disability contacts in colleges to ensure that appropriate adjustments are in place for all students with a disability and offers workshops and training for staff in colleges and departments to help them support disabled students. The service runs an assessment centre that ensures a timely assessment is made of each student’s needs and that they get the support they need to study at Oxford.”
The University has a number of online resources specifying in detail the services it provides for students and applicants alike. This includes an interactive site with videos of current disabled students, as well as a wealth of documents and information pages for students with disabilities. The Oxford University Students’ Union (OUSU) runs a campaign for students with mental health issues, called Mind Your Head, as well as employing a Disabilities Officer, and holding a Disability Awareness Week, which is running this year in 6th week of Michaelmas.
In an anonymous survey directed at disabled students within the University, Cherwell found that a number of students felt that there is an issue of communication and collaboration between the different support mechanisms provided both by the University and individual colleges. Whilst efforts have certainly been made to provide support for disabled students, many feel that there is a lack of communication with students.
One student told Cherwell that there should be “better joined up action between each branch of the university. A guide book of entitlement.” They added, “It’s hard enough working out what I’m entitled to from central and local government, let alone having to wade through yet more information in terms of the university.”
One student was even more critical of the university’s provision for disabled students. They stated, “It’s all too bureaucratic. The university is well aware of my dyslexia but college (until recently) were not. My tutor seems to have no idea what dyslexia is. One of the key difficulties faced by dyslexic students is the misconception that they’re ‘slow’ or ‘not listening’ when in fact these kind of criticisms relate to working memory deficit typical of dyslexics. My experience so far has been that of frustration mainly, I don’t feel my tutors appreciate how much harder I have to work at things they find simple. I hate being called ‘lazy’, I thought I’d left that behind at school.”
One of the most important issues with disabilities in Oxford are the ‘invisible disabilities’ which often go unreported because students feel afraid to approach a specialist about their issues. As one student put it, “The support provided by Oxford is exceptional once you find your way into the system. The hardest thing to overcome is self-discrimination. ‘Imposter syndrome’ as it is commonly known is a big problem. This leads to isolation — which in turn impacts productivity — it’s very hard to feel fully part of university life.”
Another major issue facing students with disabilities is the lack of information provided for students who don’t suffer from disabilities themselves. One student commented, “Communication with students needs to be improved; too many people assume that Oxford’s ‘disabled students’ are the ones that you see in wheelchairs, whereas the reality is that most physical conditions are not visible and mental conditions affect a huge number of people across the University. JCRs need to collaborate with the University to ensure that people are properly educated about the diverse range of conditions that affect the student body, so that people can be sensitive, understanding and informed.”
Charlotte Hendy, OUSU Vice President for Welfare & Equal Opportunities, told Cherwell “OUSU is working alongside the Disability Advisory Service and in co-ordination with the University and Colleges on a newly established Working Group for the Provision for Disabled Students. Created to produce a common framework that all endorse, and designed to standardise access and provision for disabled students across the University, its intention is to improve the experience of disabled students at Oxford.”
Provision for disabilities also appears to vary widely depending on the disability. In particular, students with sensory disabilities feel that their needs are not adequately met. One student told Cherwell, “I have a visual impairment and in general the organisation and communication between my department and the university disability service has been very poor. There has been a lack of knowledge or awareness of the support needed for students with a sensory impairment.”
Sam Dickinson, a student at Merton, acquired severe disability issues as a result of an accident which occurred shortly after he received his offer to study at Oxford. He highlighted the varying levels of support recieved by students depending on their college. He said, “Merton in particular have been brilliant, they’ve done all they can (and more) to make the college accessible and help me feel comfortable, including completely re-landscaping the area in front of my building to give level access and putting a lift on the stairs into hall despite some fairly stiff opposition from English Heritage. The provision across different colleges seems incredibly varied, and there are plenty of potential improvements, although in general the University is pretty good.”
Indeed, provision for disabled students varies greatly across Oxford colleges. A number, such as Somerville, Queens and Balliol have disabilities representatives which work with JCRs to improve services and accessibility. Given the old age of most college buildings, adaptation is often hard, although a number of colleges have gone to considerable effort to improve their accessibility. For example, in 2005, Christ Church established a three-year plan in order to improve accessibility in the college. Access to Magdalen’s library is limited, something which is set to be addressed as the new library is currently in construction. Most colleges provide disabled accommodation for students with special needs.
In terms of accessibility to libraries, the Radcliffe Camera, a crucial library for History and English students, was not accessible to disabled students until this term, whilst plans for the New Bodleian Library intend to address accessibility issues. Ramped access to the English Faculty Library is enabled, although students on wheelchairs generally require assistance to access the reading room. Two passenger lifts are available to disabled students in the Music Faculty, whilst the Philosphy and Theology faculty library is fully accessible to wheelchair-users. Students with disabilities are entitled to special loan periods, assistance with finding books and are allowed to take a nominated person into the library with them. Guide dogs are also allowed into libraries and disabled students are permitted to eat and drink in all Bodleian Libraries.
The Accessible Resources Acquisition and Creation Unit (ARACU) create alternative formats for disabled students who cannot access printed materials.
However, the Bodleian Libraries online page detailing which libraries are accessible to disabled students has been offline all week, and when Cherwell approached staff in the Bodleian we found no printed material available.
Does Oxford take mental health seriously?
Cherwell’s anonymous survey of disability provision at Oxford produced particularly negative feedback in relation to the provision of support for students with mental health issues.
One student wrote, “My illness made it necessary to intermit study for a year. During that time I have had no contact, support or counselling. Before intermission, the deterioration of my condition had a large negative impact on my work. Despite asking for additional help to catch up and provision to make it easier for me to fit my work around my illness, I have received no support. I believe there is a lack of respect for the serious nature of mental illness amongst university staff.”
Another student highlighted communication problems in university provision for disabled students, saying, “I think greater contact with students, possibly through holding information sessions — not only for freshers — at a college level, would be a great way to improve university provision for students suffering from mental disabilities.”
Mental health issues can be hard to address because they often go unreported; as one student highlighted, “I feel that I am not alone in having had issues which I did not feel I could approach someone about”.
Indeed, only eight out of 3233 successful applicants for 2012 entry declared a mental health related issue in their application, whilst seventy two declared a learning disability. This is in stark contrast to recent NUS statistics which suggest that up to twenty per cent of UK students suffer from mental health related problems.
Mind Your Head, OUSU’s campaign for helping students with mental health issues, aims to co-ordinate between colleges and the university, as well as holding information sessions for students suffering from mental health issues.
A spokesperson for the Mind your Head Campaign told Cherwell, “At Mind Your Head we feel that there are valuable resources available to those seeking help with mental health issues at Oxford, ranging from peer support to long term mental health monitoring.
“Despite this, there is still unnecessary and damaging stigma associated with mental illness. This stigma, especially with, but not limited to, college administration bodies may dissuade students from seeking help. We hope that by raising awareness the Mind Your Head campaign can help to tackle this.
“Our It Gets Brighter campaign collects and publishes short video testimonials documenting experiences of mental illness. By bringing people face to face with others who have experienced mental illness, the It Gets Brighter project aims to combat the stigma surrounding the issue.
“Our university campaign is working on a leaflet summarising help available to students and organises university-wide events and talks. The college campaign collects data about students’ experience with mental illness and liaises with colleges to help improve their welfare provision. We continue to maintain our website, which publishes ‘Student’s Stories,’ a collection of articles about student’s experiences with mental illness whilst at Oxford and has a comprehensive list of resources available to students.”
The University also provides a number of services for Oxford students with mental health issues. The Student Counselling Service is a free service which focuses on providing individual counselling sessions, although workshop sessions, group-counselling and self-help resources are also available . The point of the service is not merely to help students to get back to the libraries. The Counselling Service states on its website: “You can come to us with any problem […] whether specifically related to study or not.” They also employ a consultant psychiatrist, at the equivalent of full-time.
Another function of the Counselling Service is to provide training for the 250 ‘peer supporters’ in JCRs and MCRs. There is also specific training provided for the graduate medical school and the Said Business School.