Durham University, A Disability Review: Part One

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looks back at his three years at Durham University in a disability-focused perspective, commenting on the positives and negatives, successes and challenges of his undergraduate degree. In the first part of this two-part series, Matthew focuses on the academic side of university life.

Arriving at Durham in October 2017, I recognised that my position was significantly better than many fellow students who had disabilities or handicaps. Throughout my GCSEs and A-Levels, I benefitted from outstanding SEND support at an independent school, where I underwent rigorous diagnostic tests so that I could obtain the right DSAs and assistance from the University. The most significant change was that I was responsible for my own disability needs, and this struck before I left home. My parents and I spent hours examining resources, and my arrival was met with a stack of information from my college and department. Now, I had to organise online training for the new DSA-funded software; I had to make sure that the exams team had all the correct information; I had to email the lecturer and query recording their lectures. I quickly realised that, even though disabilities do create additional workload to the necessary academic organisation, I had to sacrifice a little so that I could be supported properly by my college and department.

The most significant change at university was that I was responsible for my own disability needs

This is not to say that I was completely devoid of support in the first days and weeks. The Department of Classics and Ancient History scheduled one-to-one sessions for me with their SEND advisor; personal and year tutors helped guarantee that the right support reached me from their level. My college, St. Chad’s, provided significant pastoral support, both in terms of a personal tutor, constantly on hand for any personal issue, and a senior tutor, who, having introduced herself during Freshers’ Week, ensured that I was aware of the support college had available. One of the major benefits I experienced at Durham, with its collegiate structure, as a disabled student, was that both department and college provided a combination of academic and pastoral assistance. I hence felt comfortable knowing that I had this phalanx to back me in any challenges I would face.

One of the major benefits I experienced at Durham, with its collegiate structure, as a disabled student, was that both department and college provided a combination of academic and pastoral assistance

These challenges did come. Studying Latin and Greek at school, I was accustomed to small classes of no more than five students; at university, literature seminars consisted of around 15 to 20 people. I initially felt uncomfortable asking for a piece of a translation to be reiterated because of my processing difficulties. My department scheduled a meeting to discuss strategies to overcome this issue without class progress being hindered. This is exemplary of how I wanted my disabilities to be treated; I did not want to be distinguished as ‘special’ or ‘different’; rather, as far as possible, I desired the same treatment as my peers. I did attend extra meetings to cover gaps in my translations and notes with my lecturers, but these were few and far between; indeed, using my own initiative, I collaborated with some of my friends to fill in each other’s respective gaps over coffee. This was a mutually beneficial system for all, and so it persisted throughout my entire degree.

The major challenge arrived in second year. I had learned that two Latin literature exams were placed consecutively: one on the afternoon session and the other in the following morning. This may not seem a major issue; a typical student could power through one exam, and, after a short recovery sleep, wake up early to revise for the next paper. It was unsafe, because of epilepsy, for me to do so. This scheduling demanded further sustained exposure on screens without breaks for two 2 ½ hour periods. So, not only was I explicitly disadvantaged compared to my peers who were able to stay up and revise without consequence, but there was also an actual risk to life.

The exams team refused to amend the timetable for the latter assessment, as I did not have 4 or more exams in a row. The exam timetable is, granted, strenuously planned out prior to release; it is difficult to make changes. Yet, the responses I received felt disparaging. They mentioned that I did not have the required paced timetable concession on my form, which I did not know existed – I had not been made aware of such a concession by the University Disability Support team. I immediately gathered the medical evidence from my GP to make this amendment, but this would affect assessments only after the May/June 2019 period. They raised the idea of sending a SAC form after sitting the exams; I stated, concerned that the situation was not being taken seriously, that “the consequences of keeping the exams consecutive are extremely severe. With my epilepsy condition, a consequence of a seizure can be death – in that case, a SAC or any other form would not be necessary, as I would not be here to fill them out.”

The team then argued, given that the university “would not want you to do anything that would jeopardize your health”, that I should defer the second exam until August. I may appear extremely inflexible in rejecting this; after all, the University guidelines require all students to keep the August exams dates free for any necessary resits or deferrals. Yet, I want to be treated the same as any other student, and a deferral, in these circumstances, infringed upon that. As I noted, “it appears to be that this is purely to facilitate the University not considering a reasonable rescheduling request. It would be detrimental to me to sit in August as I would not have the benefit of the recent lecturing, I would have to constantly keep the subject under review, I would not have the opportunity for much needed down time, and I have a dissertation to work on.” Moreover, I usually work throughout the vacation to financially support myself when away from home.

Despite meetings and emails with my college support offices, the Student’s Union, and the Classics department, an impasse prevailed, with the University administration satisfied in discriminating against a protected characteristic. The Equality and Human Rights Commission that “Discussion with the students themselves is vital to ensure the most appropriate adjustments are made, although students may not be aware of all the adjustments that could be put in place.” It was the University’s legal responsibility to ensure that the most appropriate adjustments were made for my disability to be accommodated, especially as I had not been made aware of an appropriate concession.

The Classics Department dutifully came to my aid. After discussions had been ongoing involving several members of departmental staff, such as the modules’ lecturers, the Board of Examiners, and the Head of Department, they decided to produce an alternative, take-home assessment of the same rigour and difficulty as the exam. Though this was not the ideal solution (namely, taking the same exam as everyone else simultaneously), it enabled me to be assessed at the same time as my peers, and then enjoy and work during the vacation. I had spent many hours for a fortnight resolving this matter during the busy summative season of Epiphany term; but, as I learned back in Freshers’, I had to sacrifice a little so that I could be supported.

The Classics Department dutifully came to my aid.

Most of my academic routine was typical. Ploughing through a haul of resources for summatives, responding to tough seminar questions and debates, agonising about the effectiveness of presentations; these are the challenges that every student should expect to confront at Durham. Still, with the additional workload and challenges that come with disability, such as ensuring SFE paid back my printing costs and adapting my workstyle to different settings, being a disabled student presented a slightly different path. This path, however, was enriching; I became more aware of my personal responsibilities. In hindsight, my experiences, both positive and negative, may even weigh in my favour as I start to deal with even greater obligations and liabilities.

Image: Navya Lobo

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