The end of lockdown has brought great relief for many, but the pandemic is still not over for students with disabilities. Instead, the so-called end was the beginning of a whole new wave of distress.
Speaking with a disabled student Alex*, they told Indigo that the easing of restrictions had made them feel “extremely anxious” as they had “never felt comfortable around lots of people,” with lockdown having “amplified those feelings.” Concerns of getting Covid-19 and being forced into isolation despite being fully vaccinated have persisted. In turn, leaving them feeling worried about the effect on their mental health.
According to a survey by the Office for National Statistics conducted back in February, this view is sadly not an exception but the rule. Disabled people have been significantly more affected by the pandemic. 78% of disabled people felt concerned about the effect the Covid-19 has had on their lives compared to 69% of non-disabled people. Additionally, 46% of disabled people compared to 29% of non-disabled people specified that the coronavirus pandemic had made their mental health significantly worse than before the pandemic. Correspondingly, the well-being ratings of disabled people scored worse than those of non-disabled people across the following four measures: life satisfaction, happiness, feeling as if things they have done in life have been worthwhile, and anxiety.
Having spoken with Sarah Rixon, a support worker from the Wirral-based charity Autism Together, this comes as no surprise to the organisation. During an interview with Sarah, she said that even in normal times, “autism and disabilities as a whole often go hand in hand with social isolation and anxiety…”. She revealed that after the start of the pandemic in 2020, many support services dedicated to helping disabled people with these issues struggled to help them. The impact of lockdown restrictions heavily interfered with their ability to provide adequate support services. Resulting in a “double whammy of increased demand and reduced support.” Even when services managed to adapt to online communication platforms, numerous individuals were still unable to access their allocated support. Plus, the frequent changes in guidance from the government and the lack of clarity did not help to improve matters. In some circumstances, they exacerbated the problems.
However, at Durham University, the experience of many disabled students has been relatively positive. When asked about the provisions made to support their disability during the pandemic, Alex* found the University readily approachable. They said that they have felt able to speak with the student support and disability services to ensure they could attend academic commitments and that these were sufficiently accessible. Furthermore, their college helped them communicate with the disabilities services so their academic department could acknowledge their Disability Support Notice (DSN) regarding the effect of restrictions and the recent liftings.
On the non-academic side of things, Alex* believed that the virtual Freshers’ Fair hosted on the University Sharepoint was a step forward in “improving access to [a] wider student experience.” An immense difference compared to their experience at one a couple of years ago where they found it not to be particularly accessible. Despite the Sharepoint site helping to resolve some accessibility issues, Alex* believes that there is still much improvement to be made concerning plans to increase access for disabled students at Durham University.
As we move further away from the lockdowns and begin to resume daily life, it is worth considering that Covid-19 presents a very different reality for disabled students, their families, and their friends. In May and June this year, a survey commissioned by the Disabled Students’ Commission (DSC) showed overwhelmingly positive comments from respondents about the provisions made for remote learning at their universities and support for the continuation of blended-learning. However, outside of academic needs, 45.5% of students reported that they were not offered an opportunity to familiarise themselves with their campuses to check if the facilities themselves were accessible before they arrived.
The release from lockdown will determine whether we see more consistent support for disabled students as the new academic year begins. After all, those with roles involving safeguarding and leadership in both University-wide and collegiate circles should need more than a global pandemic as a motivation to increase accessibility.
*Alex is a pseudonym used as the student did not wish to be identified in the article.
Illustration: Emerson Shams