One of the most useful – and the most frustrating – elements of being Disabled Students’ Officer is the patterns that rise up as you start trying to untangle all the bits and pieces of practice across the collegiate university. The most pervasive pattern I’ve noticed this year is one I term the “‘case-by-case’ crisis.”
Cambridge often prides itself on its individual student focus, and there are huge benefits for disabled (and all!) students to a system that – through colleges, the supervision system, tutors, etc. – makes it hard to be faceless or forgotten. But a ‘case by case’ approach also throws up huge issues across the board. Students who are less experienced in self-advocacy, or who experience the kind of imposter syndrome at Cambridge that makes us less likely to ask for what we deserve, are automatically disadvantaged. Any system that relies on individuals – your tutor, your DoS, your senior tutor, your supervisor – to be willing and equipped to fight for parity for you as a disabled student is at risk of falling down wherever one of those links is, for whatever reason, weaker. This university too often fails to see the value in a process, in a procedure, in a centralised and accountable system.
The recent report that Matt and I have put together – ‘Substantial Disadvantage’: Reviewing the Implementation of Disabled Students’ Academic Adjustments at the University of Cambridge’ – exemplifies this crisis of the ‘case-by-case’ approach. We began collecting data from disabled students across the university on their experiences of asking for ‘reasonable adjustments’ in teaching, learning, and assessment. These adjustments broadly fit into two categories: examination adjustments, like extra time and rest breaks, are centrally managed, with individual colleges feeding applications up to a central university committee. All other academic adjustments, on the other hand, require individual supervisors, lecturers, librarians, support staff, etc. to take their own steps to adjust their teaching and support provisions for each individual disabled student.
We wanted to find out which faculties and colleges did well with providing these two categories of academic adjustment, and which need to do more work. Instead, we found a complete split across the board: when it comes to exam adjustments, students have net positive experiences in almost every faculty and college; but with all other academic adjustments, experiences are consistently inconsistent. In light of this data, the central university’s focus on assessment methods and long-term inclusive teaching and learning goals amounts to sweeping around the edge of a sinkhole. Not only do disabled students not get the academic adjustments we need to study on an equal footing; respondents’ reported experience was overall a net negative one, suggesting that the current system is not only failing to make necessary adjustments but is in fact actively disadvantaging disabled students even further.
The ‘case-by-case’ model, in this and many other areas of disabled students’ support, serves at its worst to absolve the institution of its responsibility to structurally ensure parity of access to education. With at least 15% of Cambridge’s student body being made up of disabled students, we hope our report will highlight that the university urgently needs to embed a systematised, accountable process for implementing academic adjustments into every level of its educational policy and practice. Disability is not just a “welfare issue” – an academic institution that fails in its legal duty to provide disabled students with full and equal access to education is failing not (just) pastorally, but academically. I’m excited for the work this report will spark to hold Cambridge to account in providing disabled students with the academic ‘excellence’ it claims to embody.