Saturday 30 April 2016

#BADD2016 Earning your degree differently should be ok

This is my post for #BADD2016, Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016

People who know me will know that I have a maths degree. So far, apart from the astonishment that anyone would *want* to do a maths degree, nothing too much out of the ordinary.

What makes it less ordinary is *how* I got it. You see, I was extremely ill during those years and spent a lot of time in hospital and/or confined to my room.

When it first became clear during my first year that I was going to miss a lot of lectures, what do you think the reaction of the university and my doctors was? Was it how can we help you keep up? (ha ha ha)

No. Straightaway I was told to go back home to my parents who could "look after me". The most "support" offered was a 1 year deferral.
But I now knew I had an INCURABLE illness (diagnosed in Easter of my 1st year)! How the heck was this going to help?

At first I was very dispirited. I decided that the best option would be for me to do my degree at home through the Open University. That way I could get the course material and then study it in my room.
This is when I (finally) had my *lightbulb* moment.
Why did I HAVE to study like everyone else?
What rule said that the only way to get a good degree was to have a 100% attendence?
As it turned out, at my university, none.

So what was stopping me in creating my own Open University style course right there?
I already had personal care in place from social services, so that was thankfully not an issue.
I could stay at university with my new friends, enjoying the benefits of university life when well enough.
When really ill and unable to go to lectures, I could get notes brought to me and work on my own. I could even buy books to help me with money from DSA.
Excited, I decided that I WOULD go back and attempt my second year.

But I encountered resistance. "This is not how we do things."
Among other things:
  • Friends bringing me notes would be disruptive to them. (photocopying their notes after lectures and bringing them when they visit? Really?!)
  • I shouldn't be "encouraged" to miss lectures by authorising other students to lend me their notes.
  • Some lecturers gave out printed notes and, in a bid to boost attendence,  had a policy of not giving them out to students who did not come. They initially refused to make an exception for me.
  • One course had 10% set aside for handing in weekly coursework (1% per paper). I missed some deadlines due to being in hospital. This was not accepted as an excuse. The lecturers running it said it was "only" 1% so I "shouldn't be concerned".
  • I shouldn't take the exam having missed so many lectures because I would fail (no, I wouldn't, and I should be allowed to try).
A special commendation should be made to my tutor who fought my corner tooth and nail and solved most issues for me.
It was only when I passed my exams with flying colours that attitudes completely changed.
After that lecturers fell over themselves to be supportive, even visiting me in hospital to bring me notes.

Unfortunately not everyone is so lucky.
I follow the twitter feed @PhDisabled.
What is clear is that almost 20 years on, disablist practises such as grades being given for attendence, or no allowances being given for deadlines are still common.
It is also clear that universities are still set up for the traditional way of learning and simply cannot cope when a student needs to be different.
Yet it is ok to be different. I even went on to do a PhD and became a maths researcher!
I am proof positive that what is important is *what* you learn, not *how* you learn it.


  1. You'd think that by now - in the UK in the 21st century - things would've changed for the better by now. Sometimes, I don't think they ever well. After all, it's a well known, scientifically proven fact that if your body is broken, then your brain must be broken also.

  2. Good grief! I wish I were surprised by the attitudes you've faced but, an academic myself, I'm not surprised.

    Does your Univ have Remote Desktop? That's how I wrote my PhD thesis and it's how I continue to write papers.

  3. I feel so lucky reading this that my experience at uni so far has been different.
    I had contact with all the relevant departments before I applied to check how helpful they might be but that's always still a risk, things said when trying to hook a student don't always turn out to be quite accurate...!

    I'll give you a quick run down of the support offered for me.
    -Note Taking by a professional notetaker, paid for by DSA. I did have to fight to allow notes in absence though (the person in the disability support department said that if I was to ill to come into lectures I was too ill to be studying at all). By 2 months in this was fixed.
    - Pod casting of all lectures
    - All rooms to be wheelchair accessible
    - Flexible deadlines on all work which is arranged as needed with the administrators in my department.
    - Library support, being able to order books and collect them at the library or sent to my flat/home.
    - Extended library loans
    - Being allowed to miss tutorials without it damaging my grade
    - Alternative arrangements for participation marks (emailing in assignments, emailing reading notes or my remarks on notes which the notetaker had made)
    - Exam adjustments (quiet room, extra time, rest breaks and so on)
    - Allowing me to defer May exams until August when I started to become very ill.
    - Giving me an open ended interruption when, despite all of the above I was just too ill to do the work.

    I keep hearing horror stories from other people, I'm not sure what my point is here other than that some unis and departments can be good at this.
    Now of lost my train of thought so I'll leave it there. Becca

    1. I'm glad you did get a lot of support. And I should stress that I did too after a rocky start.
      But I note with disappointment that you too had to initially fight to receive the support you required when you were too sick to go to lectures yet still able to study.
      And that is exactly the point I am trying to make. Universities all too often want to enforce an all or nothing policy. Either you go to all the lectures or you sign off sick.
      They don't like the middle ground and we, as disabled students often have to fight for it.
      Some of us are able to do so and some universities accept our requirements.
      But how many of us simply understandably don't have the strength to simultaneously cope with the illness and fight for the support we require?
      And how many universities stand their ground and don't listen to reason?