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30 September, 2007

Handicapping themselves?

As is entirely proper, prospective UK university students are under no obligation to declare disabilities at any stage of the application and pre-registration process.  I fully support that in principle, but in practice it's problematic.

If the first an institution knows of a need for special provision¹ is the moment a student presents him/herself on Arrival Day (at the same time as hundreds of other students², all clamouring for room keys, etc.), it can materially disadvantage the student and put the institution in a very awkward position.

To give a specific example, a student arrived today in a wheelchair. Had the College known 3-4 weeks ago, she could easily have been given a ground-floor room, but without an apparent reason to do otherwise, the Residence Office had allocated a second-floor room. At the very start of term, all accommodation is fully-booked; there's no possibility of changing rooms until natural attrition kicks in and people leave. In the mean time, the student will have to use the lift – on the other side of the building – and pass through 2-3 other flats to reach her own.

Similarly, the College was unaware that a new student has Asberger's Syndrome until his/her parents had a quiet word with an Assistant Dean on Arrivals Day. I don't think it's reasonable to expect the standard, non-specialist tutorial system to have identified and made appropriate provision without prior warning and, without being flippant, I doubt the student would have sought assistance, at least not before a social/academic problem had already reached a critical point.

It's difficult. The College wants to help and, once alerted, is very good at providing support (and, importantly, respect for individual needs) but just as importantly no-one should feel obliged to be treated differently. Everyone has the right to decline a safety net (or avoid stating a need for one), so long as he/she accepts the consequences of doing so. Academic Review Committees (i.e. disciplinary procedures) tend to be sympathetic to genuine problems which had been declared beforehand, but 'excuses' after the event are less likely to be accepted.


1: Beyond the bare-minimum provision demanded by accessibility legislation, of course.

2: And worse, parents. I can appreciate that it's stressful to leave one's child in a strange place, especially a utilitarian student bedroom, but please don't take it out on College staff who are very likely to be volunteers doing their best to facilitate the process. They're not legally-liable College employees, and certainly not customer service agents able to allocate better facilities if a parent is sufficiently aggressive.

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