Stephen Hawking recently spoke about his fears over the lack of funding for disabled students in higher education, claiming cuts in university and government funding would prevent today’s chronically ill students from having the support that enabled him to flourish. His comments come at a time where disability support in all areas is being reduced, and just after several disabled students have gone to the High Court over cuts to the funding they need to remain at university. Cambridge, with its focus on excellence of every kind, its high work load and stressful atmosphere, can be a difficult environment even for healthy students, let alone with the complex and demanding requirements disabilities bring. Our university, which was once so supportive to Hawking, can now be a particularly tough place to be disabled and, as nation-wide government cuts combine with a rigid and traditional attitude to studying that systematically disadvantage chronically ill students, things could only get worse.
As someone who has recently had to intermit whilst I try and fight for a more flexible studying arrangement to fit around my disabilities, I know just how resistant Cambridge can be to make the reasonable adjustments that many so desperately need for example, often overlooked but crucial part-time options. Whilst many universities have part-time degrees as standard procedure, our university can seem obsessed with the concept of giving disabled students ‘unfair advantage’ by making ‘too many allowances’, meaning that many students like me with complex and unpredictable chronic health conditions who are unable to work full-time are forced to fight against a system that is stacked against us, or study elsewhere. My physical limitations mean that in between chronic pain, vomiting, fainting, and trips to hospital I am only able to work a portion of the time my friends can, yet finding a way of fitting my studies at Cambridge around that has been nearly impossible. Yet despite clear guidelines such as Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2009 which states the government must “ensure the education system at all levels is inclusive and geared towards supporting disabled people to achieve their full potential and participate equally”, the system here often means disabled undergraduates are unable to complete their studies. Those who do chose to challenge it often have to go to incredible lengths in order to get adjustments, with some having to resort to legal action against their colleges.
It’s not just in this way that Cambridge can now feel like a hostile environment to be a disabled student. Whereas Hawking praised Caius for organising a rota of students to visit him during stays in Addenbrookes, I have spoken to current disabled students whose college have rung them up on the first day they have been admitted to hospital to remind them if they miss too much work they will have to intermit, and who have felt pressured into discharging themselves early. And whilst Hawking’s college altered house for him and his wife to live in, some disabled students now do not even have access to the ground floor or en-suite rooms their disabilities necessitate, particularly as MP David Willets recently revealed “the additional cost of specialist accommodation will no longer be met by DSAs (Disabled Students Allowance).” Due to a lack of affordable ground-floor accommodation, I have had to pay about £40 a week more than I would otherwise, just for the privilege of not fainting when getting to my room. Yet there is now no DSA funding which will cover this and my college, despite being one of the richest, despite having sources of money that helped fund someone’s holiday to Cuba last summer, claimed to have no funds for supporting disabled students like myself. It can seem as though disabled students have to be from affluent families in order to cope, particularly as we’ve already faced the government scrapping DLA and significant problems with and cuts to PIP which once helped with living costs.
This year I’ve had a supervisor refuse when I requested a ground-floor supervision space on the grounds ‘but this is where my room is’ and been shouted at and called childish just for asking for reasonable adjustments, and unfortunately I am not alone. Nearly every severely ill student I have met in Cambridge has similar stories to mine, some far worse. And there are many more who have been forced to leave, not because they weren’t mentally capable or good enough to be here, but because they were unable to obtain the help that would put them on equal footing to their non-disabled peers.
After hearing from some other disabled students it seems that perhaps the treatment of disabled graduate students can be significantly better than that of undergraduates, although the funding is unlikely to be enough to provide the level of support Hawking relied upon. Maybe if you are a talented and beneficial academic the provisions are there, but if you are just a disabled undergraduate the message is clear: you are a burden, you are lucky to still be here, so be very careful not to speak out. But how are disabled graduates ever meant to emerge from Cambridge when the system seems intent on forcing us out, pushing us elsewhere, and telling us that we’re not good enough? Cambridge could and should be doing so much more to enable chronically ill students to participate in higher education, or it risks losing the Stephen Hawkings of the future.
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