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‘I felt like a burden’ – The second-class treatment of disabled students at King’s

News Editor Imogen Dixon investigates the experiences of disabled students at King’s, and what the university can do better to ensure an accessible education for all.

Editor’s note: This article talks about ableism.

King’s College London has said that they “are dedicated to providing a comprehensive and quality service that ensures a fulfilling experience for […] staff, students, alumni and visitors.” But is this really the case? This article is the result of an investigation into the treatment of disabled students by King’s.

Over the past academic year, Roar has reported both on Naomi Stenning’s campaign to make Strand campus wheelchair accessible and on Florian Hansen’s battle to avoid eviction from KCL accommodation because of “strategic inefficiency”. More recently, the previous Disabled Students’ Officer (DSO) resigned, citing that “the ableist attitudes and practices that [he] has endured at KCLSU” since taking on the role “burned [him] out” and left him “disappointed”. These are only a handful of experiences out of a myriad of those who study at the College. So, is King’s ensuring an accessible education for its disabled students?

The short answer is no. In their 2020-21 Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) annual report, KCL reported that the National Student Survey showed a satisfaction gap between students with a known disability (69.4%/69.3%) and with no known disability (74.2%). This satisfaction gap is wider than those between white and BME students as well as between “male” and “female” students. 

Roar released a short survey online, asking a range of questions surrounding experiences of disabled students at King’s. Furthermore, I interviewed 4 individuals about their experiences of studying at King’s with a disability and how it has impacted their university career. What was clear from every response I received, was that King’s is not doing enough for their disabled students and staff members.

In their 2021 Disabled Students Survey (DSS), the Snowdon Trust outlined six key challenges faced by disabled students whilst attending university. In response to these challenges, they outlined 6 themes through which universities could improve the experiences of their disabled students. These themes outline this article as I investigate to what extent King’s is doing sufficient work to make the university accessible for all.

“They need better training on accessibility and inclusivity for staff […] Frankly, it would benefit students as well.” – Student D

I think it is first necessary to highlight the ableism many disabled students face during their time at King’s. Many responses to our survey included some reference to ableism, from both staff and students. One French and History student (Student D) explained in their survey response that “more often than not [their] accommodations are either ignored by staff, or [the Disability Support and Inclusion Team (DSIT)] tells me it won’t be possible.”

Their description of blatant ableism from university staff, ranging from how DSIT staff used offensive language in their KIP without consulting them first, to how their “first-year personal tutor told [them] it was okay that [they] were depressed because [they] were still getting 2:1s and firsts in [their essays].” Student D also mentioned prejudice from different members of staff. 

This is not an isolated incident. One student who responded to our survey stated that they were told to their face by lecturers that “they wouldn’t implement [the student’s] adjustments because it was too much hassle”. Another stated that a meeting with a wellbeing advisor was “super generic and the advisor was quite ignorant”, as they dismissed their ADHD rather than taking it seriously.

While this article has focused on disabled students’ experiences at King’s, we did receive one survey response from a disabled ex-member of staff. They stated their experience of working at King’s as such:

“In a new role in a different organisation, I’ve realised just how much I was trodden down at KCL, with little support or accommodations, accumulating in the revoke of a confirmed contract extension in a clear-cut case of mental health discrimination that HR worked very hard to protect the employer and not the employee to the further detriment of my mental health. I was made out to look crazy, started to really believe I was a bad person, and it broke me, still suffering some of the effects to this day without any repercussions for higher ups. KCL needs a complete reform where the onus is not just on the individual to be a “resilient” people pleaser, but the organisation to ensure proper line management, support and accommodations are in place.”

From all of our responses and interviewees, I think it is apparent that King’s has a long way to go before it is considered to be doing sufficient work to make studying and working here accessible for everyone.

“I find KCLSU incredibly wanting when it comes to dealing with disability issues. After my experiences over the last year, I can now confidently say that this SU is not one that I want to support.” – Elias Yassin

“Equitable experience” regarding student societies and social life at university is another key theme the Snowdon Trust highlights in their survey. Within KCLSU exists the role of Disabled Students’ Officer (DSO), who is also the Network Chair of the Disabled Students’ Network (DSN). As it stands, the role is not a sabbatical (sabb) one, meaning that the DSO is expected to manage the workload of this role on top of their existing university work, and any other commitments they might have. 

One PhD student (referred to as Student A from now on) explained to me how unusual they found this when they first joined King’s: “at my last university, not only was there a Disabled Student Officer sabb, but it could also be a shared role to recognise that the person is disabled and so even as a sabb might not be able to work full-time […] I was really confused.”

When I interviewed Elias Yassin, the previous DSO who resigned in November 2022, he explained that, officially, the role of the DSO is to “represent the interests and concerns of disabled students across KCLSU and King’s as well as oversee the work of the [DSN].” However, he went on to say that, “in reality, the specifics of [the] role have been hard to pin down because they were never clearly explained.”

Elias explained the difficulties of not being considered an ‘officer’, which are sabbatical roles within KCLSU. “I tried to help individuals and affiliated societies when they’ve reached out to me with issues, however, I couldn’t do anything to meaningfully support disabled students seeking advice on complaints and appeals processes at King’s as I didn’t have the training for this since I was not considered an ‘officer’.”

As it stands, the problem with the role of DSO is threefold: it is unpaid, it is not sabbatical, and as such, the elected student is expected to carry out this work on top of their own studies. Elias stated that depending on the time of year, the workload as DSO “easily added up to multiple days’ work” on top of his studies and paid work. Essentially, KCLSU was asking that a student take up the workload of an officer, without the associated pay, training, or time. 

“A key aspect of my role demanded I exert a lot of emotional labour and without having a network committee or tangible support from KCLSU, this meant I was often mentally and emotionally exhausted.”

As Elias stated, he “never was able to balance DSN work with [his] studies/paid work”, he decided to resign as DSO in November 2022, stating in his resignation email: “I can no longer remain in this role or encourage any other disabled student to take it up in good conscience.”

Elias, like Student A, believes that the DSO role should be a paid, sabbatical, joint one. As it stands, he states in his resignation email, “I find KCLSU incredibly wanting when it comes to dealing with disability issues.”

Student A explains that rather than expecting KCLSU to be supportive, they’ve had to “work out how to work with them” instead. While the 2022/23 freshers’ fair did have an accessibility statement in place, as well as a quiet hour, Student A described the extra steps that had to be taken to achieve this:

“The immediate reaction was ‘no’, until […] everyone in the world [was copied into the email]. They then replied, ‘ok, we don’t actually understand what you want us to do. Tell us what you want us to do.’

“so they didn’t even consider it […] they just said no, by default […] But still, it’s definitely a very, very good sign. A very good step.”

The Neurodiversity & Mental Health (NDMH) Society recently delivered free training to staff to enable them to understand, celebrate and support neurodivergent students across KCL’s faculties. This training was developed and delivered by students who are part of the society to best reflect the experiences of neurodivergent students at King’s.

In the future, the Society hopes to offer this training to additional staff in King’s across different faculties and roles in a paid capacity. Typically, training like this, which taps into high levels of lived experience and subject expertise, is paid, to recognise the value that is added by learning directly from those experiencing the highs and lows of being a disabled student. Additionally, funds raised through training would be used to run events for neurodivergent students and those with mental health needs who are members of the society. Paying those delivering training would therefore show that King’s values the input of students and would enable additional provision that would not be at the cost of individual students.

Investment in initiatives that support disabled students, neurodivergent students and those with mental health needs must be done in ways that commit to the levels of investment and resource that reduce inequalities for marginalised students. This means paying to train staff, resourcing disability and mental health services, improving structures that enable tailored support for disabled students, and adapting university policies and procedures to be truly inclusive.

DSO roles rely on students who have to juggle additional marginalisation and fluctuating health conditions. While adaptations, such as individuals sharing the role of DSO, ameliorate some of these tensions, they do not fix the underlying issue of pushing someone to juggle a degree, disability, and life responsibilities. The bare minimum is that the DSO role be paid and sabbatical, with paid training also provided.

“In terms of active intervention and help and support for disabled students, I think that that can definitely be lacking.” – Student C

Another theme the DSS highlights is the need to improve communication between students, university departments, and funding streams. At King’s, this communication is supposedly streamlined by the Disability Support and Inclusion Team (DSIT).

In their unofficial disabled students’ guide, the NDMH Society describes the team as one which “offers information, advice and guidance to prospective and current disabled students.”

From the responses I received, it appears that students’ experiences of DSIT are polarised. Elias described his experience as “positive, on the whole.” He explains however that this does not mean it was without issue: “I know the team cares and is trying to do what they can with the limited resources they have available to them.

“But I also want to acknowledge the frustrations of students who have had issues receiving the support they needed in a timely manner.”

Student D told Roar they think that King’s needs to fund their disability service properly, as “it is so severely underfunded, disability staff take months to reply to emails.” These delays in support do matter – and can often have catastrophic consequences.

This was true for Florian Hansen, a PhD student, who spoke to Roar about how “strategic inefficiency”, including delays in communication from DSIT of up to three months at a time, left them facing the prospect of being made homeless by the university.

Another former music student (Student B) stated that although they submitted a King’s Inclusion Plan (KIP) before they were due to begin studying at the College, with assurances from DSIT that “they would set out [the student’s] needs explicitly to course leaders and [they] would be offered the support [they] needed”, after freshers’ week they never heard from DSIT again. It was only after they withdrew from King’s the following February that DSIT got in contact to inform the student that “the KIP had never formally been submitted as an email [they] had sent back in September had been missed.”

“I strongly believe that had the KIP been put in place I wouldn’t have withdrawn from the College, and I may have been able to complete my degree there.”

In an investigation following their appeal, Student B felt blamed for not following up on the status of their KIP. “I struggle with asking for help due to the disabilities I suffer from, and this experience with the College has made me seriously consider ever going back to higher education for fear I will be treated the same.”

They go on to say: “Disability services should be engaging regularly with every student identified as having a disability in order to support them every step of the way.” Instead, Student B was made to drop out and then blamed in part for an administrative error, not unlike Florian Hansen.

This sentiment is echoed by many others, including Student C. Regarding the services offered to support students, she states that they should be “more immediately obvious to everybody”.

This isn’t to say that every student has had a negative experience with DSIT. Other students who responded to our survey had positive encounters with the disability team, one stating that “the disability advisor [they are] in contact with has been really helpful and [they were] able to get [their] exam arrangements sorted.” Another student highlighted that their disability advisor “arranged all [their] support” and that they “personally feel very supported”.

Many students believe that DSIT does good work with the resources they are given, but that the team is let down by leadership at King’s. Consequently, much resourcing falls on “individual staff and students” who volunteer their time freely to push for change. One student said:

“In the write-up for the Equality and Diversity paper […] [leadership] then pull on the work [these individuals do]. It will mention the work […] Access King’s has achieved. ‘Isn’t this great?’ Yes, Access King’s achieved that on its own. As an unpaid group which is formed of disabled staff [and] postgraduate students.

“We see that a lot of good work gets done by individuals rather than by management.”

So, perhaps the issue of effective communication comes down to the funding given by the university to its disability services. In any case, the breakdown in communication between the university and its disabled students can have disastrous consequences for the very people they are meant to be supporting. As Student B stated in their survey response, it has been four years since they withdrew and the same breakdown in communication is occurring. “The issues are [not] isolated […] it is a systemic failure of the College not to improve these in the four years since my own issues.”

“I am able to get those accommodations fairly easily, but for a lot of people, that can be really difficult.” – Student C

Discrimination against disabled students can also operate on economic lines as can be seen in the process of applying for accommodation. A master’s student (Student C), who was diagnosed with ADHD in between their undergraduate and master’s degrees, explains the added financial hoops they have to jump through: “I have a diagnosis; I have a psychiatrist that’s able to write me a letter with recommendations.

“My psychiatrist charged me £60 for each letter. So, every time I have to send the letter, whether it be to student funding or for a student disability grant, for mitigating circumstances, every time you need a letter, it’s £60, or you can wait on the NHS, which as we all know can take weeks or months.”

The financial burden caused by a lack of access to funding is something which has also caused Florian great stress. Florian’s inability to access grants due to misleading information, and their reliance on the International Hardship Fund to support themselves after being left unable to complete their research, has placed them in a precarious financial situation, since the grant was not sufficient to cover their costs to move.

That finances affect the quality of education students receive is unacceptable. Any student, disabled or non-disabled, should not have their education compromised because of their financial situation, however, for disabled students, this issue is more acute, as they can already have higher costs for living, and are marginalised further by unnecessary financial pressures like these. King’s states that they are “serious about educational equality”, but this does not correlate to lived experiences.

“Everybody has different needs, right?” – Student C

There are a wide range of disabilities, and no two people are going to have the same access requirements. In her interview in September with Roar, Naomi pointed out that “everyone has different needs, even if we’ve got the same disability, we have different needs and access requirements”. As we’ve seen, each of the individuals who spoke to Roar has had varying experiences with the College.

Similarly, the DSS highlights considering the needs of the specific individual as one of their themes and recommends that “universities must embed the positive learning, adaptable approach, and accessibility principles from Covid-19 in building back stronger and ensuring the needs of the individual are met.”

From the responses to our survey and having spoken to various students, it’s clear that online learning, while not helpful for everyone, is something many individuals miss. Student A pointed out the assumed negative connotations of distance learning during the pandemic:

“There’s this whole narrative about how having to work from home was really awful for everyone and everyone hated it […] and that everyone’s experience is so much better on campus. But that’s not the case for a lot of people.

“I would never have applied to do a master’s or thought that was possible, or if it wasn’t during Covid and I knew that it would all be remote, I would never have come to King’s if that wasn’t the case and I couldn’t have done the master’s otherwise.

Yet, King’s announced that they would not be offering a remote study option during the 2022/23 academic year, stating that “technology and digital content will be used to enhance, but not replace, in-person teaching.” However, In their “Going Back is Not a Choice” report, Disabled Students UK found that 85% of disabled students would benefit from the continuation of online learning options.

King’s has historically ignored disabled students’ concerns about making lectures available online. Yet, as soon as the pandemic hit, and non-disabled students’ needs were threatened, both lectures and seminars were instantly made accessible remotely.  

“I think King’s is getting worse in regards to accessible learning”, one student responded to a question regarding whether King’s accessible learning is improving. “Over lockdown, they made hybrid learning possible […] This was brilliant, and I wouldn’t have been able to do uni without it.

“Now, however, they are making it mandatory to attend lectures and seminars in person. We have had to fight so hard for them to just voice record lectures, and they rarely do that. They proved hybrid learning was possible, and them getting rid of it […] directly impacts the disabled community, as well as many other communities who may need to work from home.

“Without online learning I would’ve had to drop out, but instead I got a 70% average across each module.”

In response to an FOI request from Florian Hansen, King’s shared the total number of students with a declared disability at the College, as well as the number of withdrawals they have received in the last few years. It is interesting to note that the percentage of disabled students who withdrew from their studies increased to 4.7% in 21/2 from 3.4% in 20/1 (during which all classes were online). 

Online learning is not for everyone, though. Student C, who completed their undergraduate at King’s during the pandemic, expressed that it was their difficulty with online learning that led them to seek out a diagnosis of ADHD:

“It really hit me hard. It was the sort of crisis, the last couple assignments, the last exams that I had to do online, and I found myself extremely, extremely depressed.”

As someone who didn’t like online learning, it is perhaps easy to dismiss its use. But online learning and hybrid learning are two different methods of delivery. Recording and uploading lectures or allowing students to tune into seminars via Teams doesn’t disrupt the learning experience of someone who chooses to attend classes in person. These accommodations allow students a choice of how to participate in their learning. King’s failure to provide this choice is also a failure in their accessibility.

“There’s a lot of people at King’s who are working very hard. I really don’t think that should be overlooked.” – Student A

When speaking to Student A about King’s and its approach to accessibility, they were keen to highlight that, yes, there are a lot of issues surrounding the way disabled students are treated at the university. But while there are a lot of issues surrounding the way disabled students are treated by the university, the College isn’t doing absolutely nothing, either. For example, the access statement for Freshers’ Fair, as well as a quiet hour, was achieved for this year. That’s not to say there are no improvements to be made, but it is progress.

Students also highlighted that within the university there are already teams and staff members who are enthusiastic to support and collaborate with societies that represent marginalised students such as the NDMH Society. These include the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) team, careers team, disability service and money advice service, who amongst others are described as being open and receptive to collaboration. The student-facing teams have also been highlighted for championing and valuing accessibility, a practice that is not always easy to support in the rigid systems of university administration.

Student C echoed a similar statement, saying that “it’s important to acknowledge the people that are there, that are doing their best to accommodate students and the restrictions that are placed onto them financially, legally, whatever it might be.”

I asked Elias whether King’s is doing sufficient work to make the university more accessible, and what they are doing well. He said that “King’s is starting to address accessibility issues more seriously, but they are at the beginning of that journey.” He also acknowledged that the university is “approaching disability inclusion as a cultural issue”, and that “as part of this, there is the recognition of the need for compulsory disability training for staff to address harmful behaviours as well as develop their knowledge.” King’s also created the PGR disability hub for its postgraduate students.

All this goes to say that King’s isn’t doing nothing. However, because of the system that many disabled students must work through, we’ve seen students face ableism, burn out, drop out, and even be made homeless by the university.

“They need to take safeguarding and wellbeing more seriously – I skipped almost all my classes in year one and year two and only one teacher ever asked if I was okay.” – Student D

Ultimately, the treatment of disabled students at King’s boils down to a duty of care. As an institution that is home to around 41,000 individuals (of which in the 2021/2 academic year 6,107 had a declared disability), a large portion of which are young adults who are living alone for the first time, the university must take some responsibility to provide a level of care that is greater than forgotten emails, misinformation, and even blatant ableism.

A lot of people who responded to our survey mentioned that they had not attended any of their classes during the semester, and yet no one had checked up on them. As a comparison, Student C questioned what would happen in a work setting if an employee were to not show up for work for multiple days without giving any reason or getting in contact with their employer: “I do know that […] in an employment setting […] you would call the police for a Wellness check. I mean, you can. They could be a missing person; you know what I mean?

“The fact that I was able to basically not go to any lectures and nobody ever checked in if I was okay, and the fact that you can submit mitigating circumstances up until the end of August and still nobody’s gonna ask you, ‘is there anything we can do to help support you?’ Right?”

In fact, for Student C, it was a concerned friend who pointed them in the direction of a possible ADHD diagnosis at the end of their undergrad. “The onus, the responsibility should not be on your 18-year-old coursemate to deal with very serious topics.”

The DSO role being unpaid with a severe lack of support seems indicative of this. So does the fact that in the past few years, both the Disabled Students Society and the NDMH Society have appeared so that disabled and neurodivergent students can come together and share their experiences with people who understand. Students (and staff members) have had to carve out spaces for themselves because the university and KCLSU have failed to do so.

King’s College London is required by the Public Sector Equality Duty to provide anticipatory adjustments to its members, including staff and students (who may be paying between £9,250 – £26,985). Yet, with regards to its disabled students, King’s has:

  • Perpetuated a culture of ableism among staff and students.
  • Understaffed and underfunded DSIT, leading to a backlog of emails and an increase in human error.
  • Both human errors and institutional ableism lead students to drop out or withdraw. 
  • It has threatened at least one student with homelessness and has caused them years of stress.
  • Created the DSO role, which the student is expected to carry out unpaid, on top of their current studies, without training that is given to other officer roles.
  • Removed hybrid learning as an opportunity for students to choose how to engage with their education in a way that suits them.
  • Failed to check in with students who are clearly struggling, as evidenced by them not attending classes and repeatedly applying for mitigating circumstances.

Among other things.

Student B sums it up at the end of their survey response: “We matter just as much as regular students; we have a right to study at the College just as much as able-bodied students and to be accommodated for. I personally felt, as disabled student at the College, like a burden and an inconvenience due to the lack of care I received and I don’t want anyone to have to experience what I did due to the systemic failure of the College to support disabled students.”

What is clear from this investigation into the experiences of disabled students at King’s College London, is that the university is not providing adequate support to its students and is not funding DSIT sufficiently for disabled students to be well supported throughout their studies. Something has to change.

Many thanks to everyone who responded to our survey. Thank you to Florian Hansen, Elias Yassin, Sarah O’Brien, and all the students that I interviewed personally.

If you would like to find out more about support for disabled students offered by the university, you can click here, or email the Disability Support and Inclusion Team at: [email protected]

If you would like to know more about NDMH Society and the Disabled Students Society, you can find them on Instagram here: @ndmhsocietykcl and @kcldisabledstudents

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