Disabled students are getting uneven support

LSE’s Disability and Wellbeing Service (DWS) is the branch of student services responsible for providing “confidential advice and support to disabled students”. In October 2021, The Beaver was contacted by students alleging that the service had failed to provide that support. Over the past few months, I interviewed disabled students in an effort to understand how widely these negative experiences were shared.

What emerged was a nuanced portrait: some reported a positive experience with DWS, praising the service, while others described it as inaccessible, unresponsive, and unhelpful. DWS did not seem to be systemically failing disabled students, but numerous interviewees had been without support for extended periods – a serious indictment.

The bedrock of the service that DWS provides are adjustments to learning and assessment, such as extra time in exams or extensions to summative work. For each student, a document called ‘My Adjustments’ is sent to relevant staff so that these can be enacted. This is motivated by the Equality Act 2010 which gives LSE a duty to, when applicable, “take such steps as is reasonable to avoid [a] disadvantage” for a disabled student.

To receive adjustments, students must contact DWS with medical evidence of their disability. Here, the experiences of disabled students differ. One interviewee described the process as “absolutely seamless”, receiving a response within a week. Another expressed their gratitude towards the service, which had called in a specialist to diagnose a previously unknown disability during their first year at LSE.

However, for every interviewee satisfied with the service, there was another who expressed serious grievances. One postgraduate student, having been diagnosed with a disability while at school, contacted DWS the summer before starting at LSE. Despite sending multiple follow-up emails, it wasn’t until they contacted their academic mentor in November that they received a response.

The student emphasised that in one module, weekly assessments began from the start of term, which resulted in the student not receiving the support to which they were legally entitled for nearly two months. “It was a lot to deal with,” they told me.

When we spoke, it had been nearly a month since the student had requested a one-on-one appointment with DWS, which had still not been scheduled. Drop-in appointments have not been offered since April 2020, when DWS’ office space in Fawcett House was closed; it has remained closed despite the rest of campus reopening. Many feel that the new, online-only service is even more inaccessible. “Even if you have a sense of urgency, it’s not like they’re going to reply in time, so what’s the point?” the student told me.

For master’s students, this lack of support is particularly damaging: “I’m only here for a year. It’s not like in undergrad where, if in second year you don’t do so great, you have your third year to make up for it,” said one. According to a Freedom of Information Act request made by The Beaver, 57% of students using the service in 2018 were studying for a master’s degree.

This difficulty in getting support can be compounded by NHS delays, which have worsened with Covid-19. One student described how they had contacted DWS during the summer break, after experiencing a crisis related to an undiagnosed mental health condition. Although they initially received a timely response, with a document for their GP to complete, “the difficulty came when my GP didn’t process the form for three or four months”. Here, systemic problems beyond the student’s control left them without academic support for an entire term; wait times for non-urgent mental health referrals can be up to 18 weeks. “If someone’s on a massive waiting list and can’t get treatment or a diagnosis, they’re not struggling any less.”

Several students said that the NHS’ long waiting times had forced them to seek a private diagnosis, at significant personal expense. Tanya Marwaha, the SU’s Disabled Students Officer, told me that she reluctantly paid £2000 for her diagnosis so that she could receive adjustments. Although the fault here lies with underfunded and overworked public health bodies, DWS’ system seems constructed in a way that is unsympathetic to this reality. 

Many of those with negative experiences felt that the system puts the onus on students to advocate for support, as opposed to DWS proactively checking in on students: “[I had to] fight to get this inclusion plan,” one said. For disabled students navigating university without the support to which they are entitled, the added burden of having to lobby DWS over weeks and sometimes months can be especially draining. 

The social stigma that exists around mental health conditions can make the process of getting a diagnosis difficult. One student described how their GP was unsympathetic during a consultation: “They were pretty much like, ‘have you tried just not worrying?’” For them, the way in which mental wellbeing and mental health conditions are conflated fuelled self-doubt which became an additional barrier to seeking help, as it encouraged them to rationalise their anxiety. “You [have to] separate anxiety from being in an unfamiliar situation, from getting anxiety before you go to sleep. One is normal and healthy. One is a diagnosable and treatable anxiety disorder.”

When dealing with an unresponsive service that relies on students being proactive, doubting one’s own mental disorder makes accessing support from DWS even more difficult: “To have to fight your case…whilst you don’t fully believe it yourself is quite hard.”

Again, I will say that these negative experiences are not universal. In many cases, students were satisfied with the support the DWS provided them: “I think that, on their end, they do as much as they can,” said one. The problem is that numerous students have been let down, in ways that have created a great deal of stress, and severely affected their academic achievement. This isn’t good enough.

This brings us to the point of this article: accountability. Despite efforts from the Disabled Students’ and Neurodivergent Students’ Officers, Tanya and Sam Crutcher, it is difficult for students to voice their criticisms and raise suggestions for how the service could be improved:  it amounts to “marginalising an already marginalised group”, as Tanya put it. With this in mind, I will conclude with a short list of changes that students interviewed would like to see. This is not intended to be comprehensive, nor representative of all disabled students at LSE. Rather, they are suggestions made by individuals that could begin a dialogue for improvement to DWS.

Suggestions for changes:

  • Reopen the office space in Fawcett House, and restart drop-in appointments
  • Improve responsiveness via email
  • Proactively communicate with students to see how they’re doing
  • Introduce support structures for students while they wait for their NHS diagnosis
  • Provide resources about mental health conditions to help students who may be undiagnosed
  • Improve student input and accountability in the content of their adjustments

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