“You can’t use our weakness to a disease to make yourself feel safer”: Impacts of Covid on Disabled Students

Vision speaks to the Disabled Network and DSO Freya Atkins about the impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on students with a disability.

(Image: Marti Stelling)

Coming out of the two-year-long pandemic, the mental and physical impacts have been tough on everyone. Wanting to document the negative impacts of COVID-19 on those with a disability, Vision reached out to Disabled Students Officer Freya Atkins and committee member Holly Burdon to discuss their worries and concerns across the lockdown period.

Vision first asked Freya about her original worries and concerns when lockdown was first announced back in 2020:

“When Covid started, I was finishing my BTEC with hopes of coming to York. I of course had all the ‘normal’ worries of a fresher at that time, but the added worry of getting somehow lost in the system and not getting support I need due to the chaos covid caused was very worrying, as I knew doing my degree without the support would be genuinely nearly impossible”

Holly and Freya then discussed the fear surrounding starting her first year in a Covid -19 environment, and potentially not receiving the support they needed due to lockdown:

“I was terrified. Despite all my pre-planning, sorting my DSA and SSP in advance, there were still a million things to do and think about, which really ruined my first few weeks sadly. All I wanted was to be able to walk in and talk to someone about all the little practical teething problems I was having, it could have taken minutes but COVID-19 meant it took months in the end.”

“Contact early on from the university as a whole was pretty poor overall. Appointments with anyone, such as Open Door, were often over the phone initially, which is really challenging for someone like me with communication difficulties.”

Freya and Holly respectively disclosed the impact of the pandemic on their mental health as lockdown measures and social distancing continued:

“Millions of people died of Covid-19, but seeing the exponential impact this was having on disabled people makes my blood boil – it might sound extreme but hearing the phrase ‘but they had underlying health conditions’ when someone died of this disease just reinforced to me how easily people see disabled people as some sort of second class citizen, when in reality my life, and the lives of my friends and family, are just as valid as yours. You can’t use our weakness to a disease to make yourself feel safer.”

“I felt disconnected from my support network, especially as everything was online and/or with masks. When one of my fellow patients from my mental health programme took her own life, I was inadequately supported by services – informed only by video call with no follow-up or in-person contact. My mental health deteriorated badly and the lack of face-to-face contact with anyone resulted in a spiral of loneliness, hopelessness, self-destructive behaviour and suicide attempts.”

When asking Freya about the support the University provided, she demonstrated the negligence that she received outside of her student support plan:

“The University supported me by putting in place an SSP before I arrived, and then I also had my DSA which I sorted myself. Other than that, not a lot. I’ve learnt more now by talking to people, taking part in working groups, a lot of trial and error etc about how to access things other than what the uni provided me, which makes me feel a bit uneasy, but I’m still not entirely sure what could have been done differently, even as DSO.”

Online learning was a huge adjustment for many students, so Vision wanted to understand the impact of the change on Holly as a disabled student:

“The advantages of online study and meetings were primarily the ability to attend even when feeling unwell or not wanting to have to be in a room full of people. Online recorded materials were useful as I could watch them at my own pace and in my own time when I am feeling at my most focused or productive. The downside is the isolation. I really struggle socially and during the pandemic, I would go weeks without seeing or interacting with anyone in person.”

Holly also disclosed the impacts of the pandemic on her physical health:

“I was still registered with Unity Health and under the care of several specialities at York Hospital but was unable to attend the in-person clinics that I needed due to the Covid restrictions, pressures on the NHS and spending lockdown over 200 miles away at home. This meant I was often left in pain and on strong medication without the opportunity to get proper investigation and treatment for long periods of time. My academic department was very accommodating with giving me extensions when I was really unwell but I constantly felt guilty that my health wasn’t really getting any better and at some points I thought I couldn’t carry on with my degree.”

Vision then asked Freya how the pandemic affected her disability overall, questioning whether she received the support she needed by the university:

“My disability itself wasn’t massively impacted, more just how I interacted with the world as a visually impaired person got harder, but I’ve adapted somewhat now. In terms of support, I don’t think I was as supported as I could have been, it was tough emotionally and physically, especially as a fresher who was new to the whole uni thing or even what support was available. I still sometimes feel a bit left behind and I’ve just finished my second year.”

Finally, Vision ended the interview on a more positive note, asking Freya and Holly what progressions they would like to occur to better support disabled students when in-person access is unavailable:

“We need to know there are people there to not only support us, but fight in our corner when things aren’t going as they should be. Everything just needs to be clearer, simpler and faster.”

“The University should proactively reach out to disabled students when these situations arise, checking in on individuals and their individual needs and circumstances. People can become isolated and vulnerable so it is important to remember that in reality, it takes at least two remote check-in meetings to truly make up for one lost in-person”