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Universities ‘illegally hitting disabled students with extra housing costs’

Exclusive: Students told openDemocracy of receiving unfair charges for adapted rooms or for carers’ accommodation

Francesca Hughes
9 November 2022, 3.48pm

Students with disabilities say they are being unfairly subjected to additional costs

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Ian Canham / Alamy Stock Photo

Students with disabilities say they are being illegally charged extra for necessary adaptations to their accommodation or allocated unsuitable rooms miles from campuses, openDemocracy can reveal.

Students told of the “stress and exhaustion” they have suffered as a result of universities’ failures to provide accommodation that is suitable for their needs at no extra cost.

openDemocracy spoke to a deaf student who says she was asked to pay for a specialist fire alarm, a wheelchair user who claims they were offered unsuitable accommodation more than two miles from campus, and a student who was initially charged extra for a room for an essential personal assistant.

The Equality Act says students with disabilities should not be charged more for an accessible room or reasonable adaptations to fit their needs. Changes to the Disabled Students’ Allowance in 2016 also mean that if a student’s accommodation is managed by the university or one of its agents, the institution is responsible for any extra costs incurred in ensuring an accessible room.

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Student paramedic Holly, who is deaf, told openDemocracy how St Georges, University of London, had installed a specialist fire alarm in her first-year bedroom. But after an argument broke out in her flat, Holly and some others had to move out.

The university then insisted Holly move to a ‘premium’ room as it already had a specialist fire alarm installed. This room cost an extra £10 a week than her previous one.

“They said I had to pay the extra costs or pay roughly £1,000 for a new fire alarm because they couldn’t afford it,” she said. “Luckily I spoke to the National Deaf Children’s Society about this, and they helped with checking the legal side of things and we ended up getting the premium room for standard cost.”

St George’s did not respond to openDemocracy’s request for comment.

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Anna, a former master's student who uses a wheelchair, is another student who was able to settle a dispute with her university, the London School of Economics (LSE), after receiving advice from a charity.

Anna was initially asked by LSE to pay the full cost of a room for her personal assistant – on top of the cost of her own room. “I contested this and [told the university] that I had consulted with Disability Rights UK, who said this would be considered a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act,” she told openDemocracy.

After a flurry of inconclusive correspondence with LSE’s accommodation office, Anna was presented with a contract for one single room and was not asked to pay for another. “I assumed their internal discussions had concluded with an agreement that I shouldn’t have to pay for a second room,” she said.

An LSE spokesperson told openDemocracy the university was not able to comment on individual cases. However, they said LSE is committed to providing students with disabilities with “reasonable adjustments” in accordance with the Equality Act. They added: “Applicants who have significant medical conditions and require larger rooms or specific room types owing to their requirements will have their accommodation fees reduced so that they are charged the average price of a single room in that residence.”

As a holder of a Marshall Scholarship, Anna said she also had the support of her scholarship provider. But not all students have such support or are able to advocate for themselves in the same way.

Rae, who is an autistic wheelchair user, felt the University of Bristol failed to provide accommodation that suited all their needs – instead offering them a choice between an accessible room and a quiet one. Rae also claimed their request for accommodation access for a carer was denied.

Badock Hall, where Rae was initially offered accommodation, is 2.3 miles from campus – meaning they would have had to get the bus to and from university. In any case, Rae decided against living at Badock Hall, because they felt it had a “party culture” that they would not have been able to cope with due to their autism. They said they were also put off by residents’ claims that the lift had been broken for several months.

Chelsea noticed a significant price difference between accessible accommodation and other residences

Rae now lives at home with their parents, but faces a commute of an hour and 45 minutes to campus, which they described as “a huge burden”. While Rae was given a free bus pass to travel to university, they said their carer was not – meaning they had to fork out. And with frequent bus strikes and cancellations, Rae had to rely on their parents to drive them into the university. Sometimes they were forced to live in a hotel in Bristol, to give their parents a rest. The stress and exhaustion of these daily difficulties affected Rae, who fell behind with their studies.

A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “We are wholeheartedly committed to removing barriers for disabled students so they can have the best possible experience while with us. The University has 11 accessible residences to choose from and we offer a significant reduction in accommodation costs for disabled students, meaning no student with a disability is paying more for the adaptations they need.”

The spokesperson added that the university can accommodate carers in residences, but students “must apply for this so we can get the correct provision in place”.

They concluded, “We are sorry to hear that Rae has had a difficult time over the past year, particularly in accessing the university through public transport. We want them to feel welcome and supported at the university and would encourage them to get in touch with us so we can resolve any issues.”

Student with disabilities face ‘lottery’

Chelsea, a former Nottingham Trent University (NTU) student who uses a wheelchair, has for years been campaigning for more accommodation options for students with disabilities – including lower-cost options.

When she was studying at NTU in 2017, Chelsea noticed a significant price difference between accessible accommodation – which tends to be in modern, better-equipped buildings – and other residences, which are typically older buildings with cheaper rents. She said students with accessibility requirements had no option but to pay bigger bills.

As the university’s disabled students officer, she engaged in discussion with the university but told openDemocracy there were no tangible results. “They knew I was graduating and thought I wouldn’t be there to hold them accountable,” Chelsea said. She is currently trying to gather information on the costs and availability of accessible rooms in universities around the country to create a nationwide database.

A spokesperson for NTU said the university’s approach is “consistent with all the relevant legislation and guidance”. They added: “If a student requires a more expensive room as a result of accessibility and asks for assistance… NTU makes a financial contribution to support the student.”

The National Union of Student’s vice-president for equality and liberation, Nehaal Bajwa, told openDemocracy that the NUS spoke out against changes to the DSA because, “shifting the responsibility to individual universities to cover costs could leave students facing huge delays in getting the adjustments that they need”.

Bajwa added: “At best, the system is likely to become a lottery across institutions. At a time when students across the UK are struggling to find housing at all, it is inexcusable to compound this struggle for disabled students, who already face additional difficulty finding accessible housing.”

A Department of Education spokesperson said: “Under the 2010 Equality Act, universities should be making reasonable adjustments for all their disabled students so we do not expect them or their agents to pass on any additional costs of specialist accommodation to disabled students.

“If a student feels that their university is not making reasonable adjustments for their disability, they should raise this through their universities’ complaints process in the first instance. If the outcome of this is unsatisfactory, students can then submit a complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education.”

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