University of Bristol failed to make allowances for student with severe anxiety, court told

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The University of Bristol was not reasonable when they did not allow a student with severe social phobia and fear of public presentations to take an online course.

The allegation came on January 1st, 2019, the first day of a court case against the university brought against the parents of Natasha Abrahim, a 20-year old physics undergraduate who died in 2018, a day after she was due to give a presentation to staff and student.

Robert and Margaret Abrahart are suing Bristol University under the Equality Act for not doing enough to help them when they knew that Abrahart had mental disabilities and was struggling at school.

The parents claim their daughter was discriminated against as a disabled student.

The court heard that after moving to Bristol, Abrahart had great difficulty meeting new or unfamiliar people. Her friend Rajan Palan recalled that her feelings of loneliness in Bristol were exacerbated by her shyness making it difficult for her to speak to people outside of a small circle.

On the first day, the focus was on the assessments used in the physics course, including a lab conference where Abrahart would be expected to present to about 50 people in one large lecture hall.

For the claimants, Jamie Burton QC said there were several reasonable adjustments that the university could have made, including replacing oral assessment by written assessment or examination of her laboratory notebooks, or providing written questions in advance.

For the conference, the university could have held the event without other students present, moved it to a smaller room, or held it at another time.

Burton noted that Abrahart’s parents were not alleging that any member of staff breached their duty to care for Abrahart, and recognised that many staff members had tried to help her

The university said that both academic staff and non-academic employees tried to engage with Abrahart over alternative assessments. It also argued that it was unreasonable to remove the use of written tests because it would have compromised Abrahart’ s education.

Burton told the court there was a significant deterioration of Abrahart’ s mental health in the months leading up to her death, with Abrahim carrying out internet searches on topics ranging from “Why do I dislike people?” to “Why do I feel scared?”

Margaret Abrahart said her daughter hadn’t told her of her worries over the exams or presentations. “I knew something was upsetting them massively,” she said. “If I asked her I knew it would be very stressful.”

A coroners’ inquest in 2019 found that Abrahart had taken her own life partly due to a “gross failure” by Avon and Wilmshire Mental Health Partnership Trust to provide adequate care. Abrahart was among the 11 university students who killed themselves between 2016 and 2018 at the University of Bristol.

The hearing at the Cardiff civil justice centre continues for a further six days, with a final judgment reserved for a later day.

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