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Is this a ‘moment’ for addressing challenges faced by disabled students?

  • 3 February 2020
  • By Amy Low

This blog was kindly contributed by Amy Low, Service Delivery Director at AbilityNet. AbilityNet is a technology and digital accessibility charity that supports disabled people to achieve their objectives at home, at work and in education. They provide a range of services for individuals and organisations including 1-1 support services, online resources, consultancy and training.

There has been some discussion of late as to whether we are experiencing a ‘moment’ when the right conditions exist to meaningfully address issues faced by disabled people as they transition through education and into the workplace.

Whether this turns out to be the case remains to be seen but it certainly feels like there are several key enablers in play, including the momentum towards inclusive digital spaces created by the advent of the Public Sector Bodies (Websites & Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations 2018.

We have witnessed this legislation achieving something that felt a long way off when the 2016 Disabled Student’s Allowance (DSA) reforms came in. Most notably,  many are now embracing the requirement of the whole institution to create accessible content. Although not all providers are making speedy progress, the proactive attitude of IT focused organisations in the sector, such as UCISA (Universities and Colleges Computer Information Systems Association) and the tone of the institutional stories we hear at events are positive and ambitious. People are striving to go way beyond covering the basics alone to address accessibility challenges for students. They are motivated not only for legal reasons, but because it is the right thing to do.

A recent insight brief from Office for Students starkly entitled ‘Beyond the Bare Minimum: are universities and colleges doing enough for disabled students’ delivers a strong message. The brief opens with powerful statistics: although we now have a greater representation of disabled students in higher education (up to 13.2% in 2017), their continuation rates remain lower by 0.9 percentage points. Furthermore, their outcomes are still less favourable by 2.8 percentage points between disabled and non-disabled students graduating with a 2:1 or 1:1, and they are less likely to find a highly skilled job when they leave university. The brief underlined the need for institutions to push forward in addressing this.

Institutions, sector focused organisations and government bodies need to work together and to address holistically the ‘bumpy ride’ that disabled young people currently experience transitioning from setting to setting. Whilst many students we speak to have positive stories to tell, the support on offer can be hard won, patchy and inconsistent.

All students need to build confidence to achieve their ambitions and identify lasting strategies to be able to participate fully in all settings. For disabled students, these strategies should extend beyond those associated with a condition or impairment and take in wider issues around finance, belonging and intersectionality.

Visibility of available tools and support is a major hurdle. A study on the impact of DSAs on students by the Department for Education found that only 40% of disabled students knew about DSAs before getting to university. Participants that did know about it, cited it as a key reason for confidence in applying. Those that were unaware said they would have drawn greater confidence from knowing of the scheme’s existence and other support services provided for their condition or impairment.

Often students are more likely to know what they find difficult, than to know what support they need, let alone to match the two. Recognising this, AbilityNet have created a free online tool called My Study My Way to help students with signposting of support and self-help information. Technological strategies to remove barriers are particularly powerful as they do not depend on teaching staff or employers being accommodating and understanding but rather provide independence that stays with an individual as they move into their next stage in life. The rapid progress of mainstream accessibility features in packages such as Office 365 and Google Suite is creating conditions in which disabled people can make adaptations to their technology seamlessly regardless of whether they are on campus, at home, on placement or going to a new job.

The forthcoming Commission for Disabled Students created via the Office for Students is another exciting development and it is hoped that this group will consider transitions and independence via mainstream technology as key focus areas.

The brief sets out expectations of higher education institutions to work towards a more welcoming and inclusive environment:

  1. That senior management commit to inclusive practice and culture. We note this as a determining factor in whether institutions are finding it easy to progress this agenda and a major blocker where there is no senior sponsor to escalate to;
  2. To involve all university staff in encouraging students to disclose an impairment. This is key, but staff need support and training in how to approach this as levels of confidence vary and the topic needs careful handling;
  3. More comprehensive written policies detailing inclusive support. Policies are a good start but these need to be easy to find, and should incorporate reminders provided via a range of highly visible ‘nudges’ rather than dense policy documents being created, filed and forgotten;
  4. Build considerations of inclusivity and accessibility into curriculum design and programme review and offer alternative formats of lectures and course materials as standard practice. This is undoubtedly the nub of the issue and if inclusive curriculum design leads, other inclusive practices will follow;
  5. Build considerations of inclusivity and accessibility into purchasing of services and equipment. Stretched providers need to identify key issues and place the pressure on suppliers to meet these expectations or vote with their feet by finding accessible alternatives;
  6. Better sharing of best practice internally and across the sector. In our experience this is a strength of the sector and we produce regular blogs and updates shining a light on best practice from an inclusion and accessibility perspective;
  7. Better advice, guidance and training on digital accessibility for staff. AbilityNet are receiving a growing number of enquiries requesting training on accessibility both from a technical and a lived experience angle. Institutions are keen to communicate the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’.

Reflecting on the past few years, many have made great strides in providing support for disabled students. This is a journey, however, and with tech and other tools evolving quickly it is key that we push ourselves to proactively consider barriers and be inclusive by design. We must take advantage of this ‘moment’ so that the momentum created culminates in a more inclusive and less ‘bumpy journey’ for everyone. The goal being to create a level playing field upon which students can successfully progress, via their chosen studies, into a fulfilling career. As a consequence a wider range of employers will also stand to benefit from the advantages of a diverse workforce.

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