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Three months to make a difference? The Disabled Students’ Commission’s seven-point action plan

  • 12 August 2020
  • By Amy Low

This blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Amy Low, who is Service Delivery Director of AbilityNet, which supports people of any age, living with any disability or impairment to use technology to achieve their goals at home, at work and in education.

The Disabled Students’ Commission has not allowed the grass to grow beneath its feet during the pandemic. Appointed by the Office for Students at the start of 2020 to help the sector address some of the pre-existing barriers encountered by disabled students set out in the Office for Students’ report Beyond the bare minimum – are universities and colleges doing enough for disabled students?, the Disabled Students’ Commission has held a series of (mainly virtual) round tables with sector experts and students to define how to make meaningful progress. 

The pandemic has created additional challenges for disabled students, as documented in the National Association of Disability Practitioner’s COVID-19 Student Concerns and Institutional Challenges Report. The sector’s rapid response to the emergency however has, in the course of identifying and removing barriers for all students, also provided some great examples of inclusive practices. These innovative approaches provide useful lessons so that the needs of disabled students, new and returning, are considered in course and activity design to ensure a successful start to the new term for all.

The Disabled Students’ Commission booklet, Three months to make a difference, has an emphasis upon the Covid context but contains calls for improvements that will be welcomed by disabled students, regardless of the pandemic situation.

The seven areas for action are listed below.

1. Support and guidance to be reflective of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Clearing process 

Students are understandably concerned about their learning and safety needs. They may also be looking for reassurance about how their grades will be considered in light of the way A-Levels are to be awarded. 

  • Check that your Clearing pages (both general pages and those specific to disability) have clear and accurate advice about measures in place specifically in light of the COVID situation, so that disabled students can make an informed and confident choice about the new term.

2. Ensure ease of access to funding for individual level reasonable adjustments

While applications for Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) have so far been slightly higher than the previous year to date, the Disabled Students’ Commission have identified a risk that DSA-funded support may be delayed in some cases. 

  • Provide easy to access funding pots for students experiencing delays, but also maximise visibility and use of inbuilt technologies for software needs and services such as online mentoring / recorded training packages. AbilityNet have a free helpline that can assist with questions about free technologies and the technology section of our free online tool My Study My Way can be used to provide self-help advice about software that students can use whilst awaiting their DSA equipment. 

3. Ensure student support meets and considers the requirements of disabled students during the pandemic

This is all about communication and co-design but also the mechanisms to ensure what is defined is delivered. 

  • Talk to your prospective disabled students to find out what they would like to be receiving in terms of support. Birmingham City University have done this via tailored virtual open day activities including a range of speakers. These well attended sessions have prompted students to get in touch and start discussing support now to minimise delays.  

4. Consider disabled students when making university campuses and accommodation Covid-19 secure

As with point 3, your own student base can be very instructive here. Too many risk assessments are completed without including the people they are designed to help. Do not forget to loop in disabled staff to provide their viewpoints and ideas.  

  • If you co-design the measures with students, they are more likely to be practical and adopted. Providing the guidance in easy to digest format and displayed so as to be front of mind with the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’ is advantageous.

5. Facilitate disabled students’ participation in welcome and induction weeks and ongoing social activities

Most universities are working hard on this and it is well worth remembering that inclusive design will invariably lead to a better experience for everyone. Many of the sessions that would have been held in person will now be partially or wholly online.

  • Act now to ensure inclusive design of these. We have seen discussion in training sessions and on sector online forums about activities such as open days, subject taster sessions, advice and information webinars and online mentoring. Design of these should incorporate cultural and technical considerations for blended welcome week and induction programmes.

6. Ensure blended learning delivered inclusively and benefits considered in long-term planning

For a myriad of reasons, blended learning is better for everyone. No one ever complained about learning being too flexible. 

  • Design for inclusive online learning – this typically means that the face-to-face elements will work equally well if not better for everyone present (including the person behind the pillar who can’t quite see the slides and who therefore appreciates the meaning on slides being conveyed verbally). Getting the online considerations properly implemented as standard will prevent a ‘slipping back’ to less inclusive old ways as the threat of the virus begins to lift. AbilityNet recently had a research report conducted by Madeline Rose to determine the impact on existing students of COVID-19. For one student the crisis and access to alternative ways of study and assessment had transformed not only her results but also her view of herself.

Normally I don’t get good grades; my processing is really bad so I find it hard to think under pressure and I’ve always thought I was just not clever. But now that our exams aren’t timed the same way, I can do exams from home, I can take a breather and come back; it makes such a difference. I got my highest grades ever, so much better that I normally do. Knowing what my mind can actually do when it is allowed to has changed the way that I relate to myself; I have so much more confidence now I can’t even explain it

Undergraduate, 3rd year, Dyslexia

7. Embed accessibility as standard across all learning platforms and technologies

This has many elements to consider – certainly technical, but also procurement, assessment, and significant culture change. There is another compelling reason to prioritise this, the upcoming deadline for the public sector accessibility regulations (PSBAR).

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