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New Report: The experiences of disabled students in higher education

  • 14 October 2020
  • By Megan Hector

This blog is an edited transcript from the launch of ‘Arriving at Thriving’, a new report into the experiences of disabled students in higher education written by Megan Hector, Senior Researcher at Policy Connect.

On Wednesday 7 October, Policy Connect’s Higher Education Commission published the report for our inquiry into the experiences of disabled students in higher education, Arriving at Thriving: Learning from disabled students to ensure access for all. We began the inquiry in July 2019, expertly chaired by Lord David Blunkett, Lord Philip Norton, and Professor Kathryn Mitchell, Vice Chancellor of the University of Derby.

We aimed to examine the student journey from beginning to end, looking at disabled students’ experiences of teaching and learning; living and social experiences; and transitions into and out of higher education and into employment. We held two roundtable evidence sessions with diverse groups of disabled students and an online survey for disabled students which received over 500 responses. We also held two evidence sessions with expert witnesses, including from higher education sector bodies, Vice Chancellors, academics, and representatives of disability charities; and we issued a public call for evidence which received 70 written submissions.

In the area of teaching and learning, students described a picture of inconsistency and frustration: 26 per cent of respondents rated the accessibility of their course as only 1/5 or 2/5. I heard about students, due to a lack of accessibility, regularly being physically unable to get to or sit in lecture theatres or other academic spaces; unable to access online or physical learning materials; and not receiving the reasonable adjustments set out in their support plans, including adjustments to assessments.

Support services professionals told us about the difficulty they have with trying to get academic staff to provide the adjustments and accommodations required by disabled students. Levels of support and accessibility vary between institutions, departments, modules and even individual teachers. Many students mentioned having one particular lecturer who always goes out of their way to accommodate them, but they mentioned these examples because this is not the norm.

I have embedded examples of good practice throughout the report, because we know that many lecturers and institutions are working determinedly to provide excellent support for disabled students throughout their time in higher education. For example, at the University of Kent, the head of the Student Support and Wellbeing department sits on a number of university committees so that the needs and concerns of the university’s disabled students are raised at a strategic level.

As a result, the university has had great success in mainstreaming its Kent Inclusive Practices with academic staff. These are simple but powerful adjustments to teaching and learning delivery, such as using assistive technology to provide learning materials in a range of different formats, which gives all students better access to learning.

During our evidence sessions, we heard that disabled students face a number of additional pressures in comparison to non-disabled students, which we organised into the theme of bureaucratic and financial burdens. Students told us about the heavy administrative burden created by applying for, being assessed for, organising and chasing up the support they need. When academic staff do not implement the reasonable adjustments requested, it is almost always disabled students themselves who face the burden of chasing up their lecturers to try and get the access they need, which takes up the vital time and energy students need for studying.

Many disabled students also told us about struggling with the financial burden of extra costs relating to their disability. This can include the cost of accessible accommodation; medical prescriptions; the £200 charge for Disabled Students’ Allowance equipment; and the cost of medical evidence required for needs assessments or mitigating circumstances forms, such as doctor’s notes which can cost up to £80 every time they’re needed.

In the area of living and social experiences, students told us about the complete lack of accessibility of social activities, clubs and societies. In fact, 26 per cent of our respondents to the student survey said that they always or often feel excluded from social activities, societies and clubs because of a lack of disability awareness. Less than half of respondents said they ‘never’ feel excluded. In addition, less than half of respondents said that their accommodation completely meets their physical and mental access needs, potentially compounding the exclusion or isolation they face.

This is clearly an unacceptable state of affairs – students do not just enter higher education for the academic benefits, but also to make new friends, try out new activities, expand their networks and build up social capital. Disabled students must be supported to take part in social life on an equal footing with the rest of the student cohort.

We have put forward 12 recommendations to try and create an environment where the changes needed are not just possible, but inevitable. This includes recommendations around the affordability of student accommodation; training for academic staff on understanding disabled students’ needs and providing reasonable adjustments; and asking a senior leader at every institution to take responsibility and accountability for the access and inclusion of disabled students.

We are publishing this report in a drastically different environment from when we began the inquiry. All students are currently grappling with accessing a mix of in-person and online teaching and learning, and for many disadvantaged students, this has exacerbated the challenges they face. For some disabled students, the rapid transition to online learning has meant they have been granted adjustments to teaching which they had long been fighting for. However, other disabled students are finding themselves struggling in new ways to access teaching, as well as potentially being isolated at home, or stuck in lockdown in student accommodation which might not be suitable for their needs.

Now is the time to raise awareness of the needs and experiences of disabled students, and to push forward with the changes required to ensure that disabled students are fully supported to succeed in higher education. We implore government and the sector to listen to disabled students and learn from their experiences, in order to improve life outcomes for all.

1 comment

  1. Helena Knapton says:

    I think it is worth making the point that rather than the occasional ‘reasonable adjustments’ that university staff are making or are expected to make, the disabled students – and staff – are constantly and continuously making adjustments in order to live in their world.

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