Access to education: helping disabled students learn

17/12/2013  -  11.22

Dr Stephanie Brewster, Senior lecturer, Special Needs and Inclusion Studies

Access to education: helping disabled students learn

Earlier this month saw the publication of University Challenge 2013, a report into access to higher education for disabled students, commissioned by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign. It has only relatively recently become illegal for education providers to treat disabled students less favourably because of their disability: 2005 saw the Disability Discrimination Act, followed by the Equality Act 2010. And indeed, numbers of disabled students in HE is steadily increasing. But the research on which this report was based revealed that challenges remain.

A follow up to University Challenge 2009, this 2013 report reveals findings from a survey of 100 universities and found that nearly half of these universities still do not have fully accessible teaching rooms, study rooms or libraries.  Many students encountered barriers to accessing student unions, graduation ceremonies or suitably adapted toilets. Lack of information tailored to the needs of disabled students was highlighted by many. But there were some positives too, including the helpfulness of many disability advisors, and the improvements made by many universities to make their campuses more accessible.

The attention that the report draws to this important aspect of inclusion is welcome. And it is clear that more can be done by most HEIs to improve access for students with physical impairments. But getting across the (level access) threshold into the classroom is only one aspect of including students with additional needs. The University of Wolverhampton expresses a commitment to equality and diversity and a strong ethos of widening participation – and this encompasses students with any disability or additional need, not just the physical impairments focussed on by University Challenge 2013.

Like the rest of the population, students may experience a variety of disabilities, including mental or physical ill health, specific learning difficulties (such as dyslexia), or visual and hearing impairments. In fact, the University of Wolverhampton is one of the few UK HEIs with a dedicated support team for Deaf students, in which students whose primary method of communication is British Sign Language (and their interpreters and note takers) sit alongside hearing students, studying the same courses in the same way. For other students, the adjustments and support might include printing reading material on coloured paper, the provision of screen magnification software, additional specialist tutoring, or flexibility over academic assessment arrangements.

Yes, of course many of these adjustments cost money. But in my experience (as an academic tutor supporting disabled students) the finance is rarely a barrier.  All faculties of the university have money available to fund expenses such as transcription of audio-visual resources for hearing impaired students. In addition, many students are entitled to Disabled Students Allowance to pay for specialist equipment or extra help. In fact, one of the University of Wolverhampton’s current Equality Objectives is to encourage disabled students to claim DSA, as there is evidence that those who do so achieve better educational outcomes than those who don’t.  And many adjustments that benefit students with additional needs cost nothing and are now accepted as good teaching practice for all students, such as providing access to teaching materials on line before class.

Some thought, planning and sometimes extra preparation is required by the lecturing and library staff: another of our Equality Objectives is to ensure all academic staff receive training in inclusive practice to help them prepare effectively.  In practice, I have encountered highly positive attitudes amongst so many staff, willing to go the extra mile to ensure a positive experience for students with additional needs, both in the classroom, and while out on placement. And where the attitude is positive, good practice generally follows.

DisabledGo, which surveys a variety of public venues to provide accessibility information for disabled people, comments on our: “friendly environment, excellent staff and great facilities” for disabled students. It also mentions our strong focus on technology-supported learning, which can provide great benefits for students with a variety of additional needs.

But there is still much to be done. Statistics show that disabled students are less likely to complete their degree than their non-disabled peers, and are less likely to achieve a first class degree. This may be due to shortcomings in the support they receive. For those students who do have a successful university career, what of their employment prospects? We know that disabled people remain disadvantaged in the labour market and so the higher education sector needs to do more to enhance the employability of disabled students.

Meanwhile, “valuing diversity” and “promoting equality” for disabled students are things that the student and staff bodies of higher education as a whole can and should be actively participating in - not just paying lip service to. This is not only because it is a matter of social justice, but because it benefits our own learning and practice too.