Expert panel: What progress still needs to be made for disabled students?

Is UK HE becoming more accessible to students with disabilities? And if so, is it happening fast enough? Steve Wright asks the experts in the third in our series

The panel

Dr Gail Hopkins: Assistant professor and disability liaison officer, School of Computer Science, University of Nottingham

Professor Val Williams: Emeritus professor, Norah Fry Centre for Disabled Studies, University of Bristol

Chris Millward: Director for fair access and participation, Office for Students

Nicole Reid: Higher education manager, Texthelp

Jon Bentley Commercial director, OpenAthens (a Jisc enterprise)

Q. What progress still needs to be made across the HE disability landscape?

Gail Hopkins: We need to do more to support students. We need more resources, more funding, more people on the ground who have training and experience in dealing with students with disabilities. I think that, really, universities need a centre for disability support where students can drop in and have access to a range of professionals, and to an environment where they can feel supported and talk to other students in similar situations.

Going back to my own personal experience, in computer science we have a considerable cohort of students who have learning differences such as autism and ADHD, and mental health difficulties are often co-morbid with these. I have some students that I see weekly because they need regular support. I listen, talk to them and adapt things for them as needed, depending on how things are going in their lives.

This means I have to communicate with other staff regarding adjustments, and coordinate with the university’s central student services as well as with disability and academic support. This is something I do because I know that we don’t have the resources to provide this centrally – and also because, ultimately, adapting their learning environment needs to come from within the specific school. A student can have adaptations put in place via disability support, but at certain times these will need adapting further as their situation or condition alters – and so more local consideration needs to be kept in place.

Nicole Reid: We are seeing more and more universities taking on the responsibility of providing an accessible and inclusive learning environment for all students. Accessibility should be on every university’s agenda, and reasonable adjustments must be anticipatory. Relying on the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) alone to facilitate access to higher education is no longer adequate.

There are many benefits for those institutions that embrace inclusive teaching and learning practices. Not only will they meet their legal obligations, they’ll enhance their reputations as forward-thinking institutions and, most importantly, enable more students to succeed in their studies, regardless of their background.

However, there is still progress to be made to ensure higher education is accessible to everyone. Institutions must put a value on everyone’s education experience. Mainstreaming inclusion is the job of the entire university community. 

Universities can change their approach to course design by incorporating the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework in their teaching practices, in order to minimise barriers and maximise learning for all students. It’s vital that each individual student can access course content, which might mean some universities rethinking their traditional books-and-journals content and ensuring that they have additional means of engagement available. There are many educational technologies available that can really help with this.

Chris Millward: Disabled students are identified nationally as an underrepresented group in higher education, and a key focus for work to promote equal opportunities. Despite progress in widening access, disabled students still face additional challenges throughout their higher education journey and ultimately are less likely to complete their studies, gain a ‘good degree’ or progress to highly skilled employment. Accordingly, we have set a national target to eliminate by 2025 the absolute gap in degree outcomes (firsts and 2:1s) between disabled and non-disabled students, which currently stands at 2.8 percentage points.

Higher education providers need to develop inclusive learning and teaching environments to meet the needs of disabled students, and to ensure that they have equal opportunities to secure successful outcomes. A 2014/15 review highlighted the challenges HE providers faced in ensuring that they were properly supporting their disabled students. The review found that, although models of support were becoming more inclusive, different institutions were at very different stages of that journey. Key issues highlighted included linkages between core disability teams and academic staff, training and development, accessible curriculum and assessment design, assistive technology and support provision for mental health conditions.

Jon Bentley: Technology is key to the HE sector’s striving for enhanced accessibility, and to becoming the fully inclusive landscape it should be. It’s an area in which continuous innovations are being made across the board for the benefit of students with disabilities. When it comes to access to information and resources, guaranteeing quick, easy and remote access to valuable online content has become top of the agenda for university and college libraries.

According to our own recent research, there is almost universal agreement amongst the librarians we interviewed that access management is ‘critical’ if librarians are to meet end-user needs, particularly with remote access freeing users from the necessity of travelling to visit a physical building within specific opening hours to access content.

University libraries must ensure that they keep up with advancing technology, so they can cater equally for all students and staff on campus.

They need to be equipped with tools that allow seamless access to publishers’ platforms, without the need for the user to start their journey by physically being in the library or on the library portal. Subscription renewals and negotiations are the perfect time to insist that publishers provide easier and more simplified access to content for the benefit of all their users.


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