Expert panel: What barriers still impede UK HE being the fully accessible landscape it should be?

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 fourth in our series

The panel

Dr Gail Hopkins: Associate 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

Q. What barriers still impede UK HE being the fully accessible landscape it should be?

Gail Hopkins: The sheer increase in the number of students needing support has put a big strain on the centralised support for such students. The provision of welfare officers has been a very positive move here, as their time is specifically reserved for students who need help or advice – but while they have training, they are not counsellors.

One common difficulty is that, when students have problems for which they need academic adjustments, they need to provide evidence for the extenuating circumstances application process. This evidence can come from a GP, counsellor or other professional/official source, as applicable.

Often, students approach the school for help and, if this is the first time they have declared their difficulties to anyone, they won’t have evidence to support this. Staff commonly advise students to see their GP and/or a counsellor, but this puts extra demand on those services as they get many students arriving simply to ask for evidence (which is hard to give when you have only seen the student once).

This leads on to the topic of stigma. Some students try to manage without asking for help, and then end up getting very behind and engaging less and less.

Others still may have cultural differences. At Nottingham we have campuses in China and Malaysia, and each year students arrive from those campuses to study with us. Chinese students find it particularly difficult to come forward with difficulties, owing to the different view their culture has of these situations.

A further barrier that concerns me is that students who need to access secondary care (eg psychiatrists) often have to wait months for this, and some cannot get access at all. This means that students go for long periods without the treatment that they need.

For example, someone with ADHD who needs medication cannot be prescribed this by their GP; they have to be prescribed through secondary care because ADHD medication is often a controlled substance. However, waiting for months to get access to medication means that students have to struggle on with their studies without the treatment they need, and can get behind. Access to treatment on the NHS is impacting such students.

Val Williams: The barriers in HE are at least partly to do with the drive towards ‘excellence’ in an international, marketised environment, where universities are competing with each other. There is an internalised ‘ableism’ in universities, where disability is seen as a problem to be solved, not a value to be nurtured and worked with. Universities tend to promote the self-reliant individual, and so disabled students and staff have to work extra hard to manage their own support needs, as well as proving that they are as good as anyone else. At the extreme, this can lead to mental health crises, which again return the focus onto the individual rather than the system.

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