Expert panel: What developments, trends and innovations will improve disability access for university 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 fifth in our series

The panel

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 forthcoming developments, trends and innovations will have an impact?

Nicole Reid: There’s been a lot of talk around Education 4.0 recently, and it’s becoming much more than a concept – we’re starting to see it in action. With more flexible, modular learning that doesn’t depend on location, coupled with lifelong learning that goes far beyond the traditional design of a structured university course, there’s a need for change which can only be empowered through effective use of technology. Institutions are starting to integrate those ‘traditional’ technology tools such as online learning environments, and adding in machine learning and AI to deliver more flexible, inclusive, personalised student experiences.

It’s important to remember, though, that in all these advances, we still have a huge range of student needs and abilities, and we need to plan effective learning by using the technology available. To achieve this, we’ve been seeing wider interest and adoption of the UDL. It’s providing multiple routes for students to benefit from these paradigm shifts that technology is delivering – and we expect to see adoption of UDL grow in the year ahead. There are some wonderful examples of its effectiveness out there already.

Val Williams: Universities will shift their most central practices only when disabled people are in senior positions and have the power to make change happen. At present, there are significant barriers to promotion facing disabled staff at every level. I think also that the need to continue building an international profile can be a positive influence, if universities recognise that disability access and inclusion are positive assets and models for students and staff across the world.

Chris Millward: In order to support greater progress in the development of inclusive learning environments for disabled students, we allocate £40m each year to higher education providers, complementing the commitments and investment they make in this area.

We are also in the process of conducting a follow-up to the 2014/15 review, to assess progress towards inclusive models of support for disabled students, which is due to be published in autumn. This review will gather views from providers on how inclusive current models of support are for disabled students, and will inform future investment. This is the second phase of this study, the first phase of which was commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and published in October 2017.

It will also provide evidence for the Disabled Students Commission, which was announced by the universities minister in June and which will replace and build on the work of the Disabled Students’ Sector Leadership Group guidance from 2017. The objectives of the commission are to advise, inform and influence the higher education sector to improve models of support for disabled students, and to promote good practice that helps those with disabilities to have a positive experience at university.

The commissioners will be recruited over the summer and the first meeting will be held at the end of November.

Jon Bentley: I would cite Wayfinder, an organisation discovery service based on user-centred design. Wayfinder enables users to log in by entering their home organisation or email address into a simple search bar. It can also find their organisation through geolocation and remembers their last login choice, making it even easier for them to get access to the content they need.

This means that learners and researchers can log in, once and securely, to all the multiple online resources that their organisations subscribe to, while retaining their identity and privacy. Such services are leading the way in facilitating seamless access to digital content, as well as in broadening the types of resources that universities can offer their students, such as materials for those with visual impairments.

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