Much work has been done, and many recommendations have been made in recent years to speed up improvements for disabled students across the sector.
Most recently, the Disabled Student Commitment launched by the Disabled Students’ Commission in April 2023 seeks to encourage providers and relevant organisations to place disabled students at the top of their agenda.
While the sector faces a number of equality, diversity and inclusion priorities at any given time, initiatives such as the Commitment remind us that disability as a protected characteristic is of no less importance than its counterparts.
No-one would dispute that support for disabled students, while accepting it as a responsibility for staff across the whole provider, can still only be achieved with comparable levels of support for staff working in disability services.
So why is it that disability services – critical to a provider’s accountability under the Equality Act 2010 in the areas of disability and beyond – are seemingly left off the list of priorities?
Sadly, wider support is lacking. Staff based in the higher education sector are increasingly mindful of concerns of overwhelm and overwork (particularly since the onset of Covid-19).
This concern is felt no more acutely than staff working in disability services. In some cases, it is driving some of these staff to consider the ultimate cost to their professional lifespan and personal wellbeing, despite being highly motivated and personally invested in the role.
It is the reason why research published in NADP’s latest Journal, The experiences of staff working within Disability Services in Higher Education can make for uncomfortable reading.
The 1999 HEFCE guidance on base-level provision for disabled students in HE institutions recommended that there should be a ratio of one disability adviser to 200 disabled students, arguing that such staffing would allow for a more proactive approach to planning and providing high-quality services.
Fast-forward nearly 25 years later and the sector is nowhere near the recommended ratio. This is undoubtedly a nuanced picture. While in many cases, it can be regarded as a positive that an increasing number of disabled students are sharing their disability with their provider, levels of staffing to support this growing student population (i.e. the number of FTE staff within disability services) are failing to keep up with this ever-increasing demand.
NADP’s research found that (out of a total of 103 responses to their survey) one disability adviser is now supporting on average up to 583 students. In some providers it is significantly more unequal – nearly a quarter of all respondents stated that one disability adviser supports over 750 students.
Hark back to the days where a manageable caseload could have afforded disability advisers the additional space and capacity to engage in partnership working across the provider, to immerse themselves in valuable CPD, while at the same time giving due consideration to their provider’s anticipatory duty.
This is simply no longer possible when so many of their days are spent firefighting at an individual level rather than progressing inclusive practice. Despite being a part of a highly specialised and supportive team, some respondents to the survey regarded their role as “relentless”. Comments touched on their exhaustion in the face of persistent workload pressures.
Progress towards inclusive practice
Initiatives such as Universal Design for Learning serve as a strategic and operational tool for freeing up valuable resource in disability services, saving time for the most complex of individual reasonable adjustments.
Sadly, impossibly high caseloads act as a consistent barrier to its roll-out and adoption, and overall awareness of its principles remain surprisingly low. Similarly, an improved understanding of competency standards among academic staff could be a cornerstone of inclusive practice, yet time pressures on professional services and academic staff alike mean that training and development in this area is lacking.
Changing attitudes towards inclusive practice is a slow process on the whole, and there is an unexpected level of resistance. Yet, staff working in disability services remain staunchly committed, passionate, and resolute.
Respondents to the survey felt hopeful about the future of their role for as long as it resulted in making a difference to the quality of disabled students’ experiences. But for just how long remains a pressing consideration, when the strength of their resolve is continuously tested against a backdrop of wider issues in higher education.
In particular, a growing number of disabled students year-on-year, including disabled students with more complex support requirements, squeezed resources in both academic and non-academic departments, outdated administrative systems and processes, and a perceived downgrading of roles in disability services.
There remains a question, then, if institutions are to meet their responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010 and more importantly, provide the kind of inclusive experience for disabled students they profess to provide, they must understand how to better support staff working in disability services.
This includes ensuring greater professional recognition and respect for the demanding and specialised work that is carried out by them on a day-to-day basis. Disability practitioners are a critical cog in the sector’s work in relation to inclusive learning, teaching and assessment, but they can only be fully effective once prioritisation of the department and an improved understanding of the challenges they face, also moves up the agenda.