Disability staff are overwhelmed and exhausted

To meet legal responsibilities to disabled students, the sector must address the overwhelming workloads of disability services staff, says Hannah Borkin

Hannah Borkin is a Freelance EDI Researcher and Evaluator to the HE sector

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.

Ratios growing

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.

2 responses to “Disability staff are overwhelmed and exhausted

  1. Being disabled, and seeing just how poorly my employer supports me at time, this comes as no surprise. The growing number of ‘disabled’ students however is a problem on many older campuses with unsuitable buildings not built for disabled staff or student use.

    That said however many of them have no physical disability, just a ‘tag’ applied to them by a system badgered by parents looking for a way to excuse unacceptable behaviours according to several SENCo’s I know, and to gain extra unearned income, cheap car etc, often starting at infant school. Once so ‘tagged’ many play to their defined disability, further entrenching something that all too often is a defect of poor two income parenting and a lack of correction, with school and colleges forced to reinforce it. As a result those whose children are actually disabled, mentally and/or physically, have a much harder time obtaining support as a because of all the extra not really disabled that have been so tagged overloading the system.

    Post Covid we also have the issue of what should have been transient mental health difficulties due to anxiety that have been reinforced by repeated MSMSM attention on ‘the next (potential) pandemic’, along with other things immature maturing young people have had to deal with for generations now being made into something more than a natural maturing process…

    1. Also a disabled person here, also working in HE. I’m a little surprised at these comments as they feed into ableist myths about how disabled people put pressure on the system, as if it is not the system itself which is the issue. The system, after years of austerity, is not sufficient to meet the needs of those it should be supporting. “Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People” by Dr Frances Ryan sets out the impact austerity has had, and the way disabled people have been failed. I would very much like to know the statistics and evidence you’re relying upon to make claims that the system is being overworked due to “false” claims of disability. Even the DWP has found previously that nearly all claims of these are shown to be unfounded.

      My experience with SENCOs is that they do a difficult job, but it is their opinion, not factual diagnosis, that you are referencing. Perhaps they do feel overworked themselves, but speaking from experience within my own family, I am well aware how often a relative’s issues in school were dismissed as “not trying hard enough”, or being a “difficult” student, rather than recognising they had a SpLD and that they learned in a different way. Even when presented with diagnostic evidence of this, it was an uphill battle that required multiple reminders to the school in question, who still failed my family.

      However, this is getting away from the main point of the article, which is that the recommended caseload ratio is far higher than it should be. There should be a recognition that education has always relied upon the goodwill of its workers to shoulder the flaws of the system. Most caring professions do (see: the NHS).

      As for the “increased” number of those who’ve been diagnosed as disabled, or suspect they are, this comes from greater awareness. The same thing was said of dyslexia, ADHD and other conditions, including physical ones. I remember when chronic fatigue syndrome/ME was treated as if people were “faking it”. You mention mental health difficulties as if there is little cause for it. There is a lot for them to be concerned about as well: we live in a time of great economic uncertainty, of climate change and frustrations at lack of action. To me, it is very sane to react very badly to such circumstances. It would not be “normal” to just pretend that life is fine as is. I applaud students for coming forward and recognising they are struggling. I want as many of them to reach out as possible. But we also need a system in place that can do this, and that comes not from pressure due to “over-diagnosis”, but failures from senior management and government. Blaming the individual is an unfair burden to place on those just trying to get help.

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