This article is more than 4 years old

Getting serious about the barriers facing disabled students

Thousands of students are being shut of out their higher education experience. Martin McLean thinks it's time we got serious about the barriers facing disabled students.
This article is more than 4 years old

Martin McLean is an Education & Training Policy Advisor at the National Deaf Children’s Society

Imagine attending a university lecture and not being able to follow anything that was said.

This is the reality being faced by many deaf students today. It is a common misconception that deaf students who have hearing aids or cochlear implants are able to hear normally – these devices provide amplification but don’t necessarily make sounds clearer. And some deaf young people can face difficulties in processing written English due to the impact of language delay earlier in life.

This is why many deaf students need access to specialist support such as British Sign Language interpreters, electronic note-takers and specialist tutors in order to take part in lectures and seminars.

I am profoundly deaf myself, and I have a BSc, PGCE and MA. It would have not have been possible for me to have achieved these three qualifications without Disabled Student Allowances (DSAs), Government grants that cover the cost of the support that I needed to access my courses.

Changes and consequences

There are over 3,000 deaf young people taking higher education courses today. Sadly, many are being let down by national policymakers and local providers. In 2016, the government introduced changes to DSAs in England which included the removal of funding for non-specialist support workers such as note-takers, and the introduction of a register for the types of support worker that would continue to be funded. Student Finance England will no longer fund any support workers not on the register.

I then started to receive some concerning reports from professionals working in the sector that these changes were causing problems – particularly the register, because it was discouraging freelancers from working in higher education due to the stringent requirements of registration. This was leading to shortages in support workers.

Evidence of a problem

To collect some hard evidence of the impact of the changes to DSAs, we decided to launch a survey for deaf students across the UK. There were over 130 responses and some of the findings are really worrying:

  • Support is not being put in place in time for the start of the academic year for too many students. Almost 30% of deaf students who said they needed support had to wait over six months before their support was put in place.
  • Some students are reporting being left without support due to limited availability of specialist support such as electronic note-takers or BSL interpreters.
  • Students who are from Wales or Scotland (where there has been no reform of DSAs) provide higher ratings for the quality of support received compared to students from England.
  • And over half of respondents said they had insufficient information and advice on the support available to them before they started higher education.

The Independent recently published a story on the findings which included some very frustrating case studies from deaf students. After having no response from Department for Education officials on the findings of our survey (other than a quote to the Independent), our CEO sent a letter to the Universities Minster, Chris Skidmore, outlining the issues being faced by deaf students.

Rapid response

He has now announced that a new group is being set up to “examine the barriers faced by disabled students in higher education and improve support for them to succeed”. My first thought at the news of this announcement was ‘wow – that was quick Chris’ but I have the feeling that he might have been planning this for a little while. Last month he met with the Thomas Pocklington Trust to discuss issues currently being faced by students with vision impairment and there are some issues in common, particularly around shortages of specialist support.

This new group is welcome and we hope that it ensures that real action is taken. Some of the actions we would like to see include:

  • The subsidising of training for support workers supporting students with low-incidence disabilities. It is challenging for training providers to provide courses that are financially viable due insufficient demand in a single locality.
  • The register of support workers should be reviewed. Consideration should be given to whether it can be made easier for freelancing sole traders to register. For example, registration with the National Register of Communication Professionals for Deaf people (NRCPD) could be a benchmark of quality that would enable freelancers to bypass the auditing process.
  • Reviewing why high proportions of deaf students do not have their support in place at the start of their course and how this issue could be addressed.
  • And the Government should ensure that its Careers Strategy is sufficiently well-resourced to ensure that disabled young people receive good quality information on the support and technology available to them in higher education before they apply.

Launching his commission, Skidmore said that living with a disability “should never be a barrier to entering higher education” and that as Universities Minister, he was “determined to ensure disabled students get the support they need to have a positive, life-changing university experience”. At the National Deaf Children’s Society we agree. We’ll await the response to our letter to Chris and should soon find out just how determined he is.

8 responses to “Getting serious about the barriers facing disabled students

  1. The symptoms Martin McLean describes ring true. The causes he says little about. Disability services are overwhelmed by long term mental health cases which are now the single largest category of disability. There is insufficient unit of resource even though UK tax rates are at historic highs. Cuts to DSA and also the decisions taken by many clinical commissioning groups (gate keepers to two-thirds of NHS expenditure) mean that universities often end up underwriting personal carers as well as providing support workers. Many schools are in the same position with parents acting as carers – often making career sacrifices to help their children. The good news is that ks5 outcomes are rising for pupils with physical disabilities or special learning needs. But the transition to higher education, where parents cease to have the same impact, is abrupt.

  2. SRHE just published a report which I co authored with others which looks at the post Layer report landscape in relation to disabled student experience. I hope you find it useful.

    Martin et al (2019) Implementing Inclusive Teaching and Learning in UK Higher Education – Utilising Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a Route to Excellence.


    The UK higher education (HE) sector is undertaking reforms to the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA), until recently the primary means of funding support for eligible disabled students. (Operation of DSA is slightly different in Scotland but similar principles apply.) In a government-commissioned report, embedding Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and inclusive practices was proposed as an approach to reducing reliance on the DSA. This research examines the circumstances in which UDL is currently operating in a cross-section of English higher education providers with a view to contributing to a currently patchy evidence base. Focus groups, interviews and questionnaires were utilised to collect data from four universities and disability support staff. Pockets of good practice such as inclusive virtual learning environments were identified, and it is noted that such strategies benefit all students rather than just those who would have been entitled to DSA. Strategic engagement and embedding UDL was thought to require joined-up thinking between various staff groups under the direction of a named senior leader. Participants suggested that this did not happen coherently. Students felt that systems in place to support their learning were hard to navigate. Some staff were surprised that they were not communicating about this as effectively as they thought. A sector-wide benchmark does not currently exist and would be a helpful tool for creating a stronger foundation on which to build change.

  3. In most areas of employment the employer determines the qualifications required for any particular job (subject to national accrediting organisations where applicable). DSA-QAG requirements could be seen as a restraint on trade; they certainly cause problems as outlined in this article. I think DSA would work much better if independent access centres assessed students’ needs, and then universities were responsible for implementing the support, either by directly employing support workers or by contracts with agencies or freelancers.

  4. I don’t think mental health difficulties are the most declared HESA category. Specific learning difficulties is still the highest statistically. Twice as many currently:
    Also there is a difference between ‘long term mental health cases’ and shorter term issues. Wellbeing services have seen increases in both of these in recent years, but I’m not sure they are ‘overwhelmed’: the rises are no more than the rises seen in SpLD disclosures over a similar time period.
    There haven’t been significant rises in hearing, visual or physical impairments disclosures during the same time period – in fact they’re largely static. Maybe that’s where significant barriers to access lie as Martin’s article suggests?

  5. @mkwra19 thanks for the partial correction. Although (still) smaller in number than specific learning difficulties (SpLD), mental health is certainly the most rapidly expanding category and has to be long-term (+ 12 months) and affecting everyday living to be classified as a disability.

    According to HESA in 2017/18 a total of 66,660 students declared mental health as a disability vs 109,395 who declared specific learning difficulty (with a further 30,070 declaring 2 or more conditions). Limiting to undergraduates, the figures are 57,830 mental health vs 90,510 SpLD with a further 25,605 ‘two or more conditions’.

    For comparison, in 2014/15 the figures were 105,550 for SpLD and 33,045 for mental health (for undergrads only: 91,255 SpLD vs 29,320 mental health, 18,715 2 or more conditions).

    As you can see, while SpLD has grown modestly mental health has doubled.

  6. Could you clarify what you mean by tax rates being at a historic high? Both the basic rate and the higher rate have been higher in my lifetime, so do you mean the percentage of people in each band or other forms of tax or something?

  7. If you go further back (more than 4 years) SpLD increased rapidly for a number of years (in a very similar way to MH more recently) but has levelled out. SpLD has grown significantly over the long term. When I first started in HE you could count the number of dyslexic students in tens not thousands: counselling services reported being ‘overwhelmed’, even then.

    But VI, HI and mobility impairments haven’t really seen these exponential increases.

    The mental health category does not have to be long term and affecting everyday living to be included in HESA statistics: in practice every case of a disclosure is not checked against an actual diagnosis – so a student with a short term MH issue might disclose on application or on enrolment and it will still get counted in HESA stats. It’s the same with all the HESA categories: they are proxies because they are counts of self-disclosure not diagnoses.

Leave a Reply