Push to meet the challenges facing disabled students

As students return to campus, Kathryn Mitchell and Megan Hector discuss what can be done to support students with disabilities

Professor Kathryn Mitchell is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Derby


Megan is a Policy and Research Manager in the Education and Skills team at Policy Connect

After more than a year of online teaching and learning, universities have adapted a great deal: we have engaged with thousands of students over video calls, delivered virtual careers fairs, and trialled new forms of flexible assessments.

But as we celebrate the return to partial or full in-person teaching, we must not lose sight of the need to embed accessibility and inclusion at the heart of all university experiences.

This is an even more urgent priority this coming academic year, as record numbers of students plan to enter higher education in 2021. UCAS recently reported that 435,430 students across the UK received a place at university this year, an increase of 5 per cent on results day in 2020.

This will likely include an increased number of disabled students, which is a tremendous positive for society, as well as for university communities. We all benefit from having a more diverse and representative student body, bringing a range of new perspectives and experiences to bear on higher education.

Report recommendations

Last year, Kathryn co-chaired the Higher Education Commission’s inquiry into the experiences of disabled students in higher education, alongside David Blunkett and Philip Norton. Our report, published in October 2020, made 12 recommendations for solving the challenges facing disabled students across all aspects of university life and experience. These recommendations are increasingly relevant as we continue to balance the competing demands of hybrid online and in-person teaching and learning.

As universities scramble to accommodate the large incoming cohort of students, we need to maintain and build on the flexibility of teaching and assessment developed during the pandemic in order to help all students to succeed. To make sure this is the case, senior leaders in every higher education institution must demonstrate that accessibility for disabled students is an institution-wide priority.

The first recommendation aimed to achieve this by calling on senior leaders to take on responsibility and accountability for disabled students’ experiences, not just in teaching and learning but throughout university life. This includes living and social experiences, the transition into university, and the shift into the workplace.

Kathryn’s experience of leading the University of Derby during the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the need to maintain strong leadership in order to respond effectively to complex challenges, such as addressing issues of accessibility and inclusion, student mental health, and digital poverty.

Challenges of remote learning

Research from the Disabled Students’ Commission, published in August this year, highlighted the particular challenges faced by disabled students during the pandemic. Of the 473 disabled students surveyed, more than a third (36.3 per cent) stated that they had found adapting to remote learning and teaching “very difficult”.

However, a majority of students still showed support for a move to blended or hybrid learning, including recorded lectures and seminars, as long as these are made fully accessible for students with a range of needs. In our report, the provision of recorded lectures was the most commonly cited factor influencing the accessibility or inaccessibility of teaching and learning.

Our second recommendation proposes that higher education providers undertake a review of disabled students’ access to teaching and learning in their institution, which should be carried out by a strategic group including disabled students themselves.

This is now a vitally important step to make sure that providers get hybrid or online teaching and learning right for all students. We shouldn’t wait until problems are raised with accessibility – by that point disabled students have already been negatively impacted. Instead, we need to encourage and enable staff to build inclusive design into teaching and learning from the beginning.

Training and support

Linked to this, our third recommendation raised the fact that academic and professional staff should receive thorough training in order to understand disabled students’ needs, to enable them to support students appropriately and to provide accessible teaching. We must not forget that staff as well as students need support with digital accessibility, whether this is support with working remotely or training on how to create accessible learning materials for students with a range of different requirements.

To that end, at the University of Derby, we have developed a core training programme for all academic staff which specifically addresses learning accessibility, with a focus upon students who have visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive disabilities. This enables staff to consider flexible ways for students to engage with learning materials, including formats that are easier for some students to process.

The training also supports staff to understand the requirements set out within the Equality Act 2010 and the Accessibility Regulations 2018, some of the key pieces of legislation around disabled people’s rights.

Outside of teaching and learning, student mental health is an issue which has only become more pressing over the past year and a half, with 80 per cent of respondents to the Disabled Students’ Commission’s survey stating that the pandemic had had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

At Derby, we found that providing support services online greatly increased take-up, with a 50 per cent decrease in no-shows for booked appointments. Online appointments allow students greater flexibility and accessibility in how they engage with support services, giving individuals greater agency and the opportunity to face challenges in a “safe space” of their choosing. This has been an important lesson in the value of testing different methods of delivery, even when we think the current system is working adequately.

Navigating transitions

We were extremely pleased to see Arriving at Thriving cited in the government’s recently published National Disability Strategy. The strategy includes a proposal for an ‘Access to Work passport’, which would help disabled students transition into work from higher or other education, making it easier for them to access the support and adjustments they need to thrive in the workplace.

This goes some way to implementing the recommendation we made for a new lifelong system of support for disabled people, which would enable smoother transitions between school, college, university, and the workplace. We hope that this Access to Work passport will demonstrate the benefits of such a system, and be rolled out more widely in future to help disabled students with all of the significant transition points in their education and careers.

We firmly believe that disabled students must remain at the top of senior leaders’ agendas for the coming year, as we collectively navigate the existing and emerging challenges thrown up by the pandemic. At the same time, prioritising accessibility and inclusion leads to benefits for many students who are most vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, such as international students and care leavers, as well as the student cohort as a whole.

We must use the lessons we have learned to ensure that we don’t go backwards with a “return to normal” this academic year but instead keep working towards a hybrid education that delivers for all students.

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