This article is more than 1 year old

Students don’t expect perfection, they expect us to listen

Sunday Blake interrogates recent research from Wonkhe and Pearson on belonging and inclusion to see if there is a right way to get accessibility wrong
This article is more than 1 year old

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

Getting accessibility and inclusion right is tough.

It feels almost – as I found out when attempting to orchestrate a fully accessible and inclusive conference – impossible. So, I have a fair degree of sympathy for institutions in this respect.

In 2019 I was part of a committee tasked with organising an academic conference. Many of the papers being presented focused on inclusivity, diversity, and accessibility in some way. We wanted to hold true to these values and make our conference as accessible and inclusive as possible.

Even with the incredible resources from Sisters of Frida guiding us – it was still a tough gig. As a committee of people with only invisible disabilities and mental health problems who did not use mobility or accessibility aids, we were trying to predict issues disabled delegates would face which we had very little idea about.

Of course, our temporary toil was nowhere near the nightmare that disabled people themselves go through every day, all year round, just to get their basic needs met.

One issue was the height of sinks at every venue in London – something I’d never considered before.

Inside you are two wolves

But why am I talking about this? Well, in higher education we are bobbing along two trajectories – both excellent, in my opinion. We are becoming an increasingly diverse sector. We are also moving away from a deficit model of access, and towards an always-already accessible campus with built-in – not bolt-on – support.

The latter of these is on a premise of always-already accessibility and inclusion. This means that students with access needs – be it resource-based such as graphs in specific colours for colour-blind students; or circumstantial, such as flexible timetabling for commuter and working students, and students observing religious dates; or support-based such as academic writing support for students from non-traditional backgrounds – do not have to go through additional barriers or convoluted bureaucratic processes (which lead to frustration and lowered confidence) to be included, or gain access to resources or support.

Integrated inclusion means that we normalise asking all students their pronouns so that trans students do not have to correct anyone. It means having child-inclusive spaces on campus. It means that campus and learning are already accessible to, and inclusive of, everyone. It is moving away from a deficit model. It is the difference between equality and equity, and liberation.

And students expect in-built accessibility and inclusion. I’ve spent the last year looking at what a lot of staff and students (5.5k, to be exact) have to say about belonging and inclusion at university. Students condemned incidents where students with accessibility needs had to specifically request resources be made accessible for them. And accessibility – or the lack of it – has knock-on effects. Half of all students (49 per cent) said that they do not have any issues with accessing teaching and learning, but this number fell to 28 per cent for students who felt that they did not belong.

Playing catch-up

But, as we accelerate widening participation schemes, diversify our student body, and encourage students to “bring their whole selves to campus”, institutions need to be one, big, inclusive step ahead. And at some point balancing the two processes of accessibility and widening participation, we will get it wrong. At some point, a student with an access need we have not yet come across will enrol. At some point, a student will arrive from a culture or belief system which we are not familiar with.

In our research, one student felt that their university website was not using “up-to-date software which is designed with inclusivity in mind”. Another student with ADHD said their reading materials could not be read by their software, and that it already takes them longer to go through the reading materials than others without having to take an extra step to ensure they can access them.  A number of students – particularly those with part-time jobs or caring responsibilities – criticised library opening times. One reported that the library was only open when they were at work. A commuter student who was also in employment described how their assignment deadlines did not take into account their need to both travel and work.

Call-outs and call-ins

In an age of social media speckled with call-out culture, getting it wrong can be embarrassing – especially when disabled students’ (rightful) outrage over a lack of accessibility can travel very far, very quickly.

But in our research, getting it wrong wasn’t the problem. Students explained to us that when their university is quick to apologise over the lack of inclusion in a certain area and make efforts to fix the issue, they still perceive the university as inclusive because the underlying intentions are good. This was across the board, but reflected well in two comments comments from transgender students.

“[W]henever my deadname is featured on a list of any sort, if I just email the person in charge of compiling it, they immediately change it and apologise for the mistake

Occasionally [they] use my old name instead of my preferred name within emails which is upsetting at times, but they often follow up with an apology email which does makes me feel valued and important.

Conversely, the institution cited above shut down twitter claims of inaccessibility by saying that they had already had accessibility arrangements in place. The problem? These arrangements were not accessible to all students. The response – to shut down the student – received worse backlash than the initial problem. 2 million views and 200k engagements worse.

This is getting it wrong.

What’s disappointing about this is that, contrary to concerns over performative outrage and cancel culture, our student participants actually just wanted to help. One focus group participant said negative feedback is just because they want to make their university better. Not only that, but students expressed sympathy for institutions navigating the complex field of accessibility and inclusion .

“I was just going to say they feel nervous about it and I think it could be understandable that it is natural for them to feel nervous to even go into that territory.

Making lemonade

The thing is that – as I found on the conference committee – even if you have a disability yourself, even if you read every accessibility guide out there, in a widening sector you will still miss issues that are obvious to those the issue impacts. In our belonging and inclusion survey, we found that students with a disability were over twice as likely to say that their course was not inclusive than students overall.

Why the disparity in opinion? I think it is because they have lived experiences, and they can see the glaring issues others can not.

We need to actively listen to these students. It’ll make our universities better. But not just this – being listened to improve students’ sense of belonging and their confidence. Because here’s the real magic from our qualitative research – students who had concerns listened to, and acted upon, over accessibility, appeared to feel more positively of their providers than students whose providers were already accessible.

Students did report losing confidence when they encountered a lack of inclusivity – but they reported gaining it again – many times over – when their concerns were listened to and acted upon. This fits with our quantitative findings – 67 per cent of those who felt like they belong agreed they feel empowered to act if they see an opportunity to change things for the better, compared with 29 per cent of students who did not feel like they belong. Students regain confidence and belonging by actively contributing to improving their university and student experience.

The aforementioned commuter student who was frustrated and felt alienated with inaccessible assessment times raised the concern with their module lead. The module lead – who may not have had to commute hours to get to campus, and so could have been unaware of this issue, listened to the student, discussed it with the cohort, and agreed to change assessments to a time which allowed for commutes. Over the course of the year-long research, the student mentioned how impressed they were with the quick response to non-inclusive practice on three separate occasions. On one they wrote that

having your suggestion accepted and implemented feels special and I am more confident about this course than before.

All inclusive

I’m not suggesting universities make themselves inaccessible in order to go through this process. But this does speak to the importance of including widening participation students as partners when designing an inclusive campus in an ever diversifying sector. Because it’s a beneficial practice even when there are no glaring accessibility and inclusion issues. Minoritised demographics seem to benefit from active co-creation. As one apprentice student said:

“We’re always invited to conferences and discussions about the university’s future and how it aligns with the city’s values. When Ofsted came in, apprentices were invited to join the discussion and send any comments to be considered. This helps me feel like I can contribute to the community and remain engaged with my peers.

Of course – this level of coproduction needs active engagement with students’ voices. We cannot just assume all students – particularly widening participation students – have the high levels of confidence to question their institution. But I am saying that being open and approachable – not hostile to, nor anxious about, call-outs – is best for both institutions and students.

Oh – and by the way. The sink issue from my conference? A little person told me to just put a stool in the bathroom and little people would be able to reach them using the stool. And the sound of a hundred pennies dropped.

You can hear more about the Belonging and Inclusion research from Wonkhe and Pearson at Belong from the beginning: Building connections, confidence and inclusion at university on Wednesday 19 October 2022.

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