Disabled students need to be prioritised, not generalised

Access to education for disabled students must be placed at the top of the to-do list for senior leaders, says Hannah Borkin

Hannah Borkin is Researcher (Mixed Method) at Advance HE

Back in June 2020 – at the height of the pandemic and with just three months to go ahead of the new academic year – the Disabled Students’ Commission (DSC) held four online roundtables with the sector to better understand the urgent challenges facing disabled students.

Our report, Three months to make a difference, outlined where action was required by institutions and policy makers to ensure that the disabled student experience was addressed as campuses reopened.

The dynamic of the sector at the time was choppy yet buoyant. Changes were happening at unprecedented speed but contributions from staff demonstrated their resilience and willingness to be creative in supporting the needs of all students.

Online learning, teaching and assessment quickly became the new norm – in some (not all) cases, lectures were recorded and captioned so that students could attend asynchronously, and the administration required for extensions and submission of evidence was eased. All of these were implemented within weeks, if not days, albeit with accessibility issues but doable nonetheless.

And so what came next was perhaps the defining question on the lips of so many disabled students during the pandemic, and rightly raised during the roundtables:

If all of the above changes were possible in a short space of time, why is it that disabled students were previously refused when they had been requesting the same for years?

Mary Curnock-Cook, chair of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission, saw this as a serious wake-up call for the sector, and delivered a stark and honest assessment of the issue in her article. She said that disabled students often languish at the bottom of the to-do list “because the interests of the majority of non-disabled students tend to come first.”

Investigating the impact

Research conducted by the DSC published in August 2021 collected further evidence to support Mary’s argument. Of the 473 disabled students surveyed, close to half felt that their provider had been ineffective in considering disabled students’ needs when changing or adapting support offered during Covid-19.

It felt clear from open-ended survey responses that as the pandemic permeated all corners of the student population, attention was instead fixed on the majority and that targeted support for disabled students was lacking. As one participant argued:

There was consideration for all students – extended deadlines were provided given the mental health impact [the pandemic] would have on them. Further considerations were not made for already disadvantaged students struggling with mental health.

Similar challenges faced by disabled students during the pandemic also emerged within follow-up discussion groups, and are discussed in our new report. This publication details in-depth findings from discussions with participants in previous surveys, and which highlights the barriers faced by disabled student during this time, as well as their expectations and recommendations for the year ahead.

Some disabled students were surprised to discover that their additional time had been refused following the introduction of 24-hour open-book assessments, as this was perceived to be “sufficient time” for the majority. In others, note-takers were not provided in an online teaching environment as automated captions (provided as a default option for all students) were seen as an appropriate substitute.

Students with a pre-existing mental health condition whose symptoms were exacerbated as a result of the pandemic repeated the view that their needs were not considered, especially since the mental health and wellbeing of all students was declining across the board.

Prioritisation not generalisation

By definition, disabled students are a more vulnerable group and they must be prioritised to allow them to thrive. Experiences documented during the pandemic highlight that a “one-size-fits-all” approach simply does not work – you cannot be truly inclusive if you place disabled students on a par with their non-disabled peers in relation to support.

“Prioritisation, not generalisation” also works on a separate level – we know that disabled students are not a homogenous group and so approaches must be tailored as far as possible by impairment type, and applied with an intersectional lens.

A first step in prioritisation of disabled students would be to seriously take forward some of the lessons learnt during Covid-19 that have improved accessibility. Our report highlights a number of recommendations in this area.

Firstly, considering the changes made in response to the shift to online teaching, learning and assessment, institutions must increasingly explore to what extent flexibility and inclusive design can be built-in from the very beginning, avoiding the need for post-hoc implementation of reasonable adjustments.

Secondly, as more flexible access to extensions and relaxed rules around submission of evidence were praised as a standout benefit in the midst of pandemic policy changes – institutions should consider how this might be formalised and expanded.

Above all, disabled students must be placed – and remain – at the top of the to-do list for senior leaders who have the authority to make consideration of disabled students’ needs the norm.

The DSC, established by the Universities Minister and funded by the Office for Students, was put in place to improve support for disabled students in higher education. The lightning pace at which new measures have been adopted have shown both staff and disabled students what can be achieved – any future assertion that adjustments are not a realistic possibility would undermine this. The sector now has a real opportunity to build on its pandemic response to date and to make a difference to the experience of disabled students. We are confident it will.

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