This article is more than 1 year old

We lack evidence on what works for closing disabled students’ equality gaps

Reasonable adjustments and support services for disabled students are a legal requirement - but for Omar Khan, better evidence is needed about what interventions are effective
This article is more than 1 year old

Omar Khan is Director of the Centre for Transforming Access and Students Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO).

As someone who has worked on researching how we best tackle inequalities, I regularly remind myself that evidence alone doesn’t make a difference.

Disabled students know they have unequal experiences in higher education, and what they want and deserve is for those inequalities to be addressed.

Aspiration and what works

In higher education, as in research and policy generally, there is an increasing acknowledgment that institutions, practices, environments and attitudes need to change at a systemic level in order to improve disability inclusion. In contrast, reasonable adjustments – which are legally required under the Equality Act 2010 – can appear to accept structural causes of disability exclusion and focus too much on individual-level responses. The thinking goes that if inclusive practices are built into an institution’s structure and processes then fewer reasonable adjustments will be needed over time.

Social progress requires systemic change, and we should seek that change as our longer-term aim or aspiration. At the same time, disabled students are experiencing exclusion and inequality today.

On the journey towards this aspirational end state – where buildings, equipment and learning resources have accessibility baked-in from the start – we need to look at opportunities for change in the here and now. Reasonable adjustments form a part of the puzzle in pursuit of broader social change. While such adjustments are widely implemented, it’s unclear if they are helping an increasing number of young people reporting a disability access, and then succeed in, higher education.

Mapping the evidence base

At Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO), we want to help the sector better understand if efforts to close equality gaps are working. A key part of this work is reviewing the existing research on different types of support offered to disadvantaged or underrepresented students.

With the help of the University of Lincoln, we’ve recently reviewed the evidence base on what works to reduce equality gaps for disabled students. The review found that despite the legal requirements, and government funding to provide reasonable adjustments and support services for disabled students, there is little high quality evidence on what is effective. There are a number of studies which suggest a positive correlation between adjustments and higher education success for disabled students. But no definitive causal link.

While these findings may not come as a surprise, identifying where we need more research is key to charting a course forward. Without comprehensive research on reasonable adjustments, we cannot assess whether or to what extent they are achieving their intended impact for students.

At the same time, we also need evidence on whether a more universal approach always yields the best outcomes for disabled students. The case of changes in teaching and learning during Covid-19 is perhaps a case in point. Online teaching and learning was adopted as a way to deliver for all students, and not because of the effects on disabled students. In this case, it appears a universal approach delivered better for disability inclusion and equality.

However, we have now seen a move away from exclusively online teaching and learning (though hybrid approaches do appear to be common across the sector). If the case for a universal policy is not based on addressing disability inclusion or equality specifically or explicitly, that policy can then be reversed on the basis that its aim has now been served.

This example highlights why TASO is recommending that in addition to better evaluation of reasonable adjustments, we also need better evaluation of more universal or inclusive approaches. These may sometimes deliver better for disabled students, but that is an empirical question that we need to understand on a case-by-case or intervention-by-intervention basis.

How can we bridge the gaps?

Sometimes the simplest answer is the right one. We need to engage more with disabled students. We need to learn from their experiences of reasonable adjustments. What are the most common types of adjustments? How many students are benefitting from them? How are they most effectively delivered? And most importantly, do the students feel that reasonable adjustments ensure their equal participation and inclusion in higher education?

The sector should also take note of recommendations in the Disabled Student Commitment on how to improve the delivery of reasonable adjustments, both on applying to higher education and following their entry into higher education. The Commitment focuses on the importance of reasonable adjustments in enabling inclusivity and belonging and engaging students in their delivery.

Better data

And we also need better data on disability. Data on disability need further disaggregation, both in terms of type of disability, and in terms of how disability interacts with other equality issues, particularly social class and ethnicity. But in order to do this, students need to feel confident and trust in sharing or disclosing a disability. Disabled people – both students and those working in higher education – need to be involved in how data is categorised and collected.

Better data can help universities and colleges make anticipatory adjustments and develop more globally inclusive practices so that disabled students are fully included and can succeed in higher education. It can also indicate where an intervention that works for a particular experience of disability may – or may not – work for another disability experience.

A recent Wonkhe analysis of the most popular issues across students’ union manifestos placed reasonable adjustments for disabled students in the top five – indicating that it is a key issue of concern. Let’s do something as a sector to address this concern, while we work towards building disability inclusion into the heart of all systems and processes.

7 responses to “We lack evidence on what works for closing disabled students’ equality gaps

  1. “Reasonable adjustments and support services for disabled students are a legal requirement” indeed they are, the systemic problem in many Universities is the cost of those adjustments and the effect on others some have, Universities with old buildings never built for wheelchair access is an obvious one.

    Then there’s the same legal requirement for reasonable adjustments for disabled staff, which has become a minefield in some Universities (often at a department level), where staff are refused reasonable adjustments by their managers often on the basis of cost, then they get hit with ‘capability’ and being eased out, which has the effect of ‘keep your head down and say nothing’ on everyone else, including students exposed to the ‘atmostFEAR’ (sp!). Universities may have all the policies in place, the support systems required as well, only to be let down by poor management, and control of poor management by the leadership team, no matter their headline approach. Not helped by the use of ‘declared disability’ data, that they need to satisfy funding councils etc as proof of ‘equality’ etc, when considering who to ‘offer’ a voluntary separation ‘package’ when savings need to be made, I’ve had direct experience of that one…

  2. Agree that this is not easy territory. However, the more we hear the voice, and stories, of those feeling that sense of ‘otherness’ or lack of inclusivity, the better equipped we are to address their concerns.

    So can we start with terminology please? And an important point where looking at inclusivity more broadly, and avoiding ‘otherness’, (with my appreciation that the term ‘disabled people’ is contested, and I, for one (with a daughter with a disability) would really like us to move to the term ‘people with (a) disablit(ies)’). As my daughter has observed in the past ‘it’s not fair being classified by my disability first, rather than classified as a human being, like everyone else. The more we move away from terminology that leads to a sense of ‘otherness’, the better. And this is a point that students at Queen Mary have regularly highlighted in discussions about embedding inclusivity in all our activities.

    1. Hearing the stories and voices of those most affected is evidently central. My own daughter is disabled, and she is very clear that she is not someone “with a disability”, she is someone with an impairment who is dis-abled not by that impairment, but by an excluding and inequitable society. Thus she much prefers being described, where this is relevant, as “a disabled person”, someone who societies and institutions (including universities) have made un-able, by designing or failing to redesign systems and spaces and processes which she cannot (easily) make use of.

      There are quite a lot of organisations in the UK led by disabled people, who agree with my daughter in their language (and collectively sometimes call themselves Disabled People’s Organisations, for example), and see talking about “people with a disability” as confusing language that mixes up impairments or conditions (cerebral palsy, autism, blindness, etc. – medical descriptors) with the way that society treats people with those impairments or conditions (disability – a socially constructed state or status).

      As with many other axes of difference and inequity, different people often have their own good reasons to prefer different terms – I suggest we need to listen to the variety of language that people use, hold back from rushing to judgement over that which is different from ours, and use that which makes the most sense to us; while not allowing debates over terminology to distract from the research, evaluation and listening which Omar Khan notes is so urgently needed.

  3. I think the first step is evaluating whether or not the adjustments are actually in place – just because the adjustments are in place on paper doesn’t mean that they are consistently applied.

    1. that’s a very good point, Molly. Any university disability service – and any disabled student – will be able to testify that just because a document has been created that agrees to the implementation of reasonable adjustments, there is no guarantee that these will be implemented consistently or at all. Disability services spend most of their time creating and disseminating these documents, but we are usually reliant on students complaining in terms of whether or not they are actually applied.

  4. In my 13 years or so teaching in HE, I have experienced and seen first hand all of the 3 comments above. The sector and particularly management, has a long way to go.

  5. Indeed we need better data but morally, there is a compelling case for inclusive practices and universal approach. There should be much better technological advancements to support individual adjustments too.

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