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.
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.