Reasonable adjustments are more important than mayonnaise

It’s a stat that never seems to get better.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

In today’s Disabled Students UK report – which picks up 1300 responses from over 100 universities – 36 per cent of students said the reasonable adjustments they had agreed weren’t being implemented.

I was thinking about this on the way home yesterday from a lunch with Mark and Debbie. After our food came, about 5 minutes in a member of staff came around and asked if everything was OK with our meal.

It’s an almost robotic and pretty much universal intervention that pretty much everyone will recognise. What’s interesting is why it is done.

It actually comes from US research in the 80s that found that instead of complaining about food or something that might have been wrong with the order, to avoid confrontation most people instead grumble to themselves and then resolve never to go to said restaurant again.

Hence the proactive gathering of in-meal feedback. Even then it doesn’t pick up every grumble – but it helps.

If I contrast that with the experience of Disabled students, if I set aside the battles to get a reasonable adjustments plan agreed in the first place, what we know is that that kind of proactive checking – and then taking steps to immediately resolve it – is not a feature of most universities’ processes.

Yet unlike “I asked for mayo, where’s the mayo”, Disabled students are frequently unaware of their rights, fear (academic) reprisals if they make a fuss, or are often fobbed off with reasons why the adjustment planned can’t be delivered after all.

In DSUK’s survey almost half of students with at least one access barrier held back from raising an accessibility issue/asking for disability support at the university was this because they didn’t want others to see them as difficult, incompetent or like they’re trying to get an advantage over other students. Half thought the particular staff member would not understand or believe them. And almost a third were afraid they would be treated worse or that it would affect their academic prospects.

And the litany of excuses for not providing adjustments are worse:

  • “It is not something we provide” 28% (51% if N/A removed)
  • “It would not be fair to the other students” 18% (33%)
  • “You do not really need this adjustment” 14% (25%)
  • “Needing this adjustment would call into question your fitness to study” 10% (19%)
  • “If you are so disabled you should interrupt your studies instead” 12% (22%)
  • “This is not an adjustment you could expect after university” 10% (18%)
  • “This is not something we are legally obligated to provide” 9% (16%)
  • “This adjustment affects competence standards” 8% (16%)
  • “This adjustment would not help you” 8% (15%)
  • “It is better for you if you do not receive this adjustment (eg from a career perspective)” 8% (15%)
  • “It is too costly” 8% (14%)
  • “This adjustment may lead to disciplinary action (eg reduced attendance)” 5% (10%)
  • “It would constitute a health and safety risk” 3% (5%)

The problem here is a sector culture that waits for complaints before it acts. Over 4 in 10 said that raising the issue would take too much of their time to advocate for themselves, and a similar percentage didn’t know who to raise the issue to.

I’m not getting at stretched Disability teams here – this is a resourcing issue – but it’s also a process issue. Unlike the pub grub, Disabled students can’t just switch provider if something goes wrong – and also unlike the pub grub, this is about basic access to education and legal rights, not whether I was given tartare sauce or mayo on my haddock bap.

There are lots of other things that could be done – many of which are in DSUK’s excellent report and in this blog off the back of a round table we held on the issue last year. But crucially what won’t solve this is a(nother) policy review, a working group, an optional training course or an awareness campaign.

This will sound oddly harsh – but if nobody can remember anyone ever losing their job over a refusal or wilful failure to deliver a reasonable adjustment then something’s wrong. This isn’t about suggestions for enhancement – this is about the absolute basics to afford students access to their education.

As OfS itself says, a decent regulatory approach should seek to deliver social and policy objectives in areas where market mechanisms may not succeed:

For example, the improvements in access and participation that students and society require will not be delivered by the market alone. This means that the OfS will take direct regulatory action to drive improvement in this area, beyond that necessary to preserve a minimum baseline.

Long term there’s a need to work on culture, belonging, integration, confidence and pedagogy for Disabled students – as well as addressing the purpose of assessment. But what is more urgent is a need for the regulator to intervene on access to experience rather than just differential outcomes. A university’s Disabled students could be doing 20 per cent better on Firsts and 2:1, and it wouldn’t make failures to deliver reasonable adjustments in their experience right.

OfS hasn’t gone there so far. But how many more miserable stats like the 36 per cent one today must we read before it does?

2 responses to “Reasonable adjustments are more important than mayonnaise

  1. Universities have little idea of just how difficult life can be for a disabled person, but failure to inform them of disability needs before arrival is also a problem. Our PEEP’s system consistently falls down because personal Academic tutors are made to do them, for ALL spaces anywhere within the University the student may go, the tutor often has no knowledge of many of those spaces in other buildings they never use/visit, and being told they have to do this the day the student arrives causes the system to fail.

    Then there’s the actual physical access problems, especially in old buildings, that many Universities struggle to adapt, added to the lack of accessible parking spaces near to the right building. My University is about to build two new ‘accessible’ buildings with a capacity of ~1,000 staff and students, they have planned for 5 disabled parking spaces for users of those two buildings.

    As to mental health issues, the exponential increase in ’emotional support animal’ (pet) requests is becoming unmanageable, unfortunately the knock on effects to those with ‘trained assistance dogs’ physical assistance and guide dogs, is causing them problems. Several people having been bitten by an ’emotional support animal’ has complicated the issue, along with allergic reactions impacting others who’ve that as a registered medical condition/disability.

  2. Whilst I agree with everything in the article, we also need a bit of realism. I happen to work for somewhere where they are really trying with the provisions, but students often have an objective view of what is reasonable. One example would be a student with a reasonable adjustment that requested they are exempt from group work, unfortunately this was a learning outcome because it was an Architecture course. This instance was worked round, but did the student really think in the real world, they would able to be an Architect without having to collaborate?!
    Part of the problem lies with the disclosure of disability and the Admissions process, this is where students who have difficulties need to be identified and some frank conversations had about the realities of career they are choosing. Schools and Colleges should also be playing a part in this. Mature students seem more clued up about their capabilities. This isn’t about stopping anyone from doing a degree, but as someone who has reasonable adjustments themselves I feel justified in saying it’s about being reasonable about your reasonable adjustments.

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