Five lockdown lessons to improve support for disabled students

How has the Covid-19 pandemic changed the way that staff and students want to work in a higher education setting?

In our recent webinar Amy Low, AbilityNet’s Service Delivery Director, discussed with Dr Melanie Thorley, STAART manager and higher education disability expert, and Charlie Mayo, a recent graduate, their experiences of working and studying during the pandemic.

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In this blog article, we reflect on Charlie's and Melanie's experiences and the lessons from the pandemic which were highlighted in the Disabled Students UK ‘Going back is not a choice’ report

Five lessons learned about studying and working during lockdown

1. Resource Staff

Failings can arise in areas of resources and skill sets of higher education staff. Providing staff with training and time to execute, makes their practice more accessible and inclusive for their students. 

2. Build on attitudes

Many attitudes of students and staff have evolved and changed during the pandemic. Being able to introduce flexibility helps everyone as strict pedagogical arrangements are not always the best way forward.

3. Reduce administration

The administration burden for students to receive adjustments and support. It may not be a reflection of disability teams, but the adjustments needed of getting support in place and the workloads of that team. 

4. Take responsibility

Have a senior focused on disability inclusion and accessibility to make a massive difference. As an institution this should be owned and spoke about more widespread. 

In the webinar, Charlie praised his disabled student officer and said "if they were given a larger platform or given the opportunity to do lectures, they would help raise awareness" around the barriers which disabled students face and the support available to them. 

5. Listen to disabled students

There’s often much pondering by institutes over how to break down inclusion and accessibility barriers. Students and staff will have creative and easily implemented solutions if time is taken to draw them in to co-design solutions.

A staff member's experience - the spoon theory

Dr Melanie Thorley, from University of Greenwich, spoke of her experiences working during the pandemic in relation to the spoon theory. Many people with disabilities or chronic illness use the spoon theory to divide and prioritise their time and energy.

These spoons act as a currency: if you begin the day with 12 spoons and use 5 to commute to university in the morning you would've nearly used half of your spoons before lunchtime. Yet during the pandemic many like Melanie were working at home, so they did not need to use as many spoons on tasks such as commuting and could use that energy elsewhere.

Melanie also noted that some neurodivergent colleagues experience hypersensitivity meaning that some lighting, noises, textures, and smells can be offensive. However, when working from home they have some control over these factors.  

Removing neurodiversity barriers

Find out more about the barriers associated with cognitive differences and neurodivergent conditions, and how assistive technology can help. 

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A student's experience - assistive technology

A profile image of Charlie MayoCharlie Mayo, a student at the time, was halfway through his first year when the pandemic hit. Not only had Charlie moved from his hometown to being in London and experiencing university for the first time, but he also had to deal with a national lockdown. 

Charlie was undiagnosed with ADHD until his second year at university when he became aware of the Disabled Students' Allowances (DSAs) and applied for his assessment. He received a laptop with assistive technology and had a one-to-one session weekly with his mentor where he was able to just talk to someone freely for an hour, opposed to his online lectures and seminars.

Like many other universities, Charlie’s course started being conducted online when the pandemic hit. He was able to access recordings of lectures, including some additional ones from different modules and courses which furthered his learning. Recordings allow students with disabilities to have an equal chance to receive and process information, especially in regards to note taking.

Expectations of post lockdown changes to study and work

Despite the positive experiences of working and studying during the pandemic from Charlie and Melanie, some institutes are still not as flexible when it comes to how their students and staff want to work. 

In response to our webinar poll ‘Have students’ expectations changed post the height of Covid?’ these were the responses:

  • 39% voted 'Yes, and our institution has responded to this'
  • 29% voted 'Yes, and our instituion is struggling to adapt to this'
  • 6% said 'No, expectations seem broadly as they were'
  • 25% said 'I do not work or study at a university'

And the second poll asked 'Have staff members' expectations changed post the height of Covid?':

  • 51% voted 'Yes, and our institution/organisation has responded to this'
  • 33% voted 'Yes, and our instituion/organisation is struggling to adapt to this'
  • 8% said 'No, expectations seem broadly as they were'
  • 8% said 'I am not working or studying currently'

Poll results for Have students' expectations changed post the height of Covid? and Have staff expectations changed post the height of Covid?









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Further resources

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