Name it and claim it: disclosing your disability at university

Every student deserves the help they need to achieve their full potential. At AbilityNet we are passionate about equipping disabled students with the information they need to take the first steps towards a fulfilled university experience: naming your disability and claiming the support. 

Naming your condition

The social model of disability is being implemented across Female student carrying books and backpack wearing headphonemore and more HEIs as the focus shifts from support for individual impairment to anticipatory, universal considerations. Whilst this is incredibly positive, it is still often disclosure that ensures disabled students gain access to the support they need, therefore encouragement of disclosure early on remains a priority. HEI’s with a particularly noteworthy practice offer open days where students can meet the disability teams prior to applying and publicise definition of disability to help students self-identity and realise they might be eligible for support.

Students with invisible conditions might have difficulty disclosing their disability more than others due the stigma attached to seeking support, lack of understanding surrounding the condition, a reluctance to accept or recognise their symptoms and a feeling that they do not deserve extra support. 

Out of 38,000 surveyed UK students almost nine in ten said they struggled with feelings of anxiety. A student interviewed in a January 2019 Department for Education survey sums up the stress of trying to manage alone, and the importance of disclosing to access support: “I was in the position that I was gradually losing more and more time because I was either feeling depressed so I couldn’t really focus on things or was feeling tired and couldn’t focus on things… being encouraged to disclose that and being able to put in place mechanisms to deal with that has made all the difference.”

Claiming support

Over half (54%) of disabled students said they would not feel confident without the support their university provides, according to the DfE survey.

Satisfaction with the support is generally high, but the problem lies with knowing what is available and how to access it. Over three-quarters (85%) of surveyed students are aware that some form of support is offered, but this number drastically reduces when looking at specific types of support. For example, only a quarter of disabled students were aware that assistive technology is available and merely 3% realised they could be eligible for extra time for their deadlines/exams.

In this piece we hope to illuminate some of the benefits of disclosing your disability, and spread the word about the crucial support available to those who do: 

Personalised Learning Plan

The earlier your higher education institution knows about your disability, the sooner you can discuss a personalised learning plan and arrangements can be made to ensure your course is accessible to you. It also ensures there is support at hand in times of crisis. You can search for the contact details of disability advisers at colleges and universities throughout the UK here.

In 92% of 137 education providers, alternative assessment methods were provided for disabled students. These might range from written assignments in place of exams, allowing a presentation in front of a smaller group or just the tutor, allowing a video presentation in place of a personal presentation to changing from written to oral assignments if necessary. 

The below student interviews carried out in the DfE survey reveal just how crucial such considerations can be to a student’s academic success, and their confidence: 

“The first year I did a couple of presentations just in front of the assessor and that really improved my marks, but in the second year I felt a bit more confident so I did them in front of the group…so I’m really pleased with that” undergraduate, mental-health condition.

“It’s made things easier. Lecturers don’t put me on the spot to come up with an answer because it’s in my learning contract to not put me on the spot” – undergraduate, specific learning difficulty.

Dependent on your individual needs, your learning plan might also include accommodations such as extra time, the use of assistive technology in exams, deadline extensions, flexibility with timetables, receiving lecture notes in advance, personal note-takers and course content in accessible formats (e.g e-books and braille). 

Assistance applying for DSA

Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) is a UK Government grant which provides extra specialised, personalised support to disabled students in Higher Education. 

There is a strong link between the receipt of DSA and higher satisfaction with support offered by the higher education institution, with 62% of DSA recipients being satisfied with their university support. This highlights that support from both sources is integral to ensuring that disabled students succeed in higher education.  

However, as many as 40% of disabled students are missing out on crucial support through DSA, according to the DfE survey. It was revealed that students who considered applying ultimately chose not to because they either did not know how to apply, did not consider the support ‘worth the hassle’, didn’t think they were eligible or did not want to go through the assessment process. 

The disability support team can not only make you aware of the extra funding available to you, but they are also able to guide and support you through the DSA application process, helping to ensure it does not become overwhelming: “Because of the systems in place at [Name of HEP] I had assistance filling in the form. The staff advised me the best way to give evidence and told me what was required so I didn’t give too much or too little information. I was guided in the process. It was a vulnerable time back then”

It should also be noted that Disabled Students’ Allowance is completely confidential, and there is no requirement to have your disability disclosed to your higher education institution in order to receive it. 

Assistive Technology

One in five students use assistive or adaptive People sat in a row taking notestechnologies, often by choice rather than necessity, according to a 2018 survey, and three quarters (78%) of all students use recordings of lectures. What this tells us is that assistive technology is not exclusively a disability issue, but rather a requirement of a diverse digital age which has seen us all develop unique ways of learning and living, making it essential to inclusivity. 

Lecture capture, which makes recordings of lectures available online, is one of the most prominent steps towards inclusion in higher education. Students are able to revisit and process the lecture at their own speed, making it an indispensable learning and productivity tool to all students. 

However, a rigid and traditional measure of excellence remains in higher education, causing concern that lecture capture encourages laziness, reducing student attendance and engagement. As of 2017, 96% of surveyed HEIs that used lecture capture only used it to record some of their lectures. This means there is still the need for individually allocated equipment such as Dictaphones and specialist software to help with note-taking in lectures. Here are five technology ideas we’ve shared to help universities be more accessible.

On average the vast majority (94%) of institutions have specialist software as part of their mainstream IT provisions to students, with speech recognition and recording software most likely to only be available to students with a disclosed disability. This type of support is not always widely promoted and seeking it out can be difficult, but there are a range of free, accessible and mainstream apps which can afford students more independence and help them hack their learning

An inclusive approach…

HEIs are focusing more on removing disabling barriers in order to ensure course design, delivery and teaching is completely inclusive and accessible to disabled students. Despite this, the medical model of disability, the attitude that disabled people need to adapt to fit in with ‘normal’ expectations, can still be found in the long-standing academic tradition. Whether that be encouraging tutors to diversify teaching methods, increasing the implementation of universal assistive technology or signposting support as more generally available to all students, just over half (58%) of surveyed disabled students felt their institution took an inclusive approach, showing that there is definitely room for improvement.

AbilityNet offers a range of expert resources to support education service providers and anyone else who wants to help students with disabilities to achieve their goals in education.