New research reveals tough situations for many disabled students

With Guest blogger: Alistair McNaught of McNaught Consultancy

Arriving at thriving? That is the upbeat title of the Higher Education Commission’s research into “learning from disabled students to ensure access for all”. But the content of the research report is far from upbeat. 

The report admits that “Many of our findings make hard reading, and we cannot shy away from the fact that our evidence demonstrates an unhappy situation for many disabled students.”

See below for details about our forthcoming webinar on Tuesday 27 October, 1pm, BST, where you can find out more about the report and learn about your next steps to address its findings.

Why so far behind?

The Disability Discrimination Act was penned 25 years ago. How are things still so problematic? In my own 16 years working in the sector, I have never met a disability support team that was not passionate about supporting disabled learners. Financial support is available through disabled student allowances, assistive technologies have been available for years. There’s a dedicated Office for Students. And the Public Sector Bodies Web Accessibility legislation now requires online content to be accessible, so what is going wrong?  

Mindset and maturity

The key to the problem is mindset and maturity. Many organisations still work on a deficit model of disability.

For example, if a student experiences problems accessing a resource, it is because the student’s disability creates the problem. It is not considered that the resource itself may be the problem. It's the equivalent of blaming a bumpy, uncomfortable ride on a car’s suspension rather than recognising that the potholes in the badly maintained road might have something to do with it. It is remarkable how smooth a journey can be on a good road, irrespective of the quality of your suspension. 

Two women sat at computer

Within further and higher education institutions, a student’s journey is significantly impacted by the “quality of their road”. As institutions have become more reliant on online learning, the accessibility of digital content has mattered more and more.

Of the 513 respondents to the Higher Education Commission survey, 26% rated the accessibility of their course as only 1 out of 5 or 2 out of 5. Others mentioned the heavy administrative burden of “having to apply for, be assessed for, organise and chase up the support they need” (page 7). The report notes how “levels of support and accessibility vary between institutions, departments, modules, and even individual teachers. Some students feel there is no accountability at their institution for ensuring they are able to access teaching and learning” (p6).

The report recommendations

The first 3 recommendations from the report focus on institution wide perspectives: 

  1. A senior leader taking responsibility and accountability for driving change.
  2. A review of disabled students’ access to teaching and learning carried out by a strategic group with representation from disabled students, the student services department, academic staff, and senior leadership.
  3. Access and Participation Plans including the training provided for academic and professional staff, describing how this addresses disability inclusion, and including metrics on how many staff are undertaking the training and how often. Training related to disability inclusion should be mandatory for all staff.

This is a critical time for higher and further education institutions.

Accessibility is not going to go away and the September 23 deadline for the Web Accessibility legislation marked the beginning of a paradigms shift, not the end. The first three recommendations from the Higher Education Commission report relate not to compliance but to culture – to an ongoing accessibility maturity.

Support in positively responding

The report formalises issues that many in the sector have recognised for a long time but lacked the platform to shout from. It does make hard – but vital – reading. It is a positive that the disparate and unpredictable experiences disabled students face daily are now on the table.

AbilityNet and McNaught Consultancy have spent months developing an accessibility maturity model to help organisations evidence their current level of accessibility maturity through a range of institutional lenses. We look at responsibilities, policies, strategies, student digital experience et cetera and flag practices that identify an accessibility mature organisation.

The HE and FE Accessibility Maturity Model can help your organisation assess where you lie along the spectrum between luck, tokenism, standards compliance, ownership and partnership. The model is free to download and we have an associated support and badging system whereby organisations can measure and evidence sustainable improvements. 

Download the report from the Policy Connect website [PDF].

Register for our free webinar

Join us for an overview of the 'Arriving at Thriving?' report, its challenges and potential solutions to help your organisation.

Date: Tuesday 27 October 2020
Time: 13:00 - 13:45

UPDATE: Webinar recording

You can now view the webinar recording, below:

Further resources