December 10, 2023

A joined-up approach to supporting disabled students

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Disabled students still face significant disadvantage compared to their non-disabled peers – but a new report, launched today, proposes a collaborative approach that embraces digital technology, working towards a more inclusive university experience for all. 

The cross-party think tank, Policy Connect, and the Higher Education Commission today launch ‘Arriving at Thriving: Learning from disabled students to ensure access for all’. This report recommends steps for government and university leaders to take to improve the experiences of disabled students, supporting young people to progress from the classroom to the workplace. 

Driving positive change

In evidence gathered since July 2019, many of the disabled students surveyed said they aren’t fully able to access teaching and learning. A quarter (26%) of 513 respondents rated the accessibility of their course as just 1 or 2 out of 5. The same number said they ‘always’ or ‘often’ feel excluded from social activities because of a lack of disability awareness.  

To drive positive change, one of the inquiry report’s 12 recommendations is that universities should appoint a senior leader with direct responsibility for the experiences of disabled students. Without greater accountability, the report finds, practical support can vary widely, even within a single institution. 

Higher education providers are also advised to consider feedback from three quarters of those surveyed, who said their institution failed to provide any pre-enrolment transition support specifically for disabled students. Providers are also urged to address the concerns of the 77% that said they received no tailored careers advice, work placements, or information about transitioning into employment or further study.

Digital plays a critical role

Lord David Blunkett, co-chair of the inquiry, comments: 

“Having had personal experience of being a student without sight, I understand the challenges all too well. While huge strides have been made in terms of accessibility, there is still more to be done. In order to make real change, we must listen to disabled students themselves, and learn from them to find solutions to the barriers they face. This report demonstrates that, when we listen, improvements can be made – and never more so than today.” 

Jisc CEO, Paul Feldman – a member of the inquiry’s steering group – adds:   

“COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of technology in enabling widespread access to education, and this report shows that, for disabled students, digital plays a critical role in delivering a successful and inclusive university experience. Many disabled students still face barriers, and some still don’t have full access to teaching and learning. That is unacceptable given the technology that could support them is readily available.” 

Paul continues: 

“I am glad Jisc has played such an active role in this inquiry, building on the professional advice we provide to universities in the use of assistive technologies. There are great examples of innovation in the HE sector, but there is more to be done.

I particularly support the inquiry’s recommendation that universities should review disabled students’ access to teaching and learning. This is crucial in supporting educational attainment and boosting outcomes, and should be viewed part of every institution’s inclusion agenda.” 

Listening and learning

Jisc recently collaborated with the University of Dundee’s department of computing to develop an MSc in educational assistive technology (EduAT)1. The course launches in January 2021, delivering training for staff and accessibility practitioners. Jisc’s specialist in assistive technology, Rohan Slaughter, collaborated on course design. He explains: 

“Our approach was to start by training a member of staff as an assistive technologist, creating an in-house expert to advise on the assessment, provisioning and ongoing support of assistive technology. That expert can then support all staff and help ensure students have access to equipment and software.” 

Student buy-in is also crucial, Rohan adds: 

“Involving students from the start – asking individuals what they want to achieve – is key to maintaining their engagement with assistive technology.” 

Greater support is needed, too. In Jisc’s survey of students’ digital experiences, which published September 2020, nearly a fifth (19%) of more than 25,500 university students said they use at least one of four specified assistive technologies (screen readers, dictation, alternative input devices and screen magnification)- yet nearly half (49%) of them said they have not been offered support to do so.  

Jisc’s equivalent survey of higher education staff will publish in November, and is expected to paint a similar picture: early findings indicate that while around 14% of HE teaching staff use at least one of the same four assistive technologies, only around four in ten said their organisation had offered support to use these.  

Time to take responsibility

Reflecting on their access needs, one student told the inquiry: 

“Lecture capture is absolutely vital for people who can’t attend lectures, who struggle to keep notes […] So often, academics are saying, ‘But if I implement lecture capture, the students won’t turn up.’ […] Regardless of that, I need this to be able to study, and if you choose not to implement it […] you are absolutely denying me access to the education facilities that I need.”

Responsibility for improving such experiences should lie with institutions, not individuals, the student added:

“So much of the time, the emphasis is put on the disabled student to try and get past those barriers rather than the university investing in actually training their academics to understand why we need them, fixing the facilities and actually making sure that those plans are implemented in full.” 

It’s time for change, as recognised by the Office for Students’ target to reduce the difference between the proportion of disabled students receiving 2:1s and 1sts compared to non-disabled students by 2024/252. The recommendations of this inquiry build on the progress made in recent decades, supporting universities as they embrace assistive technologies. This is an opportunity to deliver better experiences for disabled students, outlining a joined-up approach to improve the experiences of disabled students across the country.

Read more about the report on the experiences of disabled students and find out more about Jisc’s work to support universities to enhance the digital experiences of all learners


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