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Furthering disability equality for HE staff and students

20 Dec 2021 | Dr Peny Sotiropoulou and Hannah Borkin Peny Sotiropoulou and Hannah Borkin, mixed-methods researchers at Advance HE and co-facilitators of the event ‘Enabling equality: Furthering disability equality for staff and students in HE, summarise the main takeaways focusing on how to create meaningful change.

After the success of Advance HE's virtual insights event ‘Enabling equality: Furthering disability equality for staff and students in HE’, Peny Sotiropoulou and Hannah Borkin, mixed-methods researchers and co-facilitators of the event, summarise the main takeaways focusing on how to create meaningful change.

Background to the event

Responding to a climate wherein higher education (HE) providers are consistently challenged to value disabled staff and students in a way that goes beyond fulfilling the duties outlined in the Equality Act 2010, Advance HE was eager to hold an Insights Event to understand what progress has been made. With disability sometimes perceived as one of the lesser-considered protected characteristics, we decided it was crucial to bring together the voices of disabled staff and students’ under one (virtual) roof to better understand the common challenges and opportunities they face.

What were the key points raised?

Before we delve any further into the inspiring line-up of presenters and panelists, let us first give you a whistle-stop tour of the key messages from the day.

Firstly, we presented findings relating to disability from our Annual Equality Statistical Reports, the recently published results from our Postgraduate Student Experience Surveys, as well as primary research conducted on behalf of the Disabled Students’ Commission (DSC). There have been clear indications of change over the last decade, such as the increasing rate at which both staff and students are disclosing a disability, as well as the closing of the disability awarding gap. We also considered the ways in which Covid-19 has exacerbated the challenges faced by disabled staff and students, as well as the opportunities it has brought, such as remote working practices and increased flexibility overall.

Following this, a keynote was presented by Professor Geoff Layer, Vice Chancellor of University of Wolverhampton, Chair of the DSC and disability and access ambassador for HE, where he explored how the sector can go beyond fulfilling the duties outlined in the Equality Act 2010, and start to embed an inclusive learning environment and a culture of anticipatory reasonable adjustments. A panel consisting of two disabled staff members and two disabled students was then chaired by Kate Lister, Head of Academic Development at Arden University and wellbeing, disability and inclusion researcher at Open University. A frank discussion was held highlighting disabled staff and students’ lived experiences within HE.

The panel consisted of Emma Nadin, Chair of the Inclusivity Group at Loughborough University and member of the National Association of Disabled Academics Networks (NADSN); Amelia McLoughlan, Network Director of Disabled Students UK; Katherine Deane, Associate Professor of Healthcare Research and University of East Anglia’s Access Ambassador; and Beatrix Livesey-Stephens, Disabled Students’ Representative from the National Union of Students (NUS). Issues such as hybrid working and access to reasonable adjustments were raised and considered for staff. For students, the beneficial role of online teaching and learning was highlighted, but it was also clear that much more was needed to be done to make materials accessible. For both groups, these ‘opportunities’ were not a panacea, but rather a starting point for positive change.

How do we move forward?

Throughout the event, delegates were engaged in rich discussion about how the HE sector and senior leaders can accelerate the pace of change for disabled staff and students, agreeing that a joined-up approach was needed. If there was one clear theme that emerged above all, it was a need for actions to speak louder than words. As one delegate said, ‘we have the legislation, conventions, charters, policies etc. What will it take to get meaningful action and genuine access?’

Below we have outlined some of the key recommendations:

  • Furthering disability equality needs to be a collective responsibility, instead of disproportionately falling on the shoulders of disabled staff and students.
  • The process of disclosing a disability needs to be more inclusive and flexible, as well as less burdensome for the person who is disclosing. Delegates also suggested a move away from ‘disclosing’ to ‘sharing’ disabilities, to take some distance from terminology that might contribute to an environment of fear and stigma around disabled people.
  • Adding to this, to encourage positive disclosure, providers need to better manage expectations as well as make available clear timelines outlining when reasonable adjustments will be implemented.
  • We do not need to re-invent the wheel. On the contrary, HE should capitalise on scaling up existing pockets of good practice and focus on sharing guidelines around how barriers can be overcome. This could come in the form of an open-access resource hub, as well as providing more opportunities to conduct and showcase research.
  • HE must increasingly find ways to celebrate their disabled staff and student community, and to share the value that disabled people bring to education.
  • Disability inclusion needs to be more than a tick-box exercise and must go beyond data. For this to materialise, providers need to invest in the community through staff and student partnerships, co-creation and co-production of research. ‘Nothing about us without us’ as one of our delegates aptly put it.  
  • Senior leaders must consider ways to empower their disabled staff to set up Staff Networks, as well as provide more safe spaces and clear processes for students to raise issues and concerns.

After this event, we certainly felt reinvigorated and hope the sector feels the same sense of urgency in furthering disability equality for staff and students in HE.  


Advance HE runs multiple inclusive learning and teaching workshop series throughout the year. The next workshop series will begin in March 2022.

These workshops will offer practical advice, guidance, policy information, frameworks and toolkits to support positive change within departments, schools, faculties and institutions in areas such as race equality, challenging privilege, and dignity and respect.

Institutions/individuals looking to book multiple workshops in our Inclusive Learning and Teaching workshop series will receive a 10% discount when booking all five workshops. Each workshop can be attended by a different individual from the same institution. Find out more and book your place.


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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