Professor Geoff Layer is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton and Chair of the Disabled Students' Sector Leadership Group. In this blog, he discusses how we might adopt a more inclusive approach to support disabled students in higher education.
Universities once existed for the elite and higher education was considered a viable option only for a select few. The same cannot be said today and HE is on a journey to ensure that it is accessible for every member of society, no matter their background. Inclusivity is the key focus of today’s agenda and a lot of progress has been made, but not enough. We must take up the challenge to continue this progress.
Ensuring every student has the ability to succeed in HE
One of the key challenges in the arena of inclusivity is that of ensuring that every student has the ability to, not only access, but to succeed in HE and a particular group of students that we need to be thinking about are disabled students. Traditionally, the model of support adopted by universities for disabled students has been that of providing additional support when particular learner needs have been identified, through making a form of intervention in support systems. Whilst DSA has undoubtedly been vital for the students requiring the support, and there has been much research conducted to assess this, it is a deficit model of education as it requires support to be added on for the student according to their particular needs.
The outcomes of a review of DSA guidance and regulation in 2015/16 led to the need for inclusive education being placed where it belongs - within universities. The onus is now, rightly, on universities to consider how to remove barriers to student progress by looking at changes required in pedagogy, curriculum design and teaching approaches, as well as the more practical issues such as campus accessibility. We need to cater for the diversity of our students but also to make sure that we look at both educational and personal support needs.
Supporting disabled students in a more inclusive approach
I was pleased to be involved in leading the work of the Disabled Students Sector Leadership Group, which was commissioned by the Department for Education in 2016 to look specifically at developing guidance for universities in driving institutional change to support disabled students in a more inclusive approach, which would address issues on a holistic scale by making changes to the system and thereby improving social mobility.
Some steps that can be taken to begin to make the necessary changes can be implemented with technology, for example using a virtual learning environment as a repository of teaching materials, using lecture capture technology and ensuring that specialist software is available on open access PCs (rather than only providing individual laptops for certain groups of students).
Some of the actions that we can take are more about how we can engage students as learning partners, such as involving them in the negotiation of assessment styles and working with students to be guided on what changes in teaching practice can be introduced to alleviate difficulties. You can see how these changes in practice will not only help to support disabled students, but also that they can benefit all students. It will move us away from a system where we are drawing attention to students with disabilities or Specific Learning Difficulties by having to implement individual support mechanisms and, although it is inevitable that there will still be instances where this is needed, it takes us further down the path of fulfilling our duty of improving access to and success within HE for all students.
Geoff Layer is a keynote speaker at Advance HE’s annual EDI conference for equality, diversity and inclusion.