Today's call (The Guardian, 18 January 2019) by universities minister Chris Skidmore for universities to do more to improve support for disabled students is a welcome boost in moving further toward an education system that offers genuinely equal opportunities.
Perhaps the most important thing to highlight is the minister’s insistence that universities have a “collective responsibility to break down these barriers one by one and make our universities work for everyone”.
There are many ways to improve support for disabled students that are holistic, joined up and seamlessly piggyback on existing priorities and initiatives.
As far back as 2010, Ofsted's special special educational needs and disability review identified that: “Where the best teaching was seen, the need for excessive additional interventions was reduced, enabling the most specialist staff to have more time to provide additional support for the smaller group of children and young people who were the most in need.”
In other words, where barriers can be shrunk, smaller ladders are required to get over them. Improved support for disabled students is not necessarily about putting more interventions in place. It might be about reducing barriers to learning in the first place.
Kent’s Opera project (Opportunity, Productivity, Engagement, Reducing barriers, Achievement), supported by Jisc, rethought how best to help students with a disability.
Instead of the traditional method of asking students to declare a disability and then providing bespoke assistance, Kent adopted a proactive approach that anticipated student requirements. One staff member explained,
“The Opera project has achieved one of the most difficult things of all – making the support we have invisible, which means that students do not have to ask for help because we have anticipated the most common requirements and put them in place for everyone."
Using technology effectively
Many of the interventions are very straightforward. Crucially, many can be made easier by involving technology, although not necessarily bespoke or expensive tech.
Used effectively, learning platforms and virtual learning environments (VLEs) are an assistive technology.
I’m a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Assistive Technology that recently published a report on accessible VLEs and some of the key recommendations about staff digital skills would fit effortlessly into existing digital capability programs.
Meanwhile, existing mainstream tools, such as Office 365, have excellent accessibility and productivity features built into them. Browsers have a range of brilliant accessibility plug-ins, many of the e-books and journals that students access are available in formats that offer a wide range of personalisation opportunities, and most students’ mobile phones have helpful accessibility features that can reduce barriers and improve productivity.
Spreading the word
The problem is one of knowledge. Are the digital skills of the staff who support students sufficient? Who supports students to acquire the digital skills that will help them be independent and flexible beyond their course and into employment?
Another challenge lies in lack of investment, and university leaders should consider whether they have allocated sufficient resources to deliver on their obligations. Many support staff, for example, are reporting high levels of stress due to their workload, performance targets and restricted budgets. Appropriate staff training is also vital.
Digital accessibility is not difficult but it does require effective contextualised training appropriate to different staff roles.
A holistic approach
Nobody disputes the importance of improving support for disabled students, but a holistic approach has to be taken, which is why this call for action by the universities minister is a great step in the right direction.
Reducing digital barriers caused by uninformed procurement, inaccessible documents, a monoculture of text-based resources, lack of staff training and resources and the absence of student digital skills must be considered as part of the bigger picture.