With changes coming to Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) from September, universities in England need to make sure they’re prepared and able to support their learners.
One of the key impacts of the changes will be the removal of support for readers, scribes, proofreaders, study assistants, note-takers etc. It's the government’s view that:
“the higher education institution (HEI) should make any reasonable adjustments that may prove necessary, before DSA funded support is provided to an individual student”
and that critics of the scheme:
"failed to demonstrate that the barrier which the majority of [this] provision is designed to overcome could not be addressed by the higher education (HE) provider through reasonable adjustments”.
They have a point. Teaching and learning pedagogies, practices and technologies can inadvertently create barriers for students with disabilities. There are two responses to a barrier; ladders or sledgehammers. The DSA was a great ladder but tackling barriers at source – the sledgehammer - is better in the long term, even if more arduous and painful to begin with.
Breaking the shell
One of my literary heroes, Kahlil Gibran, speaks of pain as being the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding and it's particularly apt in this context. The DSA has been a lifeline for many learners and the concept should be protected fiercely but it had an unintended consequence.
It meant the responsibility for supporting disabled students fell on a very small group of people – mainly assessors and disability support teams.
If we can break the ‘shell that encloses our understanding’ we can recognise that an accessible learning experience is the responsibility of everyone - academics, course designers, network managers, study skills coordinators, e-learning teams, library teams and the student union. The policy makers who join them all together also play a critical role.
The journey to accessibility
I have been working with colleagues to consult with a wide range of organisations and communities of practice. Together we’ve explored how to identify and embed good practices.
Accessibility is a journey, not a destination so there are many paths to good practice. The tips below should help managers and leaders within an organisation join policy and practice in meaningful ways. In the context of inclusive practice it generally begins with three simple things: thinking, asking and acting.
Think big not smallAccessible practice is not ‘special kit’ for ‘special needs’. It's about good practice that benefits everybody by removing barriers that need not be there in the first place: so make sure it’s not just disability teams who have responsibility
Think as a learner, and mentally navigate the learner life cycleDoes the online prospectus meet accessibility standards? Can a learner change colours? Reflow text? Navigate instantly between sections? Do IT/library inductions include accessibility options or productivity tools like text-to-speech? Can you change assessment practices so that fewer ‘reasonable adjustments’ are required?
Think aheadModule specification procedures can anticipate and reduce barriers before you even clear a module for teaching – for example are all lecture notes in accessible format and available online? Are arrangements in place for lecture recording – formal or informal? Are practicals and assessments designed to reduce barriers by providing equivalent alternatives? Would you need to make fewer ‘reasonable adjustments’ for fewer learners if teaching and learning was more inclusive to begin with?
- Ask staff about their accessibility awareness – not just as lecturers but as employees and researchers as well. See a sample questionnaire template for guidance
- Ask learners about their accessibility awareness and experiences. See a sample student questionnaire for guidance
- Ask for a demonstration of the accessibility features when procuring new software or services, or ask which assistive technologies they’ve been tested with?
- Ask IT and network managers to ensure the mainstream tools they provide are optimised and can used to best effect – for example, that they include built in text to speech in Word, or appropriate browser plugins for Chrome
- Ask teaching staff to ensure they make their documents and presentations accessible.
- Familiarise yourself with our accessibility guidance, especially our guide to Supporting an inclusive learning experience in higher education. You may find it useful to incorporate it into your own guidance as the University of Kent has done with their guides for staff and students. See our accessibility blog for specific support on different aspects of good practice
- Bring together a steering group with people across a range of roles. Get them to check their current accessibility influence
- Ensure accessibility is integrated into all relevant policies (from library/e-resources to teaching and learning) and ensure the practical implications are clear.
Spring into action
Get in touch with your Jisc account manager to find out how we can support you – whether in advice and guidance or training for staff. Getting this right is not about firefighting funding cuts but improving institutional practice for everyone. It’s a real opportunity.