Disabled students

Under the Equality Act 2010, a person has a disability 'if they have a physical or mental impairment, and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities'. 'Substantial' is defined by the Act as 'more than minor or trivial'.

An impairment is considered to have a long-term effect if:

  • it has lasted for at least 12 months
  • it is likely to last for at least 12 months, or
  • it is likely to last for the rest of the life of the person.

The proportion of all students who disclose themselves as disabled is rising. In a five-year period leading up to 2015-16 the proportion of full-time, first-degree entrants with a known disability increased by 56 per cent.

The most common type of disability is a specific learning difference, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The proportion of full-time, first-degree undergraduate students disclosing a mental health condition has also increased rapidly in recent years.

Despite this, disabled people remain underrepresented in higher education and there are variations in the degree outcomes of disabled students compared with others.

Why is this important?

Effective practice

We encourage providers to consider different disabilities and the challenges posed by these disabilities when developing support for disabled learners. For example, students with different impairments, and within different impairments, will require different tailored support to address the barriers facing them. 

We expect providers to collect data on gaps based on impairment type and to engage with the sub-groups concerned when developing their access and participation plan. Data collection should also include gaps across the student lifecycle, including access, continuation, attainment and progression.

Providers should consider how to support disabled students in the context of changes to Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA).

We expect providers to go above and beyond ‘reasonable adjustments’ in supporting disabled students, in order to reduce gaps at all stages of the student lifecycle for this group.

To increase opportunities for disabled students, we encourage providers to consider the social model of disability, as outlined by The Disabled Student Sector Leadership Group.

This guidance outlines why change is needed and how this could benefit a higher education provider. It will also help providers to implement reasonable adjustments and reduce risk by providing inclusive teaching and learning. This approach recognises and values diversity within the student body.

A HEFCE 2017 review of models of support for disabled students in higher education provides information on an inclusive social model of support in higher education, which includes:

  • assistive technology
  • learning resources, including staff training and induction
  • inclusive learning in module and programme development and evaluation
  • alternative assessment methods for disabled students
  • counselling services and administrative processes to identify potential wellbeing issues accessibility plans for social/recreational space, teaching and learning facilities and accommodation.

Universities UK have developed a framework for a whole-provider approach to mental health, which emphasises student and staff involvement and using evidence.

The framework includes eight areas:

  • Leadership – including making mental health a strategic priority
  • Data – using evidence to identify gaps and effective practice
  • Staff – including training staff in mental health literacy and health promotion
  • Prevention – for example promoting healthy behaviours and providing tools for self-care
  • Early intervention – run campaigns to reduce stigma and encourage disclosure
  • Support – including a range of effective services and evidenced interventions, which are regularly audited
  • Transitions – for example, focusing on susceptible or vulnerable groups during transitions such as into employment
  • Partnership – including developing links with NHS, local authorities and third sector to coordinate care.

The OfS funding for disabled students has doubled in recent years, from £20 million to £40 million. This is to help the move towards a more inclusive model of education, and to support the growing number of students reporting mental health problems.

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