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. Our equality and diversity data shows that between 2010 and 2017, the proportion of students in England self-reporting a disability increased from 8.1 per cent to 13.2 per cent. 

The most common type of disability is a cognitive or learning difficulty, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (5 per cent of students in 2017-18).

Our data shows that the proportion of full-time, first-degree undergraduate students disclosing a mental health condition has also increased rapidly in recent years, from 0.6 per cent in 2010-11 to 3.2 per cent in 2017-18.

Despite this, disabled people remain underrepresented in higher education.

We also know that undergraduate disabled students are doing less well than non-disabled students in terms of continuing their course, degree attainment and progression into highly skilled employment or postgraduate study.

Why is this important?

  • Compared to non-disabled students, a slightly lower proportion of disabled students continue their course (our data shows there is a 0.9 percentage point gap).
  • According to a study in 2017, two thirds of participants with a declared mental health condition thought about dropping out of higher education. This compares with one third of those who did not have a declared mental health condition.
  • In 2017-18, there was a 2.8 percentage point gap between the proportion of non-disabled and disabled students achieving a good degree. One of our key performance measures is to close this gap by 2024-25.
  • Disabled graduates are also less likely to progress onto highly skilled employment or postgraduate study (our data shows a 1.8 percentage point gap).

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 across the student lifecycle for disabled students, including access, continuation, attainment and progression.

Provider-level data can be found on our access and participation data dashboard.

We also expect providers to collect data on disaggregated disabled student groups, at a minimum those with mental ill health, specific learning difficulties and physical impairments.

Providers may consider disaggregating further disability categories to gain a more thorough understanding of the gaps for particular disabled student groups.

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.

The social model was developed out of an understanding that disability is not something medical to be treated but a failing on the part of society. A social response to disability is therefore not about ‘fixing’ the individual but about restructuring environments and attitudes around them.

We encourage providers to build inclusive practices into their structure and operations. This means that fewer reasonable adjustments will be needed over time and where adjustments are needed, providers can be much more responsive to individual needs.

The Disabled Student Sector Leadership Group's 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.

A follow up review in 2019 found that universities and colleges have made positive progress towards moving to an inclusive social model of support, but that moving to an inclusive approach is not a short-term fix but a long journey.

The report found that providers are at various stages of this journey but found there were key elements which appear to align with positive change in this area. These include:

  • strong leadership
  • a holistic approach covering all students, and involving shared responsibility across the provider
  • collaboration within providers between core disability services and across all staff groups
  • balancing inclusive approaches with tailored support for individuals
  • encouraging disclosure across the student lifecycle
  • improving accessibility to services, digital resources and estates
  • giving students a voice and involving them in the creation of services
  • focusing on mental health and wellbeing
  • ensuring adequate resources
  • harnessing technology.

We encourage providers to engage with disabled students on their activities to support them.

The Institute for Employment Studies’ 2019 report for the OfS found that universities and colleges are increasing their engagement with students in this area, including through students' unions, surveys and focus groups.

Giving students a voice and involving them in the creation of services was identified in the report as a key element for positive change.

The University of Bristol’s 'Getting things changed' report found that co-production with disabled students is essential for making positive change, with good allies and people in positions of power listening, interacting and being flexible.

The report recommends that providers reinforce the social model of disability through disability equality training co-created by disabled staff and students.

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.

Find out more

Good practice examples from providers

The university has introduced automatic video-recording of all lectures.

Recordings are available to all students, not just those with a disability or personal learning support plan, and the university monitors usage. Their latest data shows that at least half of all students had accessed a lecture recording in the past year.

Recordings are felt to enhance the learning experience particularly for widening participation students, international students and those for whom English is not their first language.

The lecture capture system allows students to add bookmarks to recordings to highlight important sections, to add notes to assist their learning, and also to share bookmarks and notes with their peers.

The university is now looking at enhancing the ability to caption videos for hearing-impaired students by starting a project to use linguistic students at the university to do the captioning. This would keep the process in-house and help to reduce the costs.

The following strategies used by the Open University (OU) focuses course designers on the implication of curriculum design decisions on specific groups of students.

Reader and reviewer guide

The reader and reviewer guide invites comments and feedback from internal and external reviewers of their programme material.

It includes an equality, diversity and inclusivity checklist of issues and questions that act as prompts to ensure that a broad range of students are considered.

This guide builds on the idea of a checklist used by staff at course validation. It is used by teams to prepare materials before the course is rolled out.

The idea is transferable to colleagues offering online learning materials and in contexts where colleagues are involved in peer reviews of teaching.

It can also be used by students evaluating the inclusivity of their teaching and learning.

Student profiles

In this piece of work, descriptions of hypothetical students act as a basis for individual consideration and/or group discussion about the implications of curriculum design decisions.

These profiles cover a range of student requirements and allow those designing courses or offering information, advice and guidance services to reflect on possible barriers and enhance the pre-entry information they provide.

Last updated 02 January 2020
02 January 2020
Content updated

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