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How can the HE sector achieve authentic change for disabled students?

12 Aug 2021 | Hannah Borkin Between May and June 2021, the Disabled Students’ Commission conducted a survey with a total of 473 disabled students, exploring the impact of Covid-19 on their student experience in higher education. Hannah Borkin, mixed-methods Researcher at Advance HE, looks at some of the key takeaways from the research.

On 23 March 2020, when the government announced the first nationwide lockdown, a rush to a remote higher education infrastructure required all students to continue their studies from home for the foreseeable future. For disabled students, the immediate impact of this shift was not yet clear – and in June 2020, a number of roundtables held by the Disabled Students’ Commission (DSC) helped to uncover both the barriers and benefits caused by this novel setup. During the roundtables, disabled students mentioned that some of the support they had been offered as a result of the pandemic was the same support they had been requesting months and years earlier, and previously told was not possible. It showed that there was (and always had been) scope for positive change.  

Following on from the roundtables, the DSC published Three Months to Make a Difference, outlining key areas that presented challenges for disabled students. While in the coming months the DSC will be seeking to understand whether recommendations arising from the report have been actioned, it is clear that the pandemic is exacerbating existing inequalities and disabled students continue to face barriers.

To thus uncover the ongoing impact of the pandemic on disabled students’ experiences, the DSC disseminated a survey in May and June 2021, which was completed by 473 disabled students. The survey explored a range of aspects of the student lifecycle, from transition to employment.

Where was impact felt most deeply, and was it always negative?

According to results from the survey, it was clear that impact was felt across all aspects of the student experience, and in some cases, a negative impact in one area (such as mental health and wellbeing) was compounding others.

Disabled students entering higher education for the first time during Covid-19 struggled, and for many, excited expectations of their first year at university failed to materialise. Worryingly, disabled students on the whole were offered few opportunities to familiarise themselves with the university campus, with nearly half of all students offered no opportunity for a campus tour to aid navigation around buildings and facilities. Nearly three quarters of students felt that their transition was negatively impacted by Covid-19.

Views on the remote teaching and learning experience were mixed, and often varied by impairment type. While some disabled students enjoyed the greater flexibility of learning at their own pace, others encountered barriers – particularly pronounced for students with a learning difference such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or AD(H)D. Overall, disabled students supported a move to a blended learning approach, rather than altogether remote – most likely to address and accommodate a range of support requirements.

Interestingly, disabled students expressed much more positivity around remote assessment, and felt strongly that universities should continue to provide a choice of assessment methods to demonstrate learning outcomes. However, a cautious and consultative approach needs to be taken here – some disabled students mentioned that the introduction of open-book examinations in turn saw their reasonable adjustments (such as rest breaks) either limited or taken away altogether. It highlights that some policy change, while intended to be positive, will not work with a blanket approach.

The deterioration to disabled students’ mental health and wellbeing is bleak, as it has been for so many students during the pandemic. 80% of all disabled students reported that Covid-19 had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing, and was also affecting situations such as their capacity to apply for future employment opportunities. Students with a pre-existing mental health condition were also more likely to say that Covid-19 had impacted negatively on their mental health and wellbeing.

What’s next?

The DSC purposely chose to explore a wide array of the student experience, to provide a holistic overview ahead of conducting further qualitative research in August 2021. Despite its broader scope, the results felt no less diluted and in the majority of cases, mirrored stark research findings that are beginning to emerge from a number of charities and organisations focused on supporting disabled students. While there are areas that are of real cause for concern, such as the mental health and wellbeing of disabled students, the fact that findings match up across the sector should no doubt create a catalyst for change and we know - from disabled students’ previous feedback - that this change can most certainly be achieved at both a cultural and policy level.

Importantly, a high number of participants to the survey praised the role of academics and disability support staff in communicating any actions taken with them during the pandemic. They also noticed a greater empathy and understanding of their disability from across the university, and fervently hoped this would continue. Authentic and regular communication is key, and disabled students must be consulted regularly if, and when, changes are made. At the time of publication of Three Months to Make a Difference, there were just three months before the new academic year started. With little more than a month this time around, it is even more vital that the disabled student experience is addressed by institutions and policy makers as campuses begin to fully re-open.

Download Exploring the impact of Covid-19 on Disabled Students' experience


Hannah Borkin is a mixed-methods researcher at Advance HE, and has led on numerous projects pertaining to equality, diversity and inclusion. She is the lead researcher for the Disabled Students’ Commission.


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