Diversity & Inclusion 4: Supporting Disabled Students

Diversity & Inclusion

Briefing Notes by Dr. Siobhán Holland (St. Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill )

Students with physical disabilities are likely, in the first instance, to outline their needs to a Disability Officer at institutional or faculty level. Yet their student experiences will be defined by how they are treated by their peers, lecturers and departmental structures and by what they achieve on their degree programme. As lecturers, then, we need to identify positive strategies for supporting students with disabilities as they engage with disciplinary debates.

By law (under the Disability Discrimination Act, part four), departments and individual lecturers are obliged to make ‘reasonable’ adjustments to their practices to enable students with disabilities to participate fully in curricular activities. Students are entitled to expect teaching materials to be designed and deployed in such a way that few if any changes should be required to meet their needs. Students with dyslexia, for example, might reasonably expect to find that handouts are routinely printed on coloured paper in sans serif fonts, and that lectures can be made available in print or audio formats.

Students have a basic right to assume that resources and practices are accessible. It is illegal, for example, to put students in a position where they have to ask repeatedly for the implementation of changes that will give them proper access to the intellectual challenges of course content.

In order to comply in full with the letter and the spirit of the legislation, it will be useful for lecturers to engage in a systematic departmental ‘access review, involving the re-evaluation of assessment practices, access to the written word (notices, texts, the written word in classroom activities, lecture handouts), access to visual images, access to the spoken word and access to web materials An access review would need to take psychological health issues into account and it would also provide an opportunity for colleagues to ensure that they are providing the best possible support for students from other under-represented groups. A review exercise is likely to draw attention to issues on which more information is needed (dyslexia is perhaps the topic which has provoked greatest debate in the English subject community).