Diversity & Inclusion

The experiences and needs of disabled students studying English

The experiences and needs of disabled students studying English

“How might learning for disabled students of English and Creative Writing  learning be facilitated either through pedagogical changes or use of technology?”


The gates were shut, and, by an impulse, he took from his pocket the lump of chalk which as a workman he usually carried there, and wrote along the wall:

‘I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you: yea, who knoweth not such things as these?’– Job xii. 3.

(Jude the Obscure, Part Second, Chapter VI)

Ensuring that people from a wide diversity of social groups get the opportunity to attend HE institutions has been at the heart of government initiatives on Higher Education throughout the first decade of this century. Equally important to government agencies has been the ‘retention’ within HE of such students. In the brave new world of competitive fees, these topics are arguably even more urgent.

Researchers classify barriers to participation in HE under three headings:

  • Situational Barriers, e.g. direct and indirect costs; loss or lack of time; distance from a learning opportunity, created by an individual’s personal circumstances.
  • Institutional Barriers, e.g. admissions procedures; timing and scale of provision; general lack of institutional flexibility created by the structure of available opportunities.
  • Dispositional Barriers, e.g. individual motivation and attitudes to learning possibly caused by a lack of suitable learning opportunities (e.g. for leisure or informally), or by poor previous educational experiences.
    Source: Review of Widening Participation Research (York, July 2006).

For good or ill, this issue is a political hot potato: barely a month goes by without the topic hitting the headlines, often in the most acrimonious terms. Together with ‘employability‘, it is the constant target of commentators concerned at what they see as instrumentalist elements in current education policy. Despite the public quarrelling, though — worries about ‘dumbing down’, claims of bias against pupils from independent schools — it’s hard to imagine many people quibbling with the guiding principle behind current initiatives: the strong feeling that, in the words of the 2003 White Paper, ‘We must make certain that the opportunities that higher education brings are available to all those who have the potential to benefit from them, regardless of their background.’

In the 1990s, the number of people going to university rose dramatically. The background of the new students, however, did not differ greatly from that of the students already in HE: participation had increased without broadening its social base, and many minority groups seemed effectively to have been excluded. In 1997, the Dearing report suggested ways in which funding might be linked to HE institutions’ activities in ‘widening participation’, paving the way for current initiatives such as the Office for Fair Access. HEFCE’s funding of HE is linked to the proportion of students from marginalised social groups attending the institution. HEFCE also allocates institutional funds according to numbers of students in receipt of the Disabled Students’ Allowance.

Target groups currently include disabled people, people from unskilled manual backgrounds, people with vocational qualifications, mature students and specific ethnic groups (Afro-Caribbean men and Pakistani and Bangladeshi women).

The thinking behind the initiatives of the last few years in this area echoes the ideals and concerns of many English departments. Social inclusiveness has a long history in our discipline, the roots of which are in nineteenth-century attempts to open up higher education to women and to working men. The study of ‘minority’ voices, meanwhile, is a major theme in the work of many English lecturers—as, too, are the socio-cultural mechanisms whereby certain social groups are marginalised and/or disadvantaged.

Inevitably, different departments will have different priorities and concerns, dependent on factors such as institutional context (government pressure is applied at institutional level), recruitment strategies (whether national or regional, full-time or part-time) and geographical location.

This area of the Subject Centre website brings together materials that should serve as a useful starting-point. At its heart are two Subject Centre publications: Staying the Course, the first report on the experience of disabled students of English, and a concise ‘seed guide’ on Inclusive Teaching in the discipline. Both of these publications make the key point that, with a few changes in teaching practice, it is possible for departments to improve the experience of ALL students, not just those from marginalised groups.

A selection of questions connected with diversity and inclusion may be found in the Pedagogic Research section of the website.