Blog: Disabled Students at University in Scotland

We very much welcome the latest Discussion Paper on Disabled Students at University from Sir Professor Peter Scott, the Commissioner for Fair Access in Scotland. The paper considers fair access to university in relation to representation, entrant trends, retention and degree outcomes for disabled students.  Lead Scotland is passionate about fair access and we started making a positive difference 40 years ago this year. 

The report highlights many pressing issues including a rise in the number of students declaring a mental health condition or Autism Spectrum Disorder, underrepresentation of disabled people at university, lower retention rates for some groups of disabled people and lower degree outcomes for disabled students.

Right from the beginning, we know that getting into university can be a challenge for some disabled people for a number of reasons. Year on year we receive more and more calls to our Disabled Students’ Helpline, highlighting systemic issues which require a coordinated all-sector response. Some callers tell us their school education has been interrupted due to a long term illness or health condition, or they have received a late or recent diagnosis of an impairment like Dyslexia or Asperger’s Syndrome and perhaps haven’t received the appropriate tailored support to learn at school.

Once at university, students have highlighted the ever present stigma attached to having long term impairments like a mental health condition or autism, so it can be very challenging to have the courage to speak up, single themselves out and ask for what many people refer to as ‘special treatment’. Of course it’s not special treatment, it’s being treated differently in order to be treated equally. Unfortunately, many disabled students we talk to don’t always view it like this, so they attempt to try and remediate the disadvantage they face by putting extra pressure on themselves to perform without the right support, which can result in burn out, worsening of a condition, deteriorating mental wellbeing and ultimately for some, leaving their course early. It’s therefore so important to disclose if you have an impairment or long term condition right at the start, and keep speaking up if you’re struggling and finding it hard to cope – for whatever reason. Read our blog on ‘ticking the box’ for more reasons as to why it’s so important to disclose.

But what about if these students are disclosing but are just not getting the right support? This is also a common issue we hear about on the helpline, and is a particularly challenging and entrenched problem to try and address. Some students have told us their lecturers have either refused to implement the reasonable adjustments (support) that have been agreed or are providing the support inconsistently or at the wrong times. Some students have told us their lecturers suggested they shouldn’t need extra ‘help’ because they’re studying at higher education level now and should be mature enough to cope. They have told us they experience long delays in accessing specialist equipment and education support workers, and are left to try and cope on their own for months before they get what they need to be on that level playing field alongside their non-disabled peers. It’s not surprising to hear then, that disabled students are having to leave their course early if the right support is not in place for them at the right time.

In-house staff training on supporting disabled students is essential and should be mandatory.  However at present, there is no requirement for staff to have knowledge or understanding of how to make teaching and learning inclusive and accessible for disabled people.

For 40 years we have been working on widening access to education and in 2016 we provided evidence to the Equality & Human Right Committee enquiry into ‘Disabilities and Universities’. We also recently set up an advisory group with the Scottish Funding Council, made up of cross sector professionals, disabled people and parents to look at how we can work together to improve disabled students’ outcomes at college and university.

There will be an opportunity to speak up on what you feel could result in real and lasting change for disabled students in the near future. Civil servants have been working hard behind the scenes to prepare for a review and public consultation of the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) and how well it is working to remove or reduce the barriers disabled students face. Brexit depending, this will hopefully go public in late spring or early summer, so watch this space. Lead Scotland will be consulting with students and families, so sign up to our newsletter to be kept up to date about upcoming opportunities to engage with this consultation.

In the wise words of Sir Peter Scott,

“There must be no let-up in the public focus on the disadvantage experienced by disabled students.”

An important call to action for the sector.