Disability provision failing

August 20, 2004

Universities are in danger of crudely categorising "disabled students" and failing to consider their individual needs, according to a research project carried out with geography students.

Tim Hall and Mick Healey of Gloucestershire University this week presented their research at the International Geographical Union Congress in Glasgow.

It shows that the majority of students with disabilities have not faced barriers to learning, but those who have faced barriers reported serious difficulties.

Professor Healey said there was a danger in creating a category of "disabled students" and devising general teaching, learning and assessment policies that might not meet a student's individual needs.

"Our research clearly shows huge variety within any one disability category," he said.

Different adjustments might be needed for students with identical disabilities, and it was crucial to discuss things individually, Professor Healey added.

He said that the project, run by the Geography Disciplines Network and funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, was the first survey of disabled students in geography, earth and environmental sciences.

One student with diabetes said: "The three-hour lectures could pose a problem if no break was given, as it's important for me to eat to avoid hypos. If they clash with lunch or dinner times, this can be awkward."

A student with dyslexia said the lack of slides and notes on the intranet meant "I have to take more notes and I find this difficult when I'm trying to concentrate on what is being said."

A student in a wheelchair because of a broken leg said he missed out on vital information because he could not get to some lectures. And a student with arthritis said: "I have experienced some difficulties in more accurate work that needs a steady hand."

Professor Healey said that trying to be more flexible to support students with disabilities would benefit all students. This was likely to include well-prepared handouts, instructions given in writing as well as verbally, notes posted online and a variety of types of assessment.

Staff should be as clear as possible to reduce the anxiety of students with mental health problems, for example, in advance of a field trip.

"They can say where it's leaving from, when it's leaving, where there will be toilet stops, and it can help everybody to have that information on a handout," he said.

Professor Healey, Dr Hall and Margaret Harrison have won the Journal of Geography in Higher Education 's second biennial award for promoting excellence in teaching and learning.

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