The Disability Discrimination Act has concentrated attention on the needs of disabled students, but while managers in finance and estates departments shake their heads over the costs and logistics of making awkward buildings accessible to wheelchair users, disabled students often have more subtle needs that are easy to overlook.
Many students are anxious not to be seen as different and some do not regard themselves as disabled. "I just have a problem" is a common statement. The problem may be a hearing loss that means they are reliant on lip reading, or a painful back condition that makes sitting through consecutive lectures an endurance test. Many disabilities are not obvious and the last thing students want is to draw attention to them. "It's that guilt thing," one student says. "We're ashamed of being disabled."
This means they may not contact the disability officer or ask for support until a crisis looms. Misunderstandings can then arise. Lecturers are suspicious when someone who looks the picture of health says they have a disability that is affecting their studies. A brusque response when someone has struggled to admit they need help can have a hugely negative effect and some students even drop out if they feel their request has not been listened to.
This is why it's very important that busy staff make it clear they are approachable. Lecturers need to be aware that among the groups they teach there may be someone struggling to see or hear, or someone in chronic pain or suffering the intense fatigue of multiple sclerosis or ME. They can remind students at timely intervals that support is available and that it can be provided discreetly. It should also be apparent that this is an everyday aspect of the institution, not a favour graciously bestowed. After all, it may just be a matter of a student feeling able to ask for copies of overhead projector sheets before a lecture. Relatively simple things, and above all understanding, make a huge difference to disabled students.
Jill Nicholls works in student services, Swansea Institute of Higher Education.