Strategies to improve flexibility for disabled students could benefit everyone, says Mick Healey.
Four years ago I knew nothing about teaching disabled students or the difficulties they faced, although I assumed student services units supported them. So when a colleague suggested we put a bid in for the Higher Education Funding Council for England's Improving Provision for Disabled Students programme, my initial reaction was "no way".
But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that we could use a similar model to one we had used in a Geography Discipline Network project. We had matched geographers with education developers working in the same institution. Here we would work alongside disability advisers.
I shall always remember Mike Adams, director of the National Disability Team, telling us at our national project conference how much he had enjoyed fieldwork on Bodmin Moor and in the Yorkshire Dales while at his residential school for disabled children in the late 1980s. But when he transferred into a mainstream sixth form, the geography teacher took one look at him and turned him down because he thought he would be unable to do fieldwork.
We learnt many lessons from the project. For a start, we realised that academics needed to be persuaded, not instructed, to make adjustments to reduce the barriers that disabled students face. Most lecturers are willing to support disabled students but fearful of not knowing what is best to do.
Listening to them is the starting point. Most have lived with their disabilities a long time and know what works for them. It is easy to assume that students with the same disability face the same barriers.
It also became evident that small changes could make a big difference. For example, using at least 12-point sans serif type on coloured paper (usually beige) benefits most dyslexic students. Many adjustments, such as giving instructions in writing and orally, benefit all students and not just those with a visual or hearing impairment.
The importance of giving disabled students a voice came home to me in a subsequent project at the University of Gloucestershire. Findings from 173 questionnaires and interviews with 20 disabled students revealed negative and positive experiences. Take the example of two arts students, both hearing impaired. One, "Bridget", said: "My hearing is just terrible and the lecturers know thisI but a visiting lecturer wouldn't. They tend to show slides. Because the projector is in the middle of the room, they're standing behind itI speaking to the screen."
The second student, "Kylie", had a more positive experience: "I take a Dictaphone with me into most lectures and I ask lecturers if I can have photocopies of their notes - and they are quite obliging."
We will be following up these and other learning experiences next year in an Economic and Social Research Council Teaching and Learning Research Programme project. This four-year research project is led by my colleague Mary Fuller in collaboration with the universities of Central Lancashire, Glasgow and Lancaster. We will investigate the learning experiences of disabled students in the four universities, from the time they enrol to the time they leave. The differences should help us better understand how to make appropriate adjustments to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001.
One unintended consequence of this legislation is that as departments and institutions introduce more flexible learning and alternative ways of assessment for disabled students, demand is likely to rise for flexibility for all students. Disability legislation may prove to be a Trojan horse, and in a decade, the learning experiences of all students may be the subject of greater negotiation.
As with many academic endeavours, the more I learn about supporting the learning of disabled students, the more I realise I have to learn about supporting the learning of all students.
Mick Healey is professor of geography at the University of Gloucestershire.
For further information on the Geography Discipline Network projects see www.glos.ac.uk/gdn