Why I...think disabled research students need more support

September 10, 2004

" In theory, research study with a physical-mobility impairment should be easier than undergraduate study. However, in practice it is much harder. Research study is a lonely, isolating and anxious experience at the best of times. Doing it with an impairment multiplies those factors ." - A PhD student.

When someone meets a disabled candidate who wants to embark on postgraduate research, they may well think that the student has resolved most issues around disability and study. If graduates have survived the educational system so far, it would appear that they have all the tools to enable success at a higher level. Not only that, but staff may believe that they come fully equipped with assistive technology, personal learning strategies and understanding of their support requirements, acquired through previous study in higher education. From that perspective, it may seem unnecessary and possibly detrimental to the independence of a research student to make any adjustments to policies and practice from admissions and induction to completion of thesis, viva and career planning.

What disabled students have repeatedly said in interviews and questionnaires is that the research experience is different from their undergraduate and taught postgraduate lives. Research study has a different impact on disabled students: the issues are unique, and the solutions they and those advising, supporting, supervising and examining them have found are different from those they employed at undergraduate level.

Accessibility is about much more than physical entry to a building and the height of desks. What students have highlighted are the many ways that attitudes, language, ignorance, misunderstanding, fear and institutional and individual inflexibility can create barriers. According to one PhD student: "Although I am more than capable at the academic and teaching part, I do need support and if that isn't in place, I am not efficient. I am made incapable - I am disabled."

These are some of the issues they have identified: inaccessible information about research opportunities; fear of disclosure; slow processing of funding for learning support so that induction programmes are missed; inflexible registration procedures; lack of support and guidance on planning of research activities; exclusion from informal learning opportunities because of access issues; reluctance of supervisors to discuss the most appropriate way to provide support; unrealistic deadlines for those using assistive technology; lack of understanding of alternative approaches to research activities employed by some disabled students; impenetrable research terminology; lack of imaginative support to make conference attendance possible; and placing the onus on students to make the necessary adjustments.

Students have also been quick to identify best practice. Where there is a partnership between students and staff to dismantle barriers, the research experience can be very productive. One PhD student commented: "Everyone within the department with whom I have contact has been very welcoming, accepting and respectful, and for the first time in my academic career I have felt included on an equal basis, which has been fantastic."

Legislation obliges staff to anticipate the requirements of disabled students at all levels of study. It is essential to create an accessible research environment so that the best research candidates are able to participate and succeed. Staff who work with research students need to find the appropriate type and level of support and guidance to enable students to succeed. To provide a clear map does not mean that the student cannot travel independently. Such support does not undermine standards.

Val Farrar and Penny Warin Premia are project officers at Newcastle University.

Premia, a Higher Education Funding Council for England-funded project based at Newcastle University, has a national remit to improve provision for disabled postgraduate research students through developing careers and training materials, including online resources, for staff and students. Premia researchers spoke to students from a range of universities. For information, contact val.farrar@ncl.ac.uk


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