An ableist approach to disabled students?

Dr Andrea Macleod


AuVision Logo

Illustration by Callum Duckworth



It’s a lot of work being a disabled student. Disability legislation in the UK entitles students who have additional needs to a range of reasonable adjustments and support whilst they are studying, but they have to work for it. First, they need to provide evidence of diagnosis to support services and discuss what they might need. Relatively straightforward, and at least they are talking to a well-informed team who want to help. However, an independent assessment might be needed for verification – regardless of what paperwork they already hold –  and this might require them to travel to an assessment centre.

Hopefully this leads to a nice clear set of recommendations which the HEI can implement. However, support within higher education tends to be provided within the categories of equipment, medical help, non-medical help, study skills or most commonly, a combination of the above. In practice, this can mean that disabled students enter university for the first time and, as well as getting to know and be known by their academic team, they have to negotiate and even co-ordinate the help that they need from a team of different people, some of whom may be outside of university systems. The onus is on the student, as an adult, to take charge of this and keep relevant people informed of changes to their circumstances.

Yet we know that many of our students, disabled or not, are barely adult when they turn up to Welcome Week. For young people with additional needs, who have faced extra challenges during their school years, they may have maturity beyond their years in some aspects of their lives, but be developmentally young in other ways. In trying to do the best for our most vulnerable students, we may be finding ourselves inadvertently disadvantaging them further, by giving them extra work and extra responsibility, when their disability already means they most likely take longer to access the same information as non-disabled students.

Frustratingly, our systems are inherently ableist, requiring that students navigate innumerable forms and bureaucratic systems to access their legal entitlements, when many will struggle to do so because of the very thing that means they need to. No wonder that non-disclosure is an issue in higher education. Many students either decide not to disclose at all, or do not follow up an initial disclosure, which means that no support is put in place for them. As academics, we are all familiar with that growing realisation that one of our students has needs we were unaware of, and now we must quickly respond to a crisis situation and hope they can stay the distance while we try to get things in place. It’s a dilemma – as is the case everywhere, there is limited funding available and HEIs need to follow protocols in order to ensure the resources go to the right people. There will always be students who opt not to disclose, either because it’s too complicated or because they want to try and stay with the crowd, rather than risking immediately being ear-marked as different.

But there is a way we can make our own contribution to the levelling of the playing field. The legislation actually calls for institutions to ‘anticipate’ need:

“The duty is an anticipatory and continuing one that you owe to disabled students generally, regardless of whether you know that a particular student is disabled or whether you currently have any disabled students. You should not wait until an individual disabled student approaches you before you consider how to meet the duty. Instead, you should plan ahead and anticipate the requirements of disabled students and the adjustments that might need to be made for them. You are not expected to anticipate the needs of every prospective student, but you are required to think about and take reasonable and proportionate steps to overcome barriers that may impede people with different kinds of disabilities.” (Equality & Human Rights Commission, 2014, p.19)

Rather than assuming that no students have different learning needs until we are told otherwise, the suggestion here is that we should assume that every class contains at least one student with different learning needs. In fact, this is close to the truth. If you teach a class, you will have taught a disabled student, whether disclosed or undisclosed, visible or invisible, diagnosed or undiagnosed. This means that assuming your class to be diverse from the start is not just about upholding a legislative imperative – it makes good practical sense. If you are already taking an inclusive approach by making simple adjustments to your teaching practice, then at least some of those struggling students will struggle less, or not at all.

In many cases, this is not an onerous task, but involves simple tweaks to our teaching practice that can make all the difference to the student experience. Take the case of autistic students, a population that is growing steadily within our institution and within HEIs nationally. Autistic students may well have distinct and idiosyncratic needs, but they also share a set of common characteristics that can be anticipated. From a recognition that most autistic students will have high anxiety and some form of communication difficulty, we can know with some assurance that if we provide key information in a range of formats (written, verbal, visual), ensure that learning paths are predictable and that formative feedback is explicit, then we will help our autistic students to access and understand the information they need – and all of this also happens to be good teaching practice, so the benefit to students goes far wider than the original focus, especially in the modern HE environment which seeks to serve and support a student body that is diverse in every way. A case in point is our own AuVision project, for which we consulted autistic students at UoB about what help made the most difference to them in their studies. Often, what they described was surprisingly simple  –  small tweaks to teaching practice like those described above, that could be provided easily and could be useful for all students.

Of course, disabled students often have some very specific and individual needs. This is not to suggest that these should be disregarded or viewed as insignificant, but they should be recognised as only one part of the whole picture. By viewing our whole student group as diverse in every way, rather than as a homogenous group with some exceptions (an out-dated approach to say the least), we recalibrate our focus.  Recognising diversity enables us to also recognise what is shared, and thus inclusive practice becomes an achievable aim, rather than a complicated ambition.

Thanks go to Vikki Anderson and Rachel Hewett for their comments on a draft.

Dr Andrea MacLeod is Programme Director for Autism (Adults) and Webautism, and her research has focused on inclusive and participatory approaches in relation to autistic adults. She is based within ACER (Autism Centre for Education and Research).

As part of this, she led the AuVision project, which included the development of an online resource for University of Birmingham staff who teach and support students on the autism spectrum (the resource is open access so available for use by other HEIs):

Recent publication:

MacLeod, A., Allan, J., Lewis, A., & Robertson, C. (2017). ‘Here I come again’: the cost of success for higher education students diagnosed with autism. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 1-15.