8 ways to make universities more accessible and inclusive

Video camera recording lecture for an accessible university experience

Written by Ian Carter, Student Services Manager, Brighton University

As a student services manager at Brighton University, my role includes responsibility for inclusive practice and disability, ensuring that disabled students can learn in the best possible environment across the university’s five campuses.

At least 11% of the UK University’s 24,000 students are registered disabled, meaning that eleven in every one hundred can currently have a disability advisor (http://www.sussex.ac.uk/studentsupport/disability) and funding to support their studies and extra provision.

But with government cutting back on disabled student funds, universities are having to make their environments more inclusive for disabled students in order to keep up or improve their reputation and maintain / increase student satisfaction.

Below there are some tips and advice for universities and staff looking to become more inclusive, from moving some module assessments online to allow students to take exams in their own time and by their own methods, and offering pre-term gaming nights for students on the autism spectrum to feel more at ease.

1. Check whether the learning environment is inclusive

Where possible we try to follow the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which means providing as many different options as possible for students with their learning, eg allowing students with anxiety to provide video recorded presentations or not assessing grammar and spelling for students with dyslexia.

We identify problems inherent in the curriculum. I.e., if there is only one assessment style for a course, for example – one three hour exam – this could provide complexities for large numbers of the cohort. Some students might require a room by themselves because they need to use speech-to-text to give their answers. Other students might have an assistant with them to help read questions. And we might need a separate hall for students with dyslexia to have extra time. The UDL model instead looks at removing barriers to make things inclusive for everyone.

2. Look at whether online assessments would be more appropriate

For some of the modules on our MBA – which attracts a very diverse mix of students in terms of age, background and disabilities – we now use an online assessment. We feel this suits the needs of a larger number of the students. These were previously three-hour open book exams. The assessment is open online for a whole weekend to give students in different time zones, some of who are working full time, the space to complete. It means those who need a reader or to use speech-to-text, or more time, can have it without us making extra provision.

Tutors also know the students and their abilities, so can use their own judgement on whether a student is capable of the work that’s been submitted. We’ve had brilliant feedback with doing this the last three years, and are now considering how appropriate this method might be for other open book exams.

3. Professional bodies might be more flexible about courses than you realise

A lot of courses are set by the professional standards bodies in those sectors, i.e. the National Council for the Training of Journalists sets the course outline for journalism courses. Departments often believe that these courses are unchangeable, but we’ve found that lots of professional bodies are very willing to have conversations about how the learning environment can be made inclusive.

For example, it used to be the case that all newspaper journalism students had to pass a shorthand exam. The Equality Act has helped open things up and promoted conversations about what is suitable for different students. It’s still the case that 80% of journalism students will pass their shorthand, but everyone recognises that there are other methods of note taking if the student struggles with shorthand because of a disability.

4. The National Association of Disability Practitioners (NADP) has a lot of learning to share

I’m one of thirteen directors of the NADP, which has around 1300 members. We use a JISC mail group for members where a lot of great advice and best practise is shared about how to support disabled students. We’ll share case studies and situations to glean knowledge of what’s working.

5. Make sure any new facilities are created with inclusivity in mind

Often we are tinkering around the edges with changing things within the current structure. But, in new and refurbished teaching rooms at the university we consider various lecture capture options so that more students can have easy access to lectures and lecture notes. We still have more than 300 rooms that are not new and where possible we allow students to use their mobile devices to record and to take photos. Most PowerPoint presentations are put up on the student intranet before lectures.

We say that lecturers should allow students to record lectures if they want to, but they don’t have to if there are concerns around DPR or confidentiality. There are 2000 academics at the university and everyone has different ways of working. It’s difficult to enforce the same rules with everyone.

6. Talk to your IT advisors for help on accessibility and inclusivity

You can make use of IT in classroom to increase inclusivity. Our academics talk to our IT advisors about how they can adapt the environment and use technology in the best possible way for all students.

7. Make use of outside resources and experts

Adam Tweed, Disabled Students’ Allowances advisor at AbilityNet came in to talk to us about apps and tech we could use to support student’s mental health and other disabilities. Thirteen staff including a number from our IT department came to this and it proved very useful.

8. Going the extra mile with supporting disabled students

Five years ago we started offering students on the autism spectrum the opportunity to come and stay with friends or family for a residential, ahead of beginning university. At the time we only had about 10 students identifying as being on the spectrum, but numbers have increased. We hold a gaming night and by the end of the night the students have usually made friends and set up a WhatsApp or Facebook group. We also support a self-managed social group for students on the autism spectrum called the ‘A’ Team which helps fund different social events chosen by members.

For more about disabled student allowance and disability support for students, click here.

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