Long-Term Illness And Higher Education – Parliamentary Briefing

Today, Astriid Volunteer Fiona Boyle shares a summary of the recent Parliamentary Briefing on Invisible Disabilities in Education and Employment, focussing on long-term illness and higher education. Over to you, Fiona!

Higher education can reduce the disability employment gap: in 2019,  the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled graduates was smaller than for other qualification levels (such as GCSEs). However, disabled people are less likely to attain higher education qualifications than non-disabled people. Identifying and removing barriers to attainment at university is vital to improving outcomes for disabled students, and it is important to recognise that students with different disabilities can face different access issues while at university. This blog will focus on the specific challenges faced by students with long-term illnesses, who make up 9% of those who disclose a disability at university. 

Attitudinal Barriers

Many chronic illnesses fall under the umbrella of invisible disabilities, which are defined as disabilities that are not immediately apparent to other people. Students with invisible disabilities can face a lack of understanding, and report having to repeat their needs more often than those with visible disabilities. Students with fluctuating impairments  (such as ME/CFS) can struggle to explain to staff what it means to be well enough to fully participate in education on some days but not others. This causes some students to worry that they will be viewed as less trustworthy than those who can take part consistently.

Disabled Students’ Allowance

Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) is a government scheme that provides support for the additional costs associated with studying with a disability and can range from providing assistive technology to paying for taxis to enable students to attend lectures. Despite the support this scheme provides, only 29% of students who disclose a disability at university access DSA. A major barrier to students accessing DSA is knowledge of the scheme itself: 40% of disabled students were not aware of DSA when they began their degree. Students with long-term health conditions and mental health conditions are less likely to feel informed about DSA than those with other disabilities, and qualitative research found that some students didn’t apply because they thought that DSAs were only for those with physical disabilities.

Even if students are aware of Disabled Students’ Allowance, the amount of administration involved can be a significant barrier to applying and students with long-term health conditions are more likely to have difficulties providing medical evidence for the application form than those with other disabilities. The government’s 2019 evaluation of DSAs found that students with long-term health conditions were less satisfied with the types of support offered than those with other disabilities and almost twice as likely to feel that the support on offer was too general and didn’t fully meet their needs.

Reasonable Adjustments vs Universal Design 

Universities are legally obligated to provide reasonable adjustments in order to allow disabled students to study. However, disabled students can feel singled out by individual adjustments in comparison to universal design. Universal design means ensuring environments and procedures are accessible to as many people as possible, and a prime example of this in education is recording lectures. Having access to lecture recordings is helpful for many students, and for those with chronic illnesses it can significantly reduce the negative impacts of missing lectures due to a flare-up of symptoms. Despite this, a recent survey of higher education lecture capture policies that only 5% were compulsory, while 66% were opt-out and 33% were opt-in.

Environmental Barriers

Along with the barriers directly related to studying, disabled students face barriers in their environment. As before, the considerations are different for different disabilities and one report found that those with long-term illnesses were most likely to prioritise on-campus GP facilities when considering the disability support available at prospective universities. Chronic illnesses can often involve sensory sensitivities, and these may be less recognised by universities than physical barriers such as stairs. One example is a student who found that their chronic migraines were triggered by having to take exams in a brightly-lit hall. The University of Warwick has demonstrated how universities can accommodate sensory sensitivities, by providing accessible study rooms where the lighting can be softened.

Next Steps

Although there are significant barriers to higher education for disabled students as described above, there are many working to improve the situation. Two examples of this are the Lord Holmes Report which aims to improve the way DSA is delivered and the recent parliamentary briefing on Invisible Disabilities in Education and Employment. It is important to note that although higher education reduces the disability employment gap, it does not eliminate it: in 2016-17, 71.5% of disabled graduates were in higher education or highly-skilled employment compared to 73.3% of non-disabled graduates.

Astriid continues to work to improve employment prospects for those with long-term health conditions. If you are a disabled student or graduate, check out this blog post to find out more about how we can help you. 

Thank you for sharing, Fiona!