A Rough Guide for Widening
Mike Wray and Ann-Marie Houghton
Action on Access
The National Co-ordination Team for Widening Participation
Action on Access is the national co-ordination team for widening participation in higher education.
We support the development, promotion and enhancement of social inclusion for the broadest
possible access to higher education by:
• working with institutions and key stakeholders across the higher education sector
• working with partnerships, including Aimhigher
• working to promote inclusion and to integrate disability issues within higher education
We are funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the
Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland to whom we provide advice and
feedback regarding widening participation.
This publication was produced by Action on Acess, Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, Lancashire,
L39 4QP. Email mailto:mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org, call 01695 650 850, textphone 01695
650 874 or fax 01695 584 098.
The Disability Equality Partnership (Action on Access, The Equality Challenge Unit and the
Higher Education Academy) answers questions through our helpdesk on disability-focused
queries relating to higher education and widening participation activities. To ask a question, email
email@example.com, call 01695 650 870, text 01695 650 874 or fax 01695 584 098.
‘This publication can be downloaded from the Action on
Access website under ‘Resources’ then ‘Publications’. It is
also available in large print, Braille and on a CD.
Please call 01695 650 850 for alternative format versions.’
Thank You to Bradford College for the use of their image bank for the majority of images within
Disability: A Rough Guide for Widening Participation Practitioners
O4 Who is this guide for?
O4 Disabled learners and the widening participation agenda
O6 Disability Context
O6 Defining disability
O6 Models of disability
O7 The social model in organisations
O7 Who is disabled?
O7 Current terminology
O8 General population statistics
O9 Participation rates of disabled learners
1O Initiatives and Drivers
1O The Disability Discrimination Act
11 Disability Equality Schemes
11 The Special Educational Needs Code of Practice
11 Removing Barriers to Achievement: the government’s Special Educational Needs strategy
12 The Tomlinson Report: Inclusive Learning
12 Learning for Living and Work
12 Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People
12 Disabled learners and the 50% target
13 The employability of disabled graduates
14 Disability and the Educational Lifecycle
14 Support for disabled learners through the educational lifecycle
14 Transition issues
15 Further education
16 Higher education
17 Widening Participation Initiatives
17 Aimhigher and disabled learners
17 Institutional widening participation initiatives
18 Measuring and encouraging participation
18 Ensuring activities are accessible to disabled people
18 Working with colleagues to include disabled learners
19 Including the views of disabled people
21 Further sources of advice and guidance
23 National support in higher education for disability-related widening participation activities
24 Glossary of Acronyms
Who is this guide for?
This guide is for staff involved in widening participation and all staff whose work brings them into
contact either directly or indirectly with potential and current disabled learners, either on an
individual basis or as part of a general cohort.
The topics covered in this guide complement those in a previous Action on Access publication,
‘Widening Participation: A Rough Guide for Higher Education Providers’, by providing further
information on issues faced by disabled learners. This guide is produced in response to requests
from widening participation practitioners and others who appreciate that although many of the
things they do may be relevant for disabled learners, there are ways in which their work could be
enhanced by a better understanding of disability.
This disability guide follows a similar structure to its more general widening participation
predecessor. Arranged in 4 sections, the guide intends to provide information for staff with
varying degrees of experience and awareness of disability.
The disability context section provides an overview of disability including definitions, models
and participation rates.
The section on initiatives and drivers outlines key disability legislation that influences policy and
practice within the school, further and higher education sectors.
The disability and the educational lifecycle section describes the differing approaches to
disabled learners in different levels of the education sector.
The section on widening participation initiatives briefly introduces what activities are taking
place currently and suggests ways in which practitioners can include disabled learners.
Disabled learners and the widening participation agenda
Disabled learners do succeed in higher education and go on to gain graduate employment. There
are many examples of students with particular impairments succeeding in subjects and
occupations that traditionally would be perceived by some as impossible, for example, teachers
with dyslexia, visually impaired artists or medical staff with hearing impairments. Therefore, it is
important that widening participation staff promote the raising of aspirations whilst being aware of
Disabled people are currently under-represented within higher education. According to the
Disability Rights Commission (DRC) (2006) disabled students are only half as likely to be
qualified to degree level as their non-disabled peers. Although the proportion of learners in higher
education disclosing a disability has more than doubled in the last ten years, this global figure
does not tell the whole story. For example, participation rates of learners with mobility
impairments have remained relatively static in that same period.
Disabled learners, however, are only one group of people who are under-represented in higher
education. Disabled learners, like any other group, are just as likely to identify themselves or be
categorised by others as belonging to other widening participation groups. For instance, the
reason for their non-participation may have as much to do with their social class, their ethnicity,
their attainment in school or a combination of these factors. The relationship between these
issues is complex and there is no single explanation. Therefore it is important when dealing with
individuals to recognise that they may face barriers associated with any combination of these
factors and that each person is different. Nevertheless, when designing activities to tackle
barriers to participation in higher education, it is necessary to consider how, or if, current systems
or proposed actions will help or hinder disabled learners.
Many people associate the term ‘disability’ with very specific groups of people – people in
wheelchairs, people who are deaf or people who are blind. However, the true nature of disability
is a much more complex issue and one in which our understanding is influenced by a number of
factors such as legislation, the culture we live in, educational policy, or individual experience.
Therefore, when we try to define disability we encounter a variety of viewpoints. Currently in the
UK, our understanding of disability has been influenced by the Disability Discrimination Act
(DDA), which defines a disabled person as someone with:
‘A physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on (his/her)
ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’ DDA, 1995.
This definition locates disability within an individual, that is, it emphasises the person’s
impairment and the effects that the impairment has on the individual’s abilities. However, the
legislation then goes on to map out ways in which people, businesses and organisations have a
legal responsibility to ensure that a disabled person is not further hindered by attitudes, services
and practices that they provide. This is an important point (i.e. where disability is located) and one
that we will explore further as we turn our attention to different ways or models in which disability
has been understood in recent times.
Models of disability
The medical and the social models of disability are two frameworks (amongst others) that provide
contrasting ways of thinking about disability.
The medical (or ‘individual’ as it is sometimes referred to) model focuses on the individual’s
medical condition and locates disability within the person. So, for example, we can say that the
definition mentioned above from the DDA fits into a medical model as it makes reference to the
individual’s inability to carry out certain activities due to physical or mental limitations.
This model assumes that with medical treatment or intervention the individual can be helped to
overcome their limitations. It often results in the perception of disabled people as dependent,
deserving of pity and/or praise for overcoming their difficulties.
In contrast, the social model shifts the emphasis from personal inadequacy or abnormality to
physical and societal (legal, cultural, and attitudinal) barriers experienced by a person with
impairment. These barriers are viewed as disabling the person and are external to the individual.
This viewpoint shifts the focus onto the rights of disabled people and the requirement for society
The DDA definition is unusual in that it defines disability as being within the individual but then
quite clearly places a legal responsibility on the reduction of external barriers
The social model in organisations
Although many organisations state that they support and follow the social model it is not always
easy to change people’s attitudes or work practices. It is often easier and more rewarding for a
member of staff to help an individual (a medical model approach) rather than spend time
changing the system (a social model approach).
Who is disabled?
The answer to this question is contentious because it depends on the definition of disability you
use, the model you might follow and your local context. Schools, further education and higher
education have different ways of deciding who is disabled and/or who receives financial and
For example, in the context of disabled learners and higher education, the approach to disability
is shaped by a categorisation system used by the UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions
Service) that lists a number of impairments:
• Learning difficulty
• Blind/partial sight
• Deaf/partial hearing
• Need personal care support
• Autistic disorder
• Mental health difficulties
• Unseen (e.g. diabetes, epilepsy, asthma)
• 2+ disabilities/special needs
• Other disabilities/special needs.
All applicants who apply through the UCAS system are asked to indicate whether they have a
disability/special need or medical condition and if they do to code it using the categories above.
For the purposes of this text it is useful to be aware of this list but also to have an understanding
of the definition from the DDA mentioned previously.
It is important to also say that there is not a definitive list of conditions and we will not attempt to
make such a list here. However, what we will say is that disability covers a wide range of health
conditions, impairments and special needs. For example, recently the law was changed so that
the definition covers people who have cancer, HIV infection or multiple sclerosis from the time of
diagnosis. The law also states conditions that are not covered, for example, drug addiction.
The language used to describe disabled people can and does have an impact on how their peers
and staff think about and interact with them and can influence their own sense of self and identity.
Terminology in the area of disability is as controversial and liable to change as in other areas of
life. Therefore, it is very difficult to keep up with the terminology if you are outside the disability
specialist interest area and meaningful efforts can sometimes turn out to be quite amusing:
‘Parking bays and toilets adapted for disabled people are often referred to as disabled facilities. But if
you think about the meaning of these terms (disabled toilet, disabled parking) they actually mean that
they are not working! A more appropriate term would be ‘accessible parking’ or ‘accessible toilet’.
It is just as important to know what terms not to use and there are many reasons why we do not
use particular phrases and words. Often phrases are coined for everyday usage and twisted
through abuse of their original meaning in order to take on much more negative connotations, for
example, the term ‘spastic’ which derives from a medical term ‘spasticity’ was used in the 1970s
but is no longer used because of its derogatory connotations.
Furthermore, not all learners accept or associate their impairment with the disability label. For
example, many Deaf 1 people describe themselves as using a minority language (British Sign
Language) rather than having a disability. Similarly learners with a learning difficulty (e.g.
dyslexia) or mental health difficulty will often not connect themselves with everyday
representations of disability.
Within the world of education there are added complications relating to differences in terminology
and these can have an impact on communication between educational sectors and no doubt
affect learner identity. There is not enough space within this guide to provide a detailed account
of what words to use or to avoid when wanting to describe or address a disabled learner. We
have provided a brief list in the resources section at the end of the guide and provided links to
further information from other providers.
General population statistics
‘Using the widest survey definition, it is estimated that there are about 11 million disabled adults in the
UK – one in five of the total adult population – and 770,000 disabled children’. Prime Minister’s
Strategy Unit - Improving the life chances of disabled people (2005).
There are inherent difficulties when attempting to estimate the number of people who are
disabled. Unfortunately, most surveys or statistics that are available rely on different definitions
and therefore ask people to label themselves as disabled using different categories. This means
that it is not always possible to compare data and to do so can be quite misleading. Even
comparing participation rates over time using the same source is not always possible as
categories used and attitudes towards disclosing a disability change. However, data can be
useful in monitoring participation and exploring the profile of disabled learners engaging in
1. Deaf is spelt here with a capital letter referring to a distinct group in society who use sign language and have their
own unique culture. A successful campaign was pursued recently and British Sign Language has now been
recognised as a separate minority language in the UK. Some deaf people do not use the capital letter and
sometimes you will see the reference to d/Deaf people to cover both groups.
Information on disability within the general population can be obtained from a number of sources.
Data can be obtained from the Office for National Statistics through the Census, the Labour
Force Survey (LFS) and the Family Resources Survey.
According to the latest Labour Force Survey figures there are 6.8 million disabled people of
working age (16-64 men, 16-59 women) in Great Britain. Regional variations do occur; for
instance there are higher levels in the north-east due to a legacy of heavy industry and in pockets
on the south-east coast because its population has a relatively high proportion of older or retired
people. Another index of the level of disability is the number of disability benefit claimants as
many disabled adults receive a Disability Living Allowance (DLA). However, there are many
people who fit into educational definitions of disability who are not eligible to claim this type of
benefit as it is primarily aimed at people with severe or complex impairments or conditions.
Participation rates of disabled learners
Despite issues regarding disclosure (see below) we can say with a fair amount of confidence that
the overall proportion of disabled learners in the population has increased in recent years. For
example, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show that in 2004/05, 5.8%
of all UK based higher education learners disclosed a disability/impairment compared to 2.65% in
1994/95. Some of this increase may in part be due to more awareness and identification of
conditions such as dyslexia. It also seems likely that learners’ perceptions are changing and it is
seen to be more acceptable and potentially beneficial to disclose disability than it was in the past.
Interestingly, the figure rises to 6.88% on first degree (Bachelor level) courses although it should
be noted that 51% of these declarations are for specific learning difficulties (e.g. dyslexia).
It is important to realise that the current mechanisms for gathering data on disabled learners,
certainly from adults and the further and higher education sectors, rely on self-disclosure. The
decision to disclose a disability is complex especially for learners with a hidden disability, for
example, learners with mental health difficulties. Attitudes towards disclosing are often influenced
by previous experience. Some people may be reluctant to disclose information about disability
because they fear discrimination and stigmatisation. There also appear to be differences in when,
how and to whom learners will disclose. Although disclosure is an issue for identification, in
recent years the numbers of learners not disclosing 2 any information about disability to their
institution has decreased significantly. Colleges and universities have also improved methods for
gathering data and nowadays provide several opportunities to disclose information. Therefore, it
is thought that the figures are becoming a more accurate reflection of the actual picture of
participation. However, disclosure is an ongoing issue at points of transition, such as applying to
higher education or when applying for jobs and rates of disclosure are likely to vary between
2 By this we mean instances in which the student offers no information whether they are disabled or not.
So they might leave a section on an application form blank or prefer not to say.
Initiatives and Drivers
‘Discrimination and disadvantage does not disappear overnight – it is deeply rooted not just in attitudes
and assumptions but within the built environment, organisations and systems, within tried and tested
ways of doing things, within professional norms, within the way we learn and the way the world is
presented to us.’ Bert Massie, Disability Rights Commission (2004).
In addition to the general widening participation policy initiatives and drivers outlined in the rough
guide to widening participation, there is legislation covering schools, further and higher education
relating to disabled learners as well as a wider body of legislation that relates to employment,
health, social services, transport, housing and other aspects of daily life. The focus in this guide is
to give a brief overview of the key legislation and policy so that practitioners are aware of the
The Disability Discrimination Act
The Disability Discrimination Act (1995) was the first piece of legislation in the UK designed to
remove discrimination against disabled people. Education is covered in Part 4 of the Act,
although originally it was only given limited coverage. Since 1995 a number of amendments have
been introduced that have tackled the education sectors more directly. You may remember the
Special Educational Needs Disability Act, also known as ‘SENDA’, that placed a number of legal
responsibilities on educational providers3. In Northern Ireland the equivalent legislation is
described in the Special Educational Needs Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 4.
Providers are legally required to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled learners
are able to participate in all activities. There is considerable discussion about what is reasonable
for an organisation to provide and factors such as cost, practicality and feasibility may be
considered when making this judgement. Providers also have to adopt an anticipatory approach
which has generally required changes to policies, practices and procedures, for example,
providing additional aids or services5, and offering services in alternative ways so that a disabled
learner is not prevented from participating.
The most recent amendments to the legislation in 2006 include further coverage of education,
make changes to the definition of disability and require institutions to ensure that disabled people
are treated equally.
Other similar equality legislation (e.g. relating to gender discrimination) will be coming onto the
UK statute books in future years. Some institutions are therefore moving towards a single
Action on Access - Policy That Works
3 Publicly funded education providers and independently funded schools are covered by Part 4 of the Act. Other, privately
financed, education providers (including services such as Connexions) in most instances are covered by Part 3 of the
Act which refers to the delivery of goods and services.
4 For a link to the SEND Order 2005 visit http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2005/20051117.htm
5 Individual schools are not expected to make this reasonable adjustment i.e. provision of aids or services as this duty is
the responsibility of Local Authorities.
equality scheme. Indeed the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has now
produced its own single equality scheme and the different government commissions that enforce
the legislation will merge into a single equality body, the Commission for Equalities and Human
Rights (CEHR) in 2007. Disability issues may therefore become more embedded within the wider
equality agenda and whilst it is recognised that equality issues may share common strands, it will
be important that specialist and targeted support is maintained for disabled people.
Disability Equality Schemes
All publicly funded bodies are now required to produce a Disability Equality Scheme (DES) under
the DDA. Schemes were submitted in December 2006 (schools must submit them in 2007) and
will become a key source of institutional strategy towards disabled staff and learners. They should
contain information about current participation rates and outline future plans explaining how
disabled people will be consulted and how disability equality will be promoted within the
The Special Educational Needs Code of Practice
The 2001 Special Educational Needs (SEN) Code of Practice (published by the DfES) is a
practical guide to identifying and assessing children with special educational needs in schools
and early education settings. It replaces the previous 1994 Code and takes into account all
relevant legislation including the DDA and SENDA. In addition to schools and Local Authorities,
the health and social services must also take account of the guidance.
Removing Barriers to Achievement: the government’s Special
Educational Needs strategy
The government’s latest strategy for Special Educational Needs (SEN), ‘Removing the Barriers to
Achievement’, includes four strands that emphasise:
• early intervention to encourage schools to identify when support is required and build it in as
early as possible
• removing barriers to learning and embedding inclusive practice within the curriculum
• raising expectations and achievement of SEN pupils, including disabled learners
• delivering improvements in partnership with parents.
Overall, the strategy is likely to support the goal of widening participation. For example, the use of
inclusive practices and raising expectations will increase disabled learners’ access to the
curriculum and promote the idea that SEN pupils like others, can progress and achieve the
qualifications necessary to enter higher education.
Working in partnership is vital if schools, disabled learners and their parents are to be prepared
for the future and similarly if further and higher education staff are to understand and respond to
the expectations of disabled learners and their supporters.
Tomlinson Report: Inclusive Learning
The report of the Further Education Funding Council Learning Difficulties and/or Disabilities
Committee, ‘Inclusive Learning’ (otherwise known as the Tomlinson Report), has been very
influential in how the further education and other sectors, approach disabled learners. The central
focus was on how people learn and how they can be helped with their learning rather than on the
support requirements of particular groups. This is a useful way of working and the general
approach can be transferred to other activities. In many respects it is about changing how things
happen to accommodate the individual, rather than seeing the individual as special or different
and in need of help. In common with a lot of changes made to accommodate disabled learners,
an inclusive learning approach is recognised as good practice for all learners.
Learning for Living and Work
In 2005 the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) published its review6 of provision in the post-16
sector for learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. The report’s main recommendation
was that the LSC should adopt a single strategy for these learners across the post-16 learning
and skills sector. The report also emphasised a common funding methodology and better working
between partners. In response the LSC’s strategy up to 2009/10 is outlined in ‘Learning for Living
and Work’ which sets out its approach towards achieving the recommendations. The LSC’s
overall aim is to make England an exemplar for this group of learners by 2015.
Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People
The Government Strategy Unit’s report, ‘Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People’, sets out
an ambitious target:
‘By 2025, disabled people in Britain should have full opportunities and choices to improve their quality
of life and will be respected and included as equal members of society’.
The report was jointly produced by the DfES, the Department of Work and Pensions, the
Department of Health and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. This report could have far-
reaching benefits as it asks government departments to work together and focuses on transition
to adulthood which is seen as a barrier for progression for disabled people in education beyond
Disabled learners and the 50% target
The Disability Rights Commission estimates that disabled young people are only half as likely to
be qualified to degree level as their non-disabled peers. If this is the case then disabled learners
are a definite target group for widening participation efforts since they are under-represented in
higher education. If government strategies mentioned in the above reports is successfully
Action on Access - Policy That Works
6 The Little Report: ‘Through Inclusion to Excellence’.
implemented we should continue to see increases in the numbers of disabled students entering
higher education. However, we still need to be aware of the needs of this group of learners when
planning and implementing widening participation programmes.
The employability of disabled graduates
The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) monitors all graduate
destinations, including disabled graduates. The AGCAS report, ‘Destinations of Leavers from
Higher Education’, provides a snapshot at six months after graduation of employment, study and
unemployment of disabled and non-disabled graduates. Within the 2004 AGCAS survey disabled
graduates represented 7% of the overall student population. Comparing all disabled and non-
disabled graduates the data indicated that disabled graduates are less likely to have full-time
employment (48.9% compared to 54.9%) and more likely to have part-time or voluntary work
(9.7% compared to 8.2%) or to be unemployed (9% compared to 6.3%). However, disabled
learners should not be put off by these findings as on the whole it is beneficial for disabled
students to go into higher education and like other graduates they are more likely to gain
employment than their peers without degrees.
Some employers now have schemes specifically aimed at diversifying their work forces and some
have initiatives particularly for disabled graduates (e.g. the BBC).
Disability and the Educational Lifecycle
Support for disabled learners through the educational lifecycle
Currently there is a range of support mechanisms for disabled learners that are funded and
organised in different ways in the school, further and higher education sectors. This can lead to
confusion for all those concerned. For instance, differences in terminology can lead to difficulties
in tracking student progression by educational practitioners (May et al. 2006). Parents, teachers
and other information givers are less likely to have an understanding of all the different support
mechanisms. It is all too common for disabled learners and the people who support them to make
assumptions about what support is available, how it is organised and perhaps envisage barriers
that are not there.
All learners face transition issues when moving between different levels of the educational ladder.
However, disabled learners face additional difficulties and barriers to entry because support is
organised in very different ways in the different levels of education. Each of the three levels of
education has its own terminology, funding mechanisms and subsequent differences in the way
support is provided. Constantly renegotiating support because of these differences can affect
Recently, the development of a transition plan has formed part of the annual review for pupils
with a statement of educational need after they are 14. The transition plan should support
learners as they make decisions and explore options for what they will do after they are 16.
Headteachers are responsible for co-ordinating the transition plan and should ensure that all
relevant professionals from education, Connexions, health and social care are involved in the
process. It is therefore important that all of the statutory agencies involved are aware of what
opportunities and support are available as the learner progresses.
Pupils are referred to as having special educational needs (SEN). The term ‘special educational
needs’ originally referred to learning difficulties but now includes all kinds of impairments covered
by the DDA and other definitions used in education. However, a pupil with a medical diagnosis or
disability does not have a special educational need unless special educational provision is
required to access the curriculum.
Pupils with SEN may also have statements (see below). Teachers who co-ordinate the support
are known as SENCOs (Special Educational Needs Coordinators).
The DfES collects information about the numbers of pupils registered in schools with SEN
through the Pupil Level Annual School Census (PLASC) and the SEN2survey (completed by
Local Authorities). In 2006 2.9% (236,700) of pupils across all schools in England had statements
of SEN. Additionally 15.7% (1,293,300) of pupils across all schools were classed as having SEN
but did not have statements.
The SEN Code of Practice (2002) influences the way support is organised in schools; it
recommends a ‘graduated approach’ that depends on the needs of the learner. The help might be
in the form of equipment or additional assistance in one or more areas of the curriculum and is
recorded in an Individual Education Plan (IEP). This initial help is known as School Action and
School Action Plus (if support is required from external agencies). For a small number of pupils
there will still be cause for concern even with support offered through School Action Plus and
these learners will undergo a statutory assessment after which the Local Authority may prepare a
statement of special educational need outlining further resources required.
N.B. Whilst there has been a shift in recent years towards mainstreaming support; there are still
some special schools that cater specifically for pupils with severe or complex SEN or for pupils
with particular impairments, e.g. Royal Schools for the Deaf.
Further Education Sector
Students are referred to as learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities (LLDD) or disabled
learners. Support for disabled learners is referred to as learning support or additional learning
Information is provided through the Individualised Learner Record (ILR) and incorporates further
education in colleges, work-based learning (WBL) and personal and community development
learning (PCDL). In 2004/05 there were 391,938 (9.16%) of students declared as having disability
or learning difficulty and in WBL 36,257 (15%).
N.B. In non-WBL courses there was a significant amount of data for which no response was given
- 586,955 (13.7%).
Support for disabled learners on further education courses is paid for in the form of additional
learning support funding provided by the Learning and Skills Council. Colleges receive funding
depending on how many disabled learners attend the college, what support they require and
which courses they undertake. Disability-related support is provided by the college, though this
may be organised in different ways. Additional equipment such as a laptop computer may be
provided but remains the property of the college and normally it can only be used at the college.
Where a student is studying on a higher education course at a further education college they are
able to claim for Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) (see below). There are also some sources
of support for transport but the type of financial assistance varies according to Local Authority and
the needs of the student.
As in the schools sector, there are still many specialised colleges that cater for students with
particular impairments or disabled learners in general, e.g. Royal National Colleges for the Blind.
Higher Education Sector
Generally students are referred to as disabled students. Students are asked to declare an
impairment/health condition/special educational needs at the applications stage or at other stages
of the student lifecycle, e.g. enrolment or before examinations.
Data is available from UCAS on the numbers of applicants applying to UK full-time undergraduate
courses. HESA also publish data on the numbers of students enrolling on higher education
courses who declare a disability. 5.5% of all students (UK and international) on all courses at all
levels declared a disability in 2004/05.
Higher education institutions receive some funding directly for disabled students from the HEFCE
to pay for institutional support as part of their annual grant. Support in higher education is often
provided by the disability office. Additionally there may be dispersed networks of support, e.g.
many larger institutions have faculty staff members (administrative and/or academic) that have
disability matters as part of their remit.
In addition to this funding, disabled learners who require study support as a direct result of their
impairment or condition and who meet eligibility requirements for student support, are able to
receive funding under the Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA). This funding includes a
specialist equipment allowance, a non-medical helper’s allowance, a general allowance and a
travel allowance. The funding is not means-tested but all allowances are capped at a specific
annual rate, with the exception of the travel allowance.
Widening Participation Initiatives
Aimhigher and disabled learners
Funding is allocated to Aimhigher regions and areas that are responsible for planning and
carrying out a wide range of activities, many of which have included disabled learners, for
example, mentoring schemes, local policy reviews and outreach work. In many regions and areas
this has formed part of the overall planning and there has been a sustained effort to increase
participation by targeting activities at this group of learners.
For example, the West Midlands 2003-05 plan highlighted disabled learners as a specific target
group. The region audited its provision for all learners to ensure it was inclusive of disability
issues. A disability sub-group was formed and a programme of staff development was rolled out
to support practitioners.
The HEFCE has also funded two national projects which pay particular attention to the inclusion
of disabled learners. The National Inclusive Summer Schools project has worked with regional
teams to ensure that provision is accessible and has included disabled learners.
The AchieveAbility project has facilitated awareness-raising activities around learners with
specific learning difficulties, set up a large scale student ambassador programme and undertaken
a number of staff development events which examined methods of teaching in schools. (See
resources section for further information).
To ensure coverage of disability issues the HEFCE has asked that regional and area plans for
2006-08 includes disability issues as an explicit element of Aimhigher activity. This development
should see an increase in activities focused on disabled learners.
Institutional widening participation initiatives
Disability should be included in institutional planning under widening participation documentation.
Until recently, before the establishment of the Office for Fair Access, institutions had to produce a
widening participation strategy as a condition of grant.
Perhaps more importantly for disabled learners, from December 2006 all educational
establishments will need to publish a 3-yearly Disability Equality Scheme. This should outline how
the institution intends to improve access and participation for disabled people across all
stakeholders – staff, students and visitors.
On the whole disability and widening participation offices have tended not to work together to
ensure disabled learners are included as part of widening participation activities. However, there
is evidence of some exceptional collaborative work being undertaken 7.
7 Action on Access ran a number of forums in 2006 bringing together widening participation and disability staff. Further
details can be found at: http://www.actiononaccess.org/?p=1_3_8
Measuring and encouraging participation
Disabled learners should form part of the overall strategy to increase participation. Although
participation (or at least disclosure) has increased in recent years there is still a lot to do. It is
difficult to establish exactly how many disabled people live in a particular region and institutions
may want to benchmark themselves against other similar institutions. When benchmarking they
should be aware of regional variations in the local population and where they are recruiting from.
To encourage participation it is important that potential disabled learners are included in all
Aimhigher and widening participation initiatives. Be sure to include images of disability in
marketing and publicity materials and address issues for disabled learners in information, advice
and guidance. Mentoring programmes can be aimed at disabled learners and should recruit
disabled learners to provide role models. Ensure that summer schools and taster days, etc. are
held in accessible venues and make links with SENCOs and specialist colleges in the
Ensuring activities are accessible to disabled people
Accessibility begins at the point of inception of an event as it can be almost impossible to alter
arrangements once venues have been booked. When organising campus-based activities it is a
useful to discuss arrangements before and after the event with estates, conference and room
booking staff to ensure that venues are accessible for disabled learners. Booking forms and
information about activities should also be made accessible (e.g. in large font, or available
electronically) and offer opportunities for participants to disclose disability or inform organisers of
any support requirements. These visits can make an enormous impact on what potential learners
think about your institution.
Working with colleagues to include disabled learners
Key to ensuring that disabled learners are included in efforts to widen participation is the idea of
embedding the issues within the policies and work of staff throughout an institution or region.
Supporting the change process can be time-consuming and challenging but ultimately can lead to
cultural change and therefore prove to be effective. Disability staff who may have particular
expertise can work alongside colleagues and form working relationships to work towards this
As a widening participation practitioner with experience of working with learners who have yet to
enter higher education you should aim to work with marketing departments to support your
awareness raising activities and they can support you in attracting potential learners. Also,
admissions and outreach staff need to be briefed on the issues of disclosure, confidentiality and
ensuring activities are accessible. Promoting a consistent message is important.
Including the views of disabled people
Disabled people are increasingly becoming involved in deciding how support should be
organised. Indeed, the Disability Equality Duty asks schools, colleges, institutions, Local
Authorities and others to write and implement disability equality schemes and states that disabled
people should be actively involved in producing and reviewing them.
Providers of education will need to think creatively about how this is going to happen. Many
disabled people may be reluctant to disclose disability (particularly employees) and may not want
to participate unless anonymity can be assured. Students are often asked to feedback on various
aspects of the educational experience and take part in surveys or fill out questionnaires. They
may experience ‘consultation fatigue’ and be reluctant to take part unless they feel real action will
be taken. However, it is important that attempts are made to review widening participation
activities and to include questions about the accessibility of events and venues, etc. in feedback
forms. You may want to set up a focus group of current or potential students to review your
approach to including disabled learners. You could also seek the help of local groups of disabled
people, for example, in ensuring activities are appropriately aimed at disabled learners.
Sources used in text
Action on Access (2005) Widening Participation: a Rough Guide for Higher Education Providers.
Action on Access. Available from: http://www.actiononaccess.org/?p=2_5_4_5_1 accessed
AGCAS (2006) What happens next: A Report on the First Destinations of 2004 Students with
Disabilities. Sheffield, AGCAS. http://www.agcas.org.uk/publications/index.htm Accessed
Department for Education and Skills (2001) Special Educational Needs Code of Practice. London,
Department for Education and Skills (2004) Removing the Barriers to Achievement: The
Government’s Strategy for SEN. Nottingham, DfES.
Department for Education and Skills (2006) Bridging the Gap: a Guide to the Disabled Students’
Allowances (DSAs) in Higher Education: Guide for 2006/2007. London, DfES.
Disability Rights Commission (Disability Briefing – March 2006. DRC, London. http://www.drc-
gb.org/library/research/drc_disability_briefing.aspx Accessed 01/11/06
FEFC (1996). Inclusive Learning: Report of the Learning Difficulties and or Disabilities
Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (1995) Disability Discrimination Act. London, HMSO.
Learning and Skills Council (2005) Through Inclusion to Excellence. Coventry, LSC.
Learning and Skills Council (2006) Learning for Living and Work. Coventry, LSC.
Massie, B. (2004) Implementing the Disability Discrimination Act in
Higher Education and the draft Disability Discrimination Bill.
May, H., Richardson, D. Harper, H. and Harrop, H. (2006) Information Collection and
Dissemination Practices for Learners with Specific Learning Differences across the Education
Sector. Higher Education Academy, York.
Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, Department of Work and Pensions, Department of Health,
Department for Education and Skills, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (2005) Improving the
Life Chances of Disabled People. Available from
http://www.strategy.gov.uk/work_areas/disability/ accessed 01/11/06
South Yorkshire Aimhigher has produced a helpful guide, ‘Disability Terminology: towards a
common and shared understanding’. It covers common terminology of categories relating to the
UCAS application, student support in further and higher education, and funding arrangements.
For a copy see: www.aimhigheryandh.co.uk and follow the links: Across the region> South
Yorkshire> Promotional Material and Resources Aimhigher Resources.
Words that disabled people are more likely Words that disabled people are more likely
to find acceptable to find unacceptable
A disabled person/a person with a disability The disabled/handicapped/a person with
A person with dyslexia A dyslexic
A person who has epilepsy An epileptic
A person who has autism An autistic
A person who has mobility difficulties Mobility impaired
A person who has a hearing loss Hearing impaired
A person who has mental health difficulties Mentally ill/a schizophrenic
A wheelchair user Wheelchair bound/confined to a wheelchair
A person who is D/deaf The D/deaf
A person who is blind/partially/sighted/visually The blind
A non-disabled person An able-bodied person
An accessible toilet A disabled toilet
Source: Aimhigher, South Yorkshire (2005) Disability Terminology towards a common and shared
Further sources of advice and guidance
Advice for disabled learners entering higher education
Skill’s, ‘Into Higher Education’, guide includes advice about applications, getting support, grants
and benefits. The guide also includes profiles written by disabled students about their
experiences as well as a list of advice agencies and institutions that provide higher education
courses. For a copy see: http://www.skill.org.uk/shop/shop.asp and follow the link for Guides for
disabled students, trainees and jobseekers. There are also subject-specific guides within this
section such as ‘Into Law’, ‘Into Architecture’ and ‘Into Art’.
A comprehensive guide entitled, ‘Bridging the Gap: a guide to the Disabled Students’ Allowances
(DSAs) in Higher Education’, outlines eligibility criteria and explains the application process. The
guide is available by phoning 0800 731 9133 or further details are available, see:
http://www.dfes.gov.uk/studentsupport and follow the links Students Student finance
factsheets Disabled Students’ Allowances.
Advice for institutions
‘Widening Participation: a Rough Guide for Higher Education Providers’, is available on the
publications area of the Action on Access website, see:
Disability Effective Inclusive Policies Project has a number of discussion papers regarding
institutional disability policy, see:
The Action on Access website disability section, see:
Advice for widening participation, information, advice and guidance (IAG) and
Action on Access is working with Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, to
produce a pack for IAG, SENCOs and Connexions staff in 2007.
Examples of student achievement
Action on Access has collected together a large number of examples of disabled students
studying in a variety of subject areas, see: http://www.actiononaccess.org and follow the links for
Resources Case Studies and then scroll down to Disability Case Studies Learning and
Teaching Case Studies.
National organisations and web sites
Action on Access: The national co-ordination team for widening participation in higher education -
AchieveAbility Project - http://www.achieveability.org.uk
Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services - http://www.agcas.org.uk
Disability Equality in Education - http://www.diseed.org.uk/
Disability Rights Commission - http://www.drc-gb.org.uk
Equality Challenge Unit - http://www.ecu.ac.uk
Higher Education Academy - http://www.hea.ac.uk
Higher Education Statistics Agency (for details on numbers of disabled students in higher
education) - http://www.hesa.ac.uk/
Learning and Skills Council - http://www.lsc.ac.uk
SKILL: National Bureau for Students with Disabilities - http://www.skill.org.uk/
National support in higher education for
disability-related widening participation
Disability Equality Partnership
Support by national bodies comes from a tripartite arrangement known as the Disability Equality
Partnership (DEP). The DEP brings together three organisations – Action on Access, the Higher
Education Academy and the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) and replaces the National Disability
Team. The three organisations are working collaboratively to provide support to the sector and
amongst other activities answer queries through a national helpdesk. To ask a question, email
firstname.lastname@example.org, telephone 01695 650 870, textphone 01695 650 874 or fax 01695 584
Action on Access
HEFCE appointed Action on Access as the national co-ordination team to support widening
participation. They provide a central location for resources relevant to widening participation and
disability and have a separate section on their website for disability. Appointment of staff within
the Action on Access team with a specific disability remit is designed to ensure a more inclusive
Higher Education Academy
The Higher Education Academy works with institutions, academic staff and others to support
learning and teaching in higher education. It has dedicated staff dealing with disability issues and
also houses TechDis – a team with a specific remit for accessible technology. The Higher
Education Academy has also been instrumental in commissioning and undertaking considerable
research into widening participation efforts.
Equality Challenge Unit
The Equality Challenge Unit supports the higher education sector on the legislative framework
around equality issues, e.g. age, gender, ethnicity and disability. It has a remit to support higher
education institutions on issues about staff and learners since 2006. In recent times it has
provided guidance on implementation of changes to the Disability Discrimination Act, such as the
Special Educational Needs and Disability Act and the Disability Equality Duty.
Glossary of Acronyms
AGCAS Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services
ALS Additional Learning Support
BBC British Broadcasting Company
BSL British Sign Language
CEHR Commission for Equalities and Human Rights
DDA Disability Discrimination Act
DEP Disability Equality Partnership
DED Disability Equality Duty
DES Disability Equality Scheme
DfES Department for Education and Skills
DRC Disability Rights Commission
DLA Disability Living Allowance
DSA Disabled Students’ Allowances
HEFCE Higher Education Funding Council for England
HEI Higher Education Institution
HESA Higher Education Statistics Agency
HIV Human Immunodeficiency Virus
IAG Information, Advice and Guidance
IEP Individual Education Plan
ILR Individualised Learner Record
LEA Local Education Authority
LFS Labour Force Survey
LLDD Learners with Learning Difficulties and/or Disabilities
LSC Learning and Skill Council
PCDL Personal and Community Development Learning
PLASC Pupil Level Annual School Census
SEN Special Educational Needs
SEN 2 Survey Special Educational Needs Survey
SENCO Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator
SENDA Special Educational Needs and Disability Act
SEND Order Special Educational Needs Disability (Northern Ireland) Order
SLDD Students with Learning Difficulties and/or Disabilities
UCAS Universities and Colleges Admissions Service
WBL Work-based Learning
Dr Ann-Marie Houghton
Dr Ann-Marie Houghton is Director of the research group REAP: Researching Equity, Access and
Participation, based in Lancaster University’s Department of Educational Research and the
Development Officer for Widening Participation in the Vice-Chancellor’s Office.
Mike Wray is the Disability Co-ordinator for Action on Access and a research student in the
Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University.
Thank you to all those people who provided feedback on various drafts of this guide:
Jo Armstrong, Jenni Dyer, Tina Elliott, Jo Marriott, Marion Moser, Linda Pigott, Andrew Rawson,
Amy Sweeney and Carol Wilson.
Special thanks to the Action on Access central team for their ongoing support.
from Action on Access
Disability: A Rough Guide for Widening Participation Practitioners, March 2007.
Policy That Works: Widening Participation to Higher Education. A series of case
studies. Volume 1, December 2006, Volumes 2, 3 & 4 to follow in
Progressing to Higher Education: Vocational Qualifications and Admissions, March
The Learner Perspective in Educational Transitions, February
A Summary Guide to 14 – 19 Reform, October 2005.
International Comparators of Widening Participation to and through Higher Education:
Policy and Practice.
• Australian Universities, their Students and Social Equity, September 2005.
• South African Universities, New Developments and the Adult Population, September
• Canada: Widening Participation in Rural and Coastal Areas, September 2005.
• Higher Education in the USA, Student Fees, Financial Aid and Access, November
• Sweden, its Universities and Vocational Education, November 2005.
Working Together: Aimhigher Governance and Management, A Guide for
Partnerships, September 2005.
Aimhigher and the Learning and Skills Council: Approaches to Joint Working, July
Making a Difference: The Impact of Aimhigher. A set of 10 case studies, June 2005.
Widening Participation: A Rough Guide for Higher Education Providers, April 2005.
Student Success in Higher Education, October 2004.
These publications are available to download from the Action on Access website:
For more information email: