Learning from students with disability: reflections from disability support tutors

By supporting and championing disabled physiotherapy students, our profession can become more diverse and representative of the population

Student information

Supporting students with a disability throughout their university years is a legal requirement outlined most recently in 2010 by the Equality Act. 

The act also identifies that there is a ‘duty to make reasonable adjustments if the person is placed at a substantial disadvantage because of their disability’ (Equality Act, 2010). 

According to CSP data sources, approximately one member in 40 have reported having dyslexia and five per cent overall declare a disability (CSP, 2010), this compares to 22 per cent of the UK population with a disability (UK Parliament, 2022). Figures from parliament (2021) identified that 17.3 per cent of students in higher education had a disability and we know from CSP data that this is lower for physiotherapy. Only 13 per cent of students of physiotherapy preregistration programmes declare a disability (CSP, 2021).

CSP education adviser Nina Paterson notes that this figure of 13 per cent is of concern given the profession’s determination to be representative. If the profession is going to be a reflection of the patients the profession serves, we will need to embrace the discomfort and ask ourselves two difficult questions – why is this and what more can we do? 

How that support manifests in practice, differs from university to university. Dr Nicola Clague-Baker, Georgie Eckersley and Joanne Seddon, all working at the University of Liverpool, have many years of supporting disabled students across a number of universities, not just their current employer. They share their insight into what is already common place and how they are working to support disabled students at their institution. 

Nicola outlines the process students can expect when they enrol at university.

Firstly, when the students arrive, teams work to identify those that have specific educational needs.

Secondly, students will then discuss their needs with the disability support tutor. As part of this the student will establish a support plan with the university disability team.

As a result of this needs analysis, the university should provide reasonable adjustments throughout the student’s learning for assessments and teaching (see CSP document 2010 for examples of good practice).

And finally, the university should continue that support through all parts of the programme, including liaising with placements to ensure practice educators are aware of the disabled students’ requirements. 

However, Nicola offers a sobering note of caution based on the evidence. Opie et al (2014) found that disabled students had dilemmas about disclosing their disability and there were negative attitudes from teachers and physiotherapists. In a separate study, looking at the perspectives of practice educators, it was found that many felt they lacked understanding of disability and had a lack of support (Atkinson, 2019). 

In addition, there is also a need for more communication between students, university and placement staff and the need for more placement planning for students with disability (Botham, 2013). 

So, what can be done to address this? 

At the University of Liverpool, the school of health sciences has invested in a robust support structure employing a director of student support, a director of equality, diversity and inclusivity, and two student support officers. They have introduced a student buddy system, as well as students having access to the usual disability teams and academic advisors. 

This means the disabled students can access support from many sources especially in times of stress. The dean of the school, Professor Denise Prescott, explained that ‘we take student welfare really seriously; it is imperative that students feel fully supported throughout all aspects of their learning journey, whether that be on campus or on placement. This includes ready access to support at programme, school and university levels.’

In addition to the approaches outlined above Georgie outlines other important support strategies that they implement:

  • to ensure confidentiality all support plans are kept securely to meet GDPR regulations and only shared with people identified by the student.
  • care is taken sharing information (using encrypted systems) with placements to ensure that the right educators receive the confidential support plan.
  • ideally the student should be supported to speak and/or visit (depending on need) the placement ahead of time to identify any difficulties and establish a plan with their educator.
  • support from the university should be someone who knows that student, preferably their academic advisor/personal tutor – someone who can advise the practice educator and support the student without the student having to reiterate their difficulties to lots of people.

Georgie goes on to say that the University of Liverpool’s physiotherapy department will be conducting a survey of students with disability with the aim of improving their experiences. Joanne added that this is a continually evolving service.  

It is crucial that students are central to not only the decisions that are made regarding their support within the university setting and on placement but that their input is central to the drive to improve both the universities’ services and their experiences of it. 

Nina commends the steps taken by the University of Liverpool agreeing that their approach, one that is inclusive of supporting students on and off campus, and one of continual evolution and improvement, are key to supporting disabled students. 

Universities are front and centre in the commitment to change the face of physiotherapy, but it takes the whole profession to champion disabled students so that they go on to become valued colleagues.  

‘The profession has evolved and changed so much for the better. Moving from a medical model to one of patient-centred care.

Student-centred education has become normalised and the profession itself has matured to a point where it is comfortable actively critiquing and challenging its customs and practises, challenging itself to become more diverse and representative of the population itself.

‘When it comes to supporting students with a disability my encouragement to the profession is not to shrink back from that exciting challenge, however tempting it might be to do so at times.’

She adds: ‘This is the most committed and creative profession I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, and the profession has a broad scope of practice, which enables so many people to thrive. 

‘Let’s embrace that collectively just as teams like the University of Liverpool are doing.’

Equality Act    

The act states that: ‘A person has a disability if you have a physical or mental impairment, and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.’

Further reading

    Number of subscribers: 1

    Log in to comment and read comments that have been added