What’s in a name?

When choosing a title for a disability service there are a number of practical, political, and organisational issues which need to be considered. Ultimately, your decision may end up being swayed by more pragmatic reasoning but here’s what my thinking was influenced by.

Disability services in higher education are known by a variety of names but is it time to rethink what you call your team? In my last job at York St John University I took the opportunity to merge together the disability service, the dyslexia team and the study development team under the umbrella of ‘learning support’.  It was a great chance to use a term which I felt was more inclusive and also enabled us to develop services which were more streamlined.

At York St John, when I changed the name of the overarching service the three individual teams kept their titles but it meant that when advertising outwardly to our students and potential applicants, we could be more inclusive. We could also tweak our message depending on the audience. In the prospectus it was important to advertise our generic study development team to all students including disabled students, but separately to the disability and dyslexia services. Similarly, it was important that we could coordinate services to disabled students and have flexibility of provision for students who might be in limbo whilst applying for DSA. It meant that we weren’t working in silos and that students were given a seamless service.

It is worth considering that organisationally groups of staff and students may refer to your services in entirely different ways to the organisational chart which is on the noticeboard in your office. These references will be linked to the names which were given to services in the previous education providers they worked or studied in, to historical terms which your services were referred to and to other entirely random factors such as what building they are housed in. When names are changed it takes many years for the whole university to find out this is the case and adopt the new name of the service. It is unlikely that staff will stop referring to the wellbeing teams of UK universities as the counselling service any time soon, as this is what they have always been called. I still had staff referring students to ‘writing support’ 7 years after it had changed its name to the Study Development Team! At York St John it was much easier to speak to students about where student services were based i.e. go to ‘Holgate’ rather than trying to explain the organisational structure and geographical location of various teams.

In many ways it doesn’t really matter to students and other staff in your organisation what you are known as in the back offices of the university, as long as they know where to go to and signpost to, when your services are required. It does matter therefore, what students and colleagues are likely to come searching ‘for’ and what they will ask for at the university’s enquiry desks. One of my primary reasons for choosing the name Learning Support Team was that this title is variously used in the further education sector, which many of our students would be transitioning from. That is, in further education colleges in the UK ’learning support’ is the term that is generally used for the service which works with disabled students and learners with learning difficulties. Therefore, if students had received support from these services previously it is unlikely that they would go looking for ‘disability services’ when browsing a university website or during a visit day. They may also feel quite embarrassed visiting a ‘disability stand’ at an open day.

In the schools sector there is of course a culture of ‘special educational needs (SEN)’ after decades of legislation however, terminology is by no means static in this arena. Whilst ‘disability’ is being used in terminology because of the DDA (think SENDA), the overall direction of travel is towards inclusion and related terminology (in part because of the merging together of inclusion legislation i.e. the Equality Act 2010). Increasingly, SEN provision is changing its name to study support or inclusion services. Yes, most schools will have an SEN policy but many will have an ‘inclusion’ department. And future learners and therefore your potential students will come through waving education, health and care plans (EHCPs).

Recently, colleagues at Roehampton University argued that we shouldn’t drop the use of the word disability from our titles. Worringly, using ‘inclusive’ as a term to describe services is being linked to cutting services. Due to changes to DSA policy most HEIs face difficult decisions in deciding on the most effective ways in which to deliver services.  For example, DSA funding has been cut for NMH bands 1&2 and organisations need to find a way of back filling this provision. Some HEIs have implemented like for like services, others are seeking alternative ways of providing support such as lecture capture. No doubt because of resource issues, some may have to cut staffing to fund other provision. Similarly, HEIs are seeking ways to develop inclusive teaching and learning which will require huge changes in organisational culture.

Whilst all this change takes place, it is clearly important to recognise disabled peoples’ experience of impairment and to celebrate disability. However, I am not arguing here for a grand theory of disability which applies in all situations.  What I am arguing for is a way of providing services which are as inclusive as possible. When ‘disability services’ are working with large numbers of learners who do not identify with the term, it is hard to justify continuing to use it, and related terminology. For instance, if your services work with students with dyslexia and mental health difficulties – calling them the disability service immediately ostracises a large part of the student constituency.

One last thought, disability services still play a vital role within universities in the UK, however, as we move towards inclusion we need to begin to use terms which are going to move organisational culture forward. We have come a long way since the days of the disability team being based in the Portakabin behind the sports hall but we will always be seen as add on as long as we remain in a student services deficit way of thinking. Disability services are still viewed as being the place to send students when they have a ‘problem’ which needs to be fixed. But they should be a key aspect of the triangle of support which I have proposed previously. In liaison with the students and their families, inclusive teaching and learning staff and the disability service, provision is developed. This is pretty much the model in the rest of the sector i.e. in schools and in FE where SENCOs play a vital teaching and learning role and extend across the gap between SEN support and the classroom and one which I feel will develop in HE in decades to come.

Is it time for you to sit down with your team and management and most importantly potential students and find out what their views are on the service name? This may require re-structuring service provision and a re-consideration of what you are offering.

Some ideas for names. If you know of other services which deserve a mention please let me know:

Aston University

Manchester Metropolitan University : I provided this link at MMU because for many years the disability service was under the auspices of ‘Learner Development’ but this seems to have disappeared? If you are at MMU and know why this has changed maybe you could let me know?

Millthorpe School, York

Belper School

Belper School #2

The Manchester College