Departmental staff perceptions of centrally organised disability support services

What do academic staff think about in-class support for disabled students? How do staff in university faculties and department respond to suggestions for changes to practice which are proposed by staff in central services?

Most university disability personnel are based within a centrally located student support service and play a significant role in facilitating a barrier free education for disabled students. But how do staff in academic faculties and departments view this support and how do they respond to recommendations made from the centre? What do these staff think about support in the form of specialist staff who they encounter in the classroom often without any prior knowledge that this type of support was about to appear alongside a disabled student? I explore these issues in a new paper which has been accepted for publication by a peer -reviewed journal and which you can download in a pre-print version here.

As with most of the practice in this area of interest there is scant research which examines these issues. What research there is, points to somewhat fragile relationships between academic departments and central services. For instance, Kendall (2018) suggested that academic staff are ambivalent towards support provided centrally and that they have negative attitudes towards centrally produced support plans. Respondents in Kendall’s study also raised questions about specialist tuition. In another study, departmental staff felt that more could be done for disabled students and that they were left with too much responsibility for their support (Cameron & Nunkoosing, 2012).

We should, of course, be wary of evidence from two studies but, these insights from academic departments offer a window into what disconnects might arise, in loosely coupled organisations,  between the good intentions of central support and the staff in faculties who are intended to implement practice. Everyone, is working towards the same goal: students want to do the best they can without having to deal with unnecessary barriers; central services want to provide support which can help to remove these barriers; and academic staff want their students to do the best they can and try their upmost to facilitate learning.

One of the mechanisms for providing inclusive classrooms in HE is the use of non-medical helpers (NMH). In other parts of the education system NMHs are usually referred to as teaching assistants (TAs) or learning support assistants. You might be forgiven for thinking that any additional resources afforded to teachers would benefit learners but this is not necessarily the case with TAs. In some contexts, their impact can be detrimental and this can be particularly problematic for disabled learners. The research does show that TAs can reduce stress for teachers by providing additional resources and with the right training and time to liaise on targeted provision with teachers, they can have a positive effect on learning outcomes (*see below for further resources).

My research in HE demonstrates that similar issues can occur. Teaching staff were unclear on the purposes of in-class and out of class support which is provided by central services. Unfortunately, there was evidence to suggest that these support mechanisms did mitigate against inclusive practice since departmental staff defer to specialists in supporting disabled learners. Staff think along the lines of ‘this student is being supported by central services so I don’t need to do anything’. Paradoxically, when recommendations were made for changes to classroom practice tensions arose, this was despite the fact that teaching staff generally do not see themselves as experts in this area.

Solutions to this problem centre around better communication between central services and academic departments but isn’t this ever the case? I think more effective ways of solving such issues lie in embedding practice within academic departments. This could be done through employing disability coordinators linked to subject areas or giving responsibility to staff within the Faculty. Faculty staff also need to play a bigger role in developing inclusive solutions so that Learning Support Plans which contain recommendations for changes to teaching practice can be better aligned to the day-to-day reality of the lecture/seminar room.

*If you are interested in the effectiveness and the effects on classroom practice of teaching assistants in schools there are two useful international reviews available: one from the OECD and another by Sharma and Salend.

Additionally, the DISS project was a large scale study carried out by the Institute of Education in the UK, the findings of which, were disseminated through various outputs including this one at the EEF.