September 7, 2005

New Support for Disabled Research Students

A team from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne has developed the world's first web-based resource aimed at supporting disabled research students through their courses.

The resource was developed after research by the University found that many disabled postgraduate research students faced barriers which hindered progress and dampened confidence.

The research also showed that supervisors and institutional staff could readily help remove or lessen the barriers, by putting more thought into tailoring the research environment and their working practices to meet the requirements of these students.

These findings led to the development of a world-first web-based resource specifically aimed at those who work with disabled postgraduate research students. It will be launched on September 8 at the British Academy in London and has the potential to be used by higher education institutions around the world.

Newcastle University led the study and the creation of the website as part of the three-year Premia project, which received £150,000 in funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Wales.

The wide array of materials on the website are aimed at making research education more accessible from the time students apply for a course until they finish their studies and start their careers.

Resources include over 60 themed units including creating accessible information about research study, working with research students with reading difficulties, making adjustments to supervisory practice, to inclusive vivas and making the transition to employment.

The library has self-audit tools to help staff prepare for disabled research students before they start their postgraduate degrees, a plain English glossary of key research terms and testimonies from students to give an insight into the types of issues they face.

About 5 per cent of the postgraduate research population is disabled including students with specific learning difficulties like dyslexia, physical or sensory impairments and mental health difficulties.

The study surveyed 37 disabled postgraduates at a range of UK higher education institutions. The Newcastle University team was told that life as a disabled postgraduate researcher was very different from life as a disabled undergraduate, because the pattern of work and the roles of staff had changed. For example, researchers are expected to spend more long periods working unsupervised, they may have to carry out fieldwork, attend conferences elsewhere in the UK and the world, and they may also have teaching responsibilities.

However, the disabled researchers identified a variety of barriers that they regularly faced, many related to supervision. Many research supervisors had not thought about how to adapt the traditional working environment or did not reshape their working practices to provide the relevant and appropriate support a disabled student may need.

For example, one student with a physical-mobility impairment said six months of PhD time had been lost because the supervisor did not understand the difficulties faced in executing a planned schedule of fieldwork. Another student with chronic fatigue syndrome was expected to attend a lengthy seminar which involved a period of walking around.

Among the many other issues highlighted were inaccessible information about research opportunities; slow processing of funding for learning support; impenetrable research terminology; health and safety considerations and more.

However, many examples of good practice were also found by the Newcastle team and are included on the website. A blind student praised the supervisors who rethought the way they gave feedback on progress, and a wheelchair user was 'very happy' with a department who provided a special desk, designed a mouse pad and ensured access to a special toilet with a wide door.

Val Farrar, Premia project officer, said: "These students' stories show that, however well-prepared, flexible and student-centred an institution sees itself, individuals can experience it as ill-prepared, inflexible and staff-centred.

"It shows that universities have to ask themselves rigorous questions "“ for example, do we systematically seek feedback from disabled students? Are we willing to tackle the issues they raise? Are we reactive to crises rather than reflective in our practice?"

"We hope the Premia project will raise awareness of the situations faced by disabled postgraduate research students and will meet staff development needs with its focused training resources."

On the World Wide Web:

University of Newcastle upon Tyne