Learning Needs, Barriers, Differences and Study Requirements: How Students Identify as ‘disabled’ in Higher Education

Lister, Kate; Coughlan, Tim and Owen, Nathaniel (2020). Learning Needs, Barriers, Differences and Study Requirements: How Students Identify as ‘disabled’ in Higher Education. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 22(1) pp. 95–111.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.5456/WPLL.22.1.95

Abstract

Higher educational institutions (HEIs) often categorise certain students as ‘disabled’ in order to support inclusive and equitable study. ‘Disabled’ students studying in higher education may be asked to ‘disclose a disability’, request and agree ‘reasonable adjustments’ that their institution will ‘provide’ them, and engage with processes such as applying for ‘Disabled Students’ Allowance’. However, there is little understanding of preferences and comfort with language in this area, and if students do not identify with terms such as ‘disabled’, this can create barriers to requesting or accessing support. This paper describes a qualitative study to investigate language preferences for common points of communication with the HEI. We held interviews and focus groups with students (n=12) and utilised discourse analysis to investigate the language used and student perceptions of language. We identified three distinct models of language used to discuss study needs relating to a ‘disability’, each with language norms and specific nomenclature. Furthermore, we found divergence in preferences in language, leading us to argue that differential and inclusive approaches to language use should be explored.

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