Towards Inclusive Language: Exploring student-led approaches to talking about disability-related study needs

Lister, Katharine; McPherson, Elaine; Coughlan, Tim; Gallen, Anne-Marie and Pearson, Victoria (2019). Towards Inclusive Language: Exploring student-led approaches to talking about disability-related study needs. In: Proceedings of the 12th annual International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation (ICERI 2019), IATED pp. 1444–1453.


To support inclusive and equitable study, universities often categorise students as ‘disabled’ in order for them to access support for their studies, and require them to engage with terms such as ‘disclosing a disability’ and ‘reasonable adjustments’. This pathologises them by requiring them to identify as ‘different’ even if they do not consider themselves to be. Indeed, many students report that they feel uncomfortable with this; they do not identify as ‘disabled’, and this can discourage students from informing the university about their ‘disability’ and can create barriers to accessing support.

There is little understanding of how members of these diverse populations identify themselves or their preferences for discussing ‘disability-related’ support. In this paper, we report on a study where we sought to understand students’ language styles and preferences when it comes to discussing disability and study requirements, and contrast these with the language used throughout our institution (and UK higher education institutions in general). The aim of the project was to investigate the language that students feel comfortable using when talking about their ‘disabilities’ and to identify gaps between the language students use to describe their own disabilities and the language used in UK higher education.

We initially utilised a mixed-methods approach to investigate students’ perspectives of language. This combined a qualitative approach using discourse and positioning analysis techniques to investigate the language students use, and a quantitative approach to analyse these results at scale. Survey results showed that terminology addressing students as ‘disabled’ was uncomfortable for many (particularly those with mental health conditions or specific learning difficulties); ‘additional study needs’ was preferred. However, we found divergence in these preferences across contexts, rather than consistent preference for any recognised language model. We also identified clusters with significantly different perspectives on language within the population.

The project team then worked with a wide range of stakeholders to collaboratively develop guidance for student-facing staff, and researchers and policy-makers to use when talking to students about disability. We also developed guidance for students to explain the type of language commonly used by universities around disability. In this paper, we explain the process we followed to turn the findings of the first stage of the research into guidance. We explore the issues staff raised and how these led to the creation of suitable research-informed guidance on language use. Through this, we draw conclusions on how to develop suitable understanding of inclusive language across an educational institution. These include the sensitivities both staff and students may feel regarding terminology such as ‘needs assessments’ and ‘adjustments’, the importance of mirroring language in a one-to-one setting and the need to provide clear examples as well as abstract terms. This guidance will support staff to use, investigate and influence language used to discuss disability-related study needs, with a view to moving towards inclusive, student-led language approaches.

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