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What is required to support disabled and neurodiverse university students into meaningful, work-based opportunities? A consultation undertaken through the University of Plymouth’s Office for Students and Research England-funded project, Engaging Students in Knowledge Exchange, set out to answer this question by placing disabled and neurodiverse students at the centre of the conversation.

The project sought to identify and create interventions for the barriers preventing students from accessing knowledge exchange opportunities. One intervention developed through this work is a collection of 10 e-learning pathways, titled ‘The Knowledge Exchange Toolbox’. The pathways are full of interactive and engaging resources to support students before, during and after they engage in knowledge exchange activity.

Within the Toolbox is a pathway dedicated to equipping disabled and neurodiverse students with the tools to enter any work-based opportunity with confidence. Fundamental to the development of this pathway was co-working with a team of disabled and neurodiverse students through a paid consultation.

Bringing students into the conversation

The Disabled Students UK report Going Back Is Not a Choice established the importance of bringing disabled and neurodiverse students into the conversation, with data showing that students were 3.3 times less likely to consider leaving university when proactive consultation with disabled students had taken place (DSUK, 2022, p. 49). Co-working ensures that universities provide the required support by empowering students to have their voices heard and their first-hand expertise acknowledged, creating positive change for their peers and future students. As a starting point for the consultation, the pathway initially featured a small number of specialist resources on confidence building, using lived experience in applications, and information on Access to Work schemes. Despite the limited number, these resources provided the support that some students had been searching for a long time. As Rachel shares in her experience, the gap in provision creates an arduous process for disabled and neurodivergent students trying to receive the same level of employability support as their neurotypical and able-bodied peers.

‘It was actually a topic I’ve been trying to get support about before and I really struggled to get anyone to point me in the right direction … It feels like everyone else gets this massive amount of information that is relevant for them, and then we’ve missed out on that and that little bit of confidence that you need beyond university.’ – Rachel Abbott, Student Consultant.

Reflections such as Rachel’s are extremely valuable in identifying exactly where there are gaps in our provisions, both as an institution and sector, identifying the barriers that we would not have been able to rectify without their insight.

Lessons learned

Sharing personal reflections and concerns about university and working life can be an extremely challenging experience, and so as practitioners it is our responsibility to ensure these dialogues are structured in a way that is supportive and considerate of each student’s individual needs. Through these open dialogues, we learned that more support and information is required around reasonable adjustments: what students can ask for, explanations of the benefit of each adjustment and how to share these with a potential employer or client. As Rhiannon shares in her experience, failing to provide this support around reasonable adjustments creates real barriers preventing students from being able to engage with professional opportunities.

‘I went to an interview, and I did so badly in it because they were asking about what kind of support I would need, and I didn’t actually know what to say. I didn’t know. I didn’t even know what I could ask for.’ – Rhiannon Walsh, Student Consultant.

This insight signifies what Wigley (2016, p. 1) identifies as a ‘pressure to conform to the able-bodied paradigm of education’, with students attempting to ‘minimise the impact of their disability on their studies rather than access reasonable adjustments’. This repression of need generates a lack of understanding and confidence around asking for reasonable adjustments, negatively impacting students long after they graduate.

‘This repression of need generates a lack of understanding and confidence around asking for reasonable adjustments, negatively impacting students long after they graduate.’

Lack of confidence was a prominent issue identified by students, specifically around articulating lived experiences in support of an application or interview. Therefore, resources empowering students to recognise the value of their lived experiences are absolutely crucial for tackling this issue, as can be seen through Maia’s experience of engaging with the Knowledge Exchange Toolbox.

‘It [my disability] has given me skills that I didn’t really know, and I wouldn’t have if those resources hadn’t been there.’ – Maia Shillam, Student Consultant.

Through this small-scale consultation, the insights and experiences shared will continue to inform the way we develop resources and events in the future, enabling us to improve our practice and better support disabled and neurodivergent students through the Knowledge Exchange Toolbox.


References

Disabled Students UK [DSUK]. (2022). Going back is not a choice: Accessibility lessons for higher education. https://disabledstudents.co.uk/not-a-choice/  

Wigley, L. (2016). The rights and responsibilities of disabled students: A qualitative study on everyday access to reasonable adjustments. https://archive2021.parliament.scot/S5_Equal_Opps/General%20Documents/025_Wigley_Laura.pdf

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