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Blog post Part of special issue: A new ecology of higher education: Disability, access, participation and belonging

Editorial: A new ecology of higher education: Disability, access, participation and belonging

Suanne Gibson Francesca Peruzzo, Research Fellow at University of Birmingham

On 25 May 2022, Plymouth Institute of Education ran an international webinar, ‘Matters of “access” and “disability”: exploring and affecting systemic and cultural change in and for Higher Education’, with 210 academics, students, education practitioners and policymakers from the UK and various international locations. Keynotes were given by Lord Chris Holmes (All Party Parliamentary Group on Assistive Technology and the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee) and Mette Westander, founding director of Disabled Students UK (DSUK), with additional papers from Suanne Gibson (organiser and co-chair) and Cara Baer.

The overarching message and position from across the work and delegate engagement was ‘Nothing about us without us!’, a phrase coined by Charlton (2000), which still emanates the struggles of disabled activists, their families and disability organisations in claiming the application of the Social Model of Disability. These engagements and positioning spurred a series of questions related to the potential social and political implications raised by the event:

  • How do we co-create collaboration and partnership for self-determination, equal rights and access in higher education spaces?
  • How can we ensure that disabled students’ successful and quality experience of higher education is student-led and informed?

What emerged from this event was a clear drive and delegates’ commitment to a more inclusive and equitable approach to disability and diversity in higher education, opening a space for connecting voices, provisions, policy strategies and theory to support effective change to inclusion policy and practice in the UK higher education sector.

One of the outcomes of the commitment among delegates and speakers to tackle inequities in higher education is this BERA Blog special series – ‘A New Ecology of Higher Education: Disability, Access, Participation and Belonging’. This special series aims to push higher education towards a new ecology that embraces the values and voices of disabled students, and places inclusion and equity at the forefront of the sector’s policy priorities and objectives. We are using the term ‘ecology’ to describe the interconnected and entangled nature of disability as a part of higher education policy and practice that includes the following bodies: students, government policymakers, academic communities, student services, third-sector organisations, and other linked non-academic organisations and communities. An ecological approach can effectively shed light on the synergy that connects a variety of stakeholders in creating universities as inclusive spaces for disabled students and academic communities alike.

This collection of blog posts brings to the fore issues on participation, belonging, accessibility and lack of inclusivity that pre-existed and emerged after the Covid-19 pandemic series of lockdowns.

Mette Westander presents some key lessons for the higher education sector from a report published by Disabled Students UK drawing upon the survey responses of more than 300 disabled students from universities across the UK. In his blog post, Lord Chris Holmes discusses current problematics and under-used potentials of the disabled students’ allowance, and provides recommendations that look into more efficient and transparent communication across the secondary school sector, local authorities, universities, students and assessors. Nicole Brown, relatedly, presents the consequences of non-disclosure of disability and conditions for individuals and institutions alike, stressing the importance of implementing relevant policies and guidelines to encourage disclosure rates, so students feel seen, and so the sector does not lose an exciting talent pool. In their blog, Zeta Williams-Brown, Suanne Gibson and Jen Shute present findings from a study conducted with Disabled Students UK in 2021/22 which highlight the state of widening participation policies in British universities, showing how more effective policies are needed to tackle discrimination, foster sense of belonging and enact accessibility for disabled students. Rille Raaper and Francesca Peruzzo draw upon findings from a project on disabled students’ activism and university student unions, and they discuss the importance of the political dimension of disability, illustrating learning lessons from disabled student officers in English universities on how to bring accessibility and inclusion in universities through creativity, care, counternarratives and collectivism that respect diversity. Vikki Anderson provides clear directions on how to mobilise existing practices in inclusive assessment and Universal Design for Learning by drawing upon disabled students’ accounts and their experience of the pandemic to reconceptualise assessment and feedback practices through a process of inclusive, future-oriented design that recognises the differences between equal opportunity and equity. In their post, Cara Baer, Nina Kearney and James Boote present the project of the Writing Café as a space of peer-support that facilitated inclusion by shifting the power dynamics of academia, empowering students who are seeking support to have agency over their ideas and knowledge. And lastly, Katie Stote, Maia Shillam, Rhiannon Walsh and Rachel Abbott connect disabled and neurodiverse students’ experiences and successful engagement with knowledge exchange opportunities by presenting a set of resources that challenge barriers to accessing learning and work opportunities.

The editors would like to thank these fantastic contributors, who engaged with and responded in richly critical ways to the questions a new ecology raised in relation to their work. The special series will be of particular interest to academic staff, practitioners, students and policymakers, advancing questions and suggestions on how to improve disabled students’ experiences in higher education. The new ecology we present is a collective endeavour, where students, government policymakers, academic communities, student services, third-sector organisations, and other linked non-academic organisations and communities play a powerful and determinant role in providing evidence-based accounts to inform policy development, enactment and evaluation, and effectively contribute towards inclusive higher education policies, systems and cultures.


Charlton, J. (2000). Nothing about us without us: Disability, oppression and empowerment. University of California Press.