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International Day of the Disabled Person 2017

Published: 03/12/2017

ECU’s Senior Policy Adviser Megan Dunn blogs to mark International Day of the Disabled Person 2017.

Sunday 3 December marks the International Day of the Disabled Person. Universities across the UK will be marking the day, and Disabled History month, with a variety of events, campaigns and celebrations.

It also gives us the chance to reflect on how we, within higher education, support disabled students. How we remove barriers, and how we work in partnership with disabled students to ensure the higher education environment is inclusive of all students.

Over the past few months ECU has had a number of queries on how best to support disabled international students. These queries have ranged from the legal responsibilities of institutions towards disabled international students, to funding for reasonable adjustments, through to questions on the accessibility of support services for these students. For some of these questions the answers are clear, while for others, the answers are more complex, more specific to individual institutions and require a greater understanding of how disabled international students access the support available to them.

Perhaps the simplest point to address is on the legal position of disabled international students. UK higher education institutions have the same legal responsibilities for disabled international students as for UK domiciled students as outlined in the Equality Act 2010, including the responsibility to make reasonable adjustments.

However while the legal responsibilities for disabled international students is no different to UK domiciled students, the funding arrangements are distinct. While there are still some elements of Disabled Students Allowance available for UK students, there is no funding available for disabled students from outside of the UK, from the UK government, although some disabled international students may be able to get funding for adjustments from their sponsor. As outlined above, where a student is not entitled to funding the legal responsibility to make reasonable adjustments remains, and the institution is responsible for funding the adjustment in its entirety.

A consequence of the exclusion of international disabled students from the disabled students’ allowances is that it becomes up to the institution to determine whether the student in question will be required to undergo an assessment in order to identify the adjustments that the student is entitled to.  There will be many institutions who choose to have every disabled student undergo an assessment in order to ensure the adjustments they require to participate in higher education are fully considered. This has the added benefit of ensuring that the full range of potential adjustments are considered, rather than being limited to the adjustments most frequently seen by the institution or that are already known to the student.  Institutions can however find themselves overly dependent on the outcome of an assessment to make changes. Unless a student’s needs are incredibly specialised the chances are that if one student is finding that a particular part of their experience is being impeded, there are other students that feel the same way, and there may be broader actions the institution can take to ensure students aren’t encountering these barriers.

This should also be considered in the light of the Disabled Student Sector Leadership group guidance, Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Higher Education as a route to Excellence on exploring adjustments, through the lens of the social model and affirmative model of disability. The key principle of the social model is that people are disabled, not by an impairment or condition, but by the barriers put up by society and institutions. For institutions adopting the social model, working with disabled students- UK domiciled and international- will be key to identifying and removing barriers to disabled students education and experience in higher education.

Removing barriers is key, not only for students to access education, but also the support services themselves. For international disabled students accessing student support services can be a more difficult step than for UK domiciled disabled students.

In 2013 ECU published a work on supporting international disabled students after conducting research with a number of Scottish institutions. This work can be found here.

The research conducted with staff and students found that while international disabled students were pleased with the support they received once they had accessed it, they were less likely to declare an impairment on entry to the institution. Staff suspected there were students with an impairment who did not declare on entry, either because they did not wish to be seen to be ‘making excuses for themselves’, or were concerned that they may be treated differently if they disclosed.

Staff were also aware of complexities such as different cultural views and understandings of disability across and within different countries, but they were not sure they had the knowledge, capacity or time to address these. In many cases staff felt that student support services weren’t adequately resourced to be able to target the services at international students.

This highlights the need for support services to be adequately funded support services, able to understand how international students interact with the services at their institutions, how the services are perceived and what institutions can do to ensure disabled international students receive the support they are entitled to.

Key recommendations

  • Review how the disability service is publicised to ensure all students, including international students, are aware of the support available.
  • Work with other services so they can provide information on disability matters.
  • Provide training and support for service staff on how different cultural views may have an impact on international students’ decisions to access disability services.
  • Review funding for disability services so that they can better meet the demands of the Equality Act 2010 for international students.
  • Work with international recruitment staff to ensure students applying to the Institution are familiar with the support available to them
  • Consider introducing a more rigorous needs assessment process for international students, comparable to that for UK students.

For further information

For further information please see:

Or contact Megan Dunn, Senior Policy Adviser at