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Assistive Technology within Higher Education in UK

ATHEN E-Journal #3 (2007)

E.A. Draffan
Learning Societies Lab, ECS
University of Southampton


In the UK there is legislation and guidance for the support of disabled students within Higher Education. There are technologies that can be used to assist with study skills alongside human support. The numbers of disability-related departments, centres and suppliers have increased over time. There are assessment procedures that are quality assured and suppliers that have agreed to certain service levels. However, these policies and procedures do not necessarily help the assessor and student to make successful choices from a wide range of assistive technologies. There is still a need to improve this aspect of student support.


There are increasing numbers of disabled students in the UK who have expectations that they will be able to access further and higher education. The universities and colleges have, over recent years, responded to the demands of legislation and inclusive teaching practices in order to support these students.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was amended in 2001 to include all educational establishments with the underlying principle that there should be no discrimination or less favourable treatment on the grounds of disability. This means that ‘reasonable adjustments’ have to be made to meet the needs of disabled students. It is not only the buildings that need to be accessible but also the teaching and learning practices. This has to be achieved ‘in anticipation’ of these students coming to the university or college and cannot be retroactively applied just because, for instance, one blind student suddenly arrives to take a course.

Around five percent of the student population has a disability, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, of which a large proportion has specific learning difficulties including dyslexia.

Graph showing numbers of disabled students in UK 2003-2004 where around the numbers of dyslexic students is double any of the others

Fig 1. HESA statistics % of Disabled Students in HE 2003-2004

Support Available for Disabled Students

Support is offered by the universities and colleges, and can be purchased from outside where individual needs arise. Most institutions now have a disability officer or equivalent with a department that provides the administrative support for students who need note takers, guidance and training in specific study skills. There are often general support departments that provide course-related study skills advice, technology support and welfare advice.

In the United Kingdom students in higher education are eligible for the Disabled Students Allowances (DSA). These are non-means-tested grants, payable to both full-time and part-time students whether studying on a campus or working through distance learning courses such as those offered by the Open University. These allowances are provided by the government through various funding authorities, usually after a study needs assessment has been undertaken by an Assessment Centre located in an educational institution or within a region. The DSAs cover four areas:

  1. Specialist equipment allowance for assistive technologies such as screen reading or text-to-speech systems, speech recognition, alternative input devices, etc.
  2. Non-medical helper allowance – for example note-takers, interpreters, specialist study skill support.
  3. General Disabled Students’ Allowance – to cover, for example, insurance, access to the internet, Braille paper and photocopying costs.
  4. Reasonable spending on extra travel costs.

If the student has a complex disability requiring more than just study needs support then it is possible to seek day care and personal assistance through the student’s local Social Services department. The student may also receive funds through a Disabled Living Allowance.

Universities receive extra finances from the Higher Educational Funding Council in order to help to improve the overall provision for students who have a disability with the aim of encouraging a more inclusive approach. This is being backed by new legislation requiring public bodies to promote a proactive approach through their ‘Disability Equality Schemes’.

Ensuring the Support Provided Meets a High Standard

Over the years a variety of different services have grown up around the various funding streams and some of these are now being quality assured.

Within universities this comes through the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Code of Practice for students with disabilities which states that institutions should consider disabled students in every aspect of planning and administration of academic and social activities.

There are now regular audits provided under the guidance of a ‘Quality Assurance Framework’ for the centres that provide assessments. The reports that are generated from the study needs and strategy assessments cover all aspects of the student’s disability in relation to the course they wish to undertake and their proposed learning environments. The assessor needs to discuss the student’s skills, prior knowledge and use of technology, as well as introducing new technologies and offering other support where necessary.

The equipment provided is designed to help support the students with their course and is oriented towards assistive technology that integrates with courseware or the virtual learning environments used. Although the majority of the equipment tends to be electronic in nature, and covers the widest range possible for those with disabilities, it may also include ergonomic items to increase comfort levels when working with a computer, or overlays, handheld magnifiers, etc., when working with paper-based resources.

There is also a specialist ‘Suppliers’ Service Level Agreement’ for monitoring delivery time scales and standards of support when the equipment is purchased. These audits are ideally carried out on a regular basis but recent changes in the organisation that manages the system has resulted in delays, a certain amount of confusion across the sector and concerns for future support. More importantly, there is still no quality assurance framework for checking that the best match is made between the individual and the choice of technologies and that these choices are regularly reviewed.

Making Choices

In the English speaking world there is a huge selection of assistive technologies available; there are problems occurring with the methods of categorisation used for the various assistive technologies, and the labels chosen for disability are invariably simplistic. For instance, they do not take into account ‘comorbidity’, where a person may have a combination of difficulties that impact on their learning skills such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, or Usher’s Syndrome (with both hearing and visual difficulties).

The general categories used in many of the resources available do not highlight individual strengths and weaknesses or coping strategies that have been developed over time and these issues rarely fit into neat groupings. It is also true to say that disabled students often find different methods for working with on-line materials when using assistive technologies which may make the label given for the disability an irrelevance.

Simply providing feature lists for the technologies fails to take into account the minute differences between the packages or devices, let alone the emotions involved when making a choice. At the end of the day it is often the assessor who makes the choice rather than the student, who may not have the experience. It is rare that there is time for trial periods or sufficient chance to review the situation. It is time to ask more in-depth questions, to provide better reviews of technologies and enhance on-line information resources for both the users of the technologies and the professionals.


Although over recent years great strides have been made to enhance accessibility and encourage equality for all, across campuses in the UK, there is still much to be achieved. When considering the small world of assistive technology it remains essential that the assessment procedures for the use of the equipment and support strategies offered are sufficiently flexible. They need to allow for more time to evaluate the outcomes of the choices made and the procedures that have been set in place for training and ongoing support.

Those who understand the complexities of the new e-learning materials and social networking collaborative technologies need to help to bridge the knowledge gap existing between the aforementioned assessors and the technology developers (who design the assistive technologies). More in-depth training on the use of assistive technologies with on-line or e-learning materials is required for both tutors and students in order to ease the use of the materials as the learning experience takes place.

All learners benefit from teaching environments that offer a wide range of multimedia learning materials and there should be a variety of learning activities that can be taken up within different time scales with the option of using assistive technologies that do not require complex skills. The user needs to feel enabled to make the best choice of supporting technologies that provide the chance to control their learning environment in their preferred manner, whether this means changing colours, enlarging fonts or using screen-reading tools.


  1. Riddell, S, Tinklin, T and Wilson, A (2004) Disabled students and multiple policy innovations in higher education, Final report to ESRC, Edinburgh: Centre for Educational Sociology, University of Edinburgh. ( )
  2. Higher Education Statistics Agency
  3. Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Code of Practice for students with disabilities (
  4. Skills for Access project funded by HEFCE 2003/5 site is at: