When I think about higher education and disability, I think about something the inspirational Professor Stephen Hawking once said. He advised people with disabilities to “concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with”. These are wise words.
The Open University aims to enable all our students, including those with disabilities or health conditions, to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential through engaging in higher education. Our vision is to reach more people with life-changing learning that meets their needs. We are open to people, places, methods and ideas – anyone can study with us, anywhere, through our innovative approach to teaching and learning, and our willingness to embrace new technologies and thinking.
Contextualised admission is a hot topic in Scottish higher education at the moment: how can we ensure that university admissions processes take account not just of the qualifications potential student has acquired, but their background, their experience, their skills, and – perhaps most importantly – ensure that their potential is not overlooked? This is where the Open University’s open access policy is unique. If you would like to study with us, we would like to try to help you to achieve your potential – whoever you are and wherever you are starting from.
The proportion of new undergraduates with a declared disability at The Open University in Scotland rose from 14% in 2012/13 to 19% in 2016/17 and, for continuing undergraduates, from 17% in 2012/13 to 23% in 2016/17. That means that in 2016/17, 21% – one in five – of our now almost 16,000 students in Scotland told us they have a disability. This in turn enables us to assess their needs and work together to identify how we can best provide support – where that’s necessary.
Perhaps one reason for the high proportion of students with disabilities studying at The Open University in Scotland is that we bring university to the student – rather than requiring them to go to university. That can be a challenge for lots of reasons, including for those with, for example, anxiety issues or mobility difficulties.
Maybe another reason is that at the OU we have almost 50 years of experience of supporting students who have a lot going on in their lives: be that work, family or other caring responsibilities, disabilities or health conditions. Our associate lecturers and support teams are experienced in helping people to overcome barriers – whatever they may be – to achieve their learning goals. Like the proverbial stick of rock, a commitment to social justice runs through The Open University, and this is demonstrated day-in, day-out by the commitment of our staff.
Our experience demonstrates that dreaming, believing and engaging in higher education can lead individuals to achieve remarkable outcomes. An outstanding example is Sheila, from Motherwell, who graduated last year. An accident at work means she now uses a wheelchair and she has experienced anxiety and depression. As a student, she was elected Chair of The OU’s Disabled Students’ Group. She extended support for other students with disabilities by setting up a Facebook support group. A great role model for others.
We know a lot of good work is happening across the sector – but none of us can afford to be complacent. At The Open University across the UK we are committed to reducing the completion gap that currently exists between students with a disability and the whole student population.
Disability is a protected characteristic under equalities legislation, but I would argue that as higher education providers we have a moral obligation to ensure that anyone with the potential to benefit from higher education can do so. As a number of OU students prepare to compete for Scotland in the Gold Coast, in para-sport and otherwise, perhaps in this Paralympic and Commonwealth Games year it’s a good time to reflect on what “going for gold” means in the context of supporting students with disabilities.
Shona Littlejohn is Depute Director, Student Experience and Widening Access, at The Open University in Scotland.