Seema Malhotra MP: Assistive technology can help 'even the playing field' for disabled people

Posted On: 
24th January 2018

Technology is beginning to transform modern higher education and with that bringing the opportunity to increase employability and skills, says Seema Malhotra MP.

Credit: 
PA Images

This week the APPG on Assistive Technology, which I co-chair, is making a visit to the University of Westminster Sticky Campus, a trailblazing inclusive learning environment in Higher education. As technology develops, so does its ability to transform. Technology is beginning to transform modern higher education and with that bringing the opportunity to increase employability and skills. Both online and on campus technology is increasingly central to university teaching. But increased access to higher education and delivery of outcomes for people with disabilities has got to be an ongoing partnership between the role of the state, universities and industry.

We know the challenge is huge. When we launched the APPG just before the March budget last year, the first area of work we sought to look at was how technology can keep people with disabilities in education and in the workplace. This is a huge issue of equality in which not nearly enough progress has been made.

The disability employment gap refers to the difference in employment rates between people with a disability and those without a disability. In April-June 2017, the gap was 31.3 percentage points. The employment rate for disabled people was 49.2% while the employment rate for people who are not disabled was 80.6%. (Source: ONS)

Higher education institutions (HEIs) are also required to provide assistance to disabled students. Under the Equality Act 2010, HEIs are under a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled students are not treated unfavourably compared to other students.

So exploring the trends and what is happening today is important for politicians and the public alike. Universities are increasingly recognising the need to become inclusive learning environments for both disabled and non-disabled students.  At The Sticky Campus, the new high tech learning space at Westminster University, the principles of inclusive design have been incorporated from the beginning so that disabled and non-disabled students alike can collaborate in real time each using technology in a way that fits his or her needs. This cutting-edge model of inclusive learning can serve as a paradigm for the higher education sector – collaborative technology can drive excellence in teaching for all students.

The Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) comprises four separate allowances is a non-means tested grant that is paid by the Government to eligible disabled students, to cover the extra study costs that are incurred because of their disability.

In April 2014, the Government announced proposals to change DSAs and to transfer much of the responsibility for funding support for disabled students away from the Government and onto HEIs. The changes were implemented from the 2016-17 academic year, a year later than originally planned. From 2015-16, however, disabled students have been required to contribute the first £200 towards a computer.  

Keeping these policy changes under review is critical for the Government as some indicative data suggests lower take up and with that potentially lower levels of achievement.

The Student Loans Company data from November 2017 gives a breakdown of DSA recipients from 2010-11 onwards. The number of full-time undergraduate DSA recipients increased from 47,400 in 2010-11 to 58,900 in 2015-16. Provisional data shows this falling to 54,900 full-time undergraduate recipients of DSAs in 2016-17, and it will be important to see if this increases when final data is published. The Student Loans Company does not publish data on acceptance/rejection rates for DSAs.   

There is positive news to recognise. The number of UK-domiciled entrants to full-time first degree courses with a known disability was 44,250 in 2015-16, which was an increase of 56 per cent since 2010-11. However of those with a known disability, about 18,750 (42 per cent) were in receipt of Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA).  Data suggests that students with DSA do better in terms of completing than those who don’t. Some evidence suggests students who don’t have DSA support have lower completion rates and this is a worrying trend. The £200 excess fee and reduced support in the class room may well be contributing to the drop in disabled students applying for DSA and if so, this must be kept under close review.

The impact of inequality in education and the workplace can also be long term. The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services produced a report that shows that, in 2015 “disabled graduates were more likely to be unemployed than non-disabled graduates” six months after graduation. A DfE report also found that, with respect to graduates, “There are observable differences in employment outcomes by disability” (page 16) in that disabled graduates are less likely to gain “higher skilled” employment. A HEFCE report found that even “after accounting for the modelled factors [i.e. entry qualifications], graduates with disabilities have a lower actual percentage [grade] than predicted for all entry qualification groups.”

The University of Westminster is in the process of a five-year rolling programme to redesign all classrooms with the goal of making the spaces that incorporate online learning and other universities are making changes too to become global leaders in inclusive learning. But support for students with disabilities must continue to be based on research and evidence about what is making the difference. The work of universities in investing in new technologies, changes in culture and attitudes of the workplace are making a huge contribution but the role of the State in helping ensure the most level playing field and the best possible outcomes will continue to be essential.

Seema Malhotra is the Labour Member of Parliament for Feltham and Heston, and Co-Chair of the APPG on Assistive Technology