Disabled physics students were the focus at launch of IOP report on inclusive learning

23 May 2017

University physics departments are showing some “fantastic examples of good practice” in including disabled students but these need to be adopted more consistently, the Institute’s head of diversity, Jenni Dyer, said at the launch of the IOP’s report, Building momentum towards inclusive teaching and learning.

Disabled physics students were the focus at launch of IOP report on inclusive learning
Wilde Fry

 

Specialist teams who visited 11 departments of physics or physics and astronomy in England for the IOP project found many examples of “a visible commitment to equality and diversity”, Dyer said, with senior management really engaged in the issues and most having a nominated member of staff responsible for disabled students’ support. But more discussion was needed about embedding these principles within departments as quite often the responses to disabled students’ needs were at risk of being “one-offs” that weren’t consistently applied or permanently built into their ways of working, she said.

The IOP invited all physics departments in England to participate in the project to find and disseminate good practice in inclusivity. Around 20 heads of department said they wished to take part, and visits were ultimately arranged at the universities of Bath, Durham, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Sussex, Warwick and York, the Open University, Lancaster University and University College London.

The IOP also surveyed all its disabled undergraduate student members, with 262 responding (a response rate of 14%), and some of their comments are mentioned in the report.

Some of the particular challenges in including disabled students in STEM subjects are around laboratory and fieldwork and scientific and mathematical notation, the report explains. However, more than one speaker at the launch noted that measures to address these, such as lecture capture by audio or video, or making lecture notes available in advance, helped all students, not just those who were disabled.

Disabled physics students were the focus at launch of IOP report on inclusive learning
Wilde Fry

Dr Phil Gravestock, (pictured left) dean of the College of Learning and Teaching at the University of Wolverhampton, said in his keynote address that in a student survey, difficulties with visual presentations were reported by 28% of disabled students but also by 33% of non-disabled students. Similarly, 19% of disabled students reported difficulties with presentations in group work but so did 29% of non-disabled students. Much work could be saved by putting measures in place from the beginning to enable all students, not just those who were disabled, to engage with the curriculum, he said.

This meant considering inclusivity at an early stage of designing the curriculum and assessment, he said. Rather than making special arrangements for assessment, such as separate rooms or extra time, for example, all students could be given the choice between a written exam or a viva, he suggested.

Disabled physics students were the focus at launch of IOP report on inclusive learning
Wilde Fry

Dr Trevor Collins, (left) research fellow in technology-enhanced learning at the Open University, said the university encouraged an inclusive mindset, which was a key part of its staff training. It also aimed to be inclusive by design and course production was undertaken by multidisciplinary teams, but not all needs could be anticipated so this was a journey rather than a destination, he said.

Dr Mark Hughes, deputy director of teaching and learning at the University of Manchester’s School of Physics, described supporting a student with Asperger’s Syndrome. Videos showing and describing the physics department, the building and the street, for example, could greatly benefit students with the condition, provided that they were unadorned with distractions, he said.

Disabled physics students were the focus at launch of IOP report on inclusive learning
Wilde Fry

Dyer noted that students with mental health conditions were the least likely to disclose them yet they were those most likely to become disabled during their courses. The IOP’s survey compared the number of students who disclosed a particular disability to the survey with the number who had disclosed it to their university and found that these matched almost exactly – except in the area of mental health. While 72 students disclosed a mental health condition to the survey, only 55 had disclosed it to their university. For a specific learning difficulty the figures were 48 and 45 respectively. Encouraging students to disclose their condition at an early stage could help to prevent them from dropping out of their courses, she said, and there needed to be clear signposting of the routes for disclosing.

Joining a Q&A discussion were Dr Abi James of Assistive Technology Ltd and Dr Margaret Meehan of Swansea Innovations Ltd, who had accompanied the teams on the site visits. The difficulty in securing work placements for disabled students was one of the issues discussed, but it was pointed out that there are legal implications for employers if they decide not to include disabled students in work placements.

The meeting also heard from Daniel Hajas, a fourth-year MPhys student at the University of Sussex, (pictured top) who is blind. Having spent his childhood living for various periods in Croatia and Hungary, he had spent the last four years studying at Sussex and was about to embark on a PhD in the UK in September. From birth until the age of four he had good sight but then became partially sighted before becoming totally blind seven years ago. He decided to study in England, having heard that more support was available there than in Hungary. Despite having assistive technology, he still found it difficult to access lecture notes and only recently was able to access scientific equations, while web resources to describe graphics often gave only limited information. But if asked if it was worth attempting the physics degree, he would answer “absolutely”, he said. It had given him valuable skills and satisfied his curiosity, he explained.

Speaking after the launch, he said: “I knew it would be more challenging than anything else but I thought ‘this is what I’m interested in so I will give it a try’. In Hungary I would probably have to do something else.” In the course of his studies he had not met anyone who was unhelpful, though “definitely there have been different levels in people being interested in trying to help,” he said. “But my head of department has been very helpful in holding personal meetings with me, helping with visual descriptions and trying to understand the software I was using.”

Maria Brook, a technician in his department at Sussex, said the non-disabled students find it really helpful when Daniel asks the lecturers to clarify something they have said, as it also helps them to understand it better.

Each of the departments visited for the project were given confidential reports highlighting their existing good practice and making suggestions for improvement. The IOP is sending Building momentum towards inclusive teaching and learning to all physics departments in the UK.