Equity Groups: Students with Disabilities

This blog post is part of the Gonski Institute for Education’s open access annotated bibliography (OAAB) series, a project led by Dr Sally Baker. OAABs offer a snapshot of some of the available literature on a particular topic. The literature is curated by a collective of scholars who share an interest in equity in education. These resources are intended to be shared with the international community of researchers, students, educators and practitioners. The literature has been organised thematically according to patterns that have emerged from a deep and sustained engagement with the various fields.

As an identified equity group, both in legislative and higher education policy terms, students with disabilities have also been a growing focus of attention, particularly in terms of funded projects from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE). This literature is broadly focused on three things: firstly, it has offered characterisations of the composition of the students with disabilities population is (in terms of what disabilities are most reported in enrolment data); secondly, it outlines the challenges and barriers that students with disabilities can face; and thirdly, it explores institutional responses to such issues.  

The numbers of students with self-reported disabilities has grown steadily over recent years, growing from 3.67% to 5.04% of commencing and enrolled undergraduate population (Kilpatrick et al., 2016). In terms of characterising the student population, there appears to have been a significant shift in the types of disabilities that students report (although see Kilpatrick et al., 2016 for a counter view). In 2001, when Foreman et al. conducted their research at the University of Newcastle, students self-reported having the following disabilities: 

  • 32% had physical disabilities 

  • 12% had visual disabilities 

  • 10% had medical disabilities 

  • 22% had multiple disabilities 

Compared with a matched group of students without disabilities, the students with disabilities tended to be older (more over 30) and more were female. The majority of enrolments were in the Faculty of Arts and Social Science (40% compared with 19% of the matched group). In contrast, Ganguly et al.’s (2015) NCSEHE-funded research suggests that although the pattern towards older and female students persists, the most common reported disabilities were mental-psychological rather than physical conditions; 35% reported having psychological conditions, and 55% reported having more than one ‘comorbid’ condition. Similarly, in Kent’s (2016) NCSEHE-funded study of online students with disabilities, nearly half of his participants reported having a mental illness (44.9%), compared with 39.2% who reported having medical impairments and 25.3% who reported issues with mobility. Kent also found a strong trend towards older female students in the Arts and Humanities (the average age in his study was 42 and 71.4% of respondents were female). In their 2016 project, Owen et al. focus specifically on students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, because of expected growth in students with autism, and an existing “failure of existing supports” (p.5). Therefore, while strong and persistent patterns prevail in terms of the age range and gender of students with disabilities, the types of illnesses appear to have shifted towards what Ganguly et al. call ‘invisible’ disabilities such as mental health and psychological disorders. However, this may be a result of changing methods of categorising disabilities, and inconsistent methods of collecting data (as much is based on students self-reporting, which is associated with stigma and shame). As such researchers have called for improved methods of data collection and a consistent set of measures across the sector (Ganguly et al. 2015; Kent, 2016; Brett, 2016; Kilpatrick et al., 2016). 

The challenges faced by students with disabilities are a significant focus of the literature. These can take the form of physical impediments (such as location, physical access of campuses, rooms and materials) (Gabel & Miskovic, 2017), modes of study (particularly with online students (Kent, 2016; Ganguly et al., 2015), relationships with teaching staff, and issues with retention and success (Gabel & Miskovic, 2017). Kilpatrick et al.’s (2016) NCSEHE-funded research suggests that students with disabilities experience external environmental factors that impede their learning, such as “being misunderstood by teaching staff, unsupportive attitudes of university administrative staff, inaccessible course materials, peer ridicule, financial difficulties, low expectations, frequent staff turnover in [Disability Resource Offices], health, counseling”, contributing to slightly lower success rates overall (see also Foreman et al., 2001), and consistently lower retention for students who seek disability support. In addition, findings from Ryan (2011) highlighted the limited knowledge of educators regarding the legislative responsibility of university staff and students  under the Australian Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) (1992) in nursing programs at HE. This often led to unsupportive behavior towards students with disabilities in the university. Furthermore, Owen et al. (2016) argue that in contrast to other disabilities, the specific needs of students with autism mean that built environment needs to be carefully considered (e.g. the sensory-scape), and that due to struggles with social interaction these students are less likely to seek support from conventional support services.  The limited disclosure of students’ disabilities in HE was also observed in Vickerman & Blundell’s study (2010), which revealed that only 5.6% of students (out of 504 participants) disclosed their disabilities, compared to the UK average of 6.9%. Findings from Grimes et al. (2018) study suggest that students’ reasons for non-disclosure were influenced by various factors, including age, gender, first in family status and Indigenous status. Other significant reasons mentioned by participants include the perception that their learning challenge is an individual responsibility, the perceived stigma towards students with disabilities, and the desire to be viewed and treated as a ‘normal’ student (Grimes et al., 2018). In terms of participation in HE, Wray (2013) identified several factors that were significant barriers or enablers to the participation of students with disabilities. Findings from Wray’s (2013) study suggests that students’ motivations for pursuing HE were highly influenced by significant others, as well as their perceived future job prospects and their liking towards the subjects studied. However, negative experiences from school, including inefficient delivery of education and negative expectations from teachers appear to be a significant barrier in the students’ participation in HE (Wray, 2013).  

These studies highlight a need for higher education institutions to pay more attention and offer more resources and more nuanced approaches to support the participation, learning and success of students with a variety of disabilities or disorders. The role of significant others in facilitating students’ participation in HE highlights the critical role of university staff in supporting the needs of students with disabilities in universities (Wray, 2013). Kilpatrick et al. (2016) therefore call for more training for staff at all levels (academic, teaching, professional) to raise awareness of issues and possible resolutions. Similarly, Vickerman & Blundell (2010) highlight the importance of educating and training university staff to respond proactively to the various needs of students with disabilities. Ganguly et al. (2015) also make a similar recommendation, particularly for students who suffer from mental illness and medical disabilities because reasonable adjustments are often made on the assumption of physical disabilities. Specifically, the opportunities and constraints related to online learning require additional attention (Kent, 2015; Ganguly et al., 2015; Kilpatrick et al., 2016), as do the needs of students with autism (Owen et al., 2016). Apart from that, Vickerman and Blundell (2010) also urge HE institutions to be more proactive at the pre-entry to university stage to encourage more students to disclose their disability, with an assurance that they will be treated with respect and empathy, and a commitment to address any significant barriers students might encounter in accessing and participating in HE.  

To a lesser degree than with low SES students, there is a suggestion that deficit is extended to students with disabilities, albeit less about adapting to the expectations and practices of higher education and more at the level of adapting to the culture of the institution by self-reporting any disabilities.  Michael Kent’s (2016) work is located specifically within a social model of disability, thus explicitly resisting an approach that places the onus on the individual to adapt and adjust to the institution. Indeed, Kent (2015) contends that a social model can advocate for a collective approach to countering such deficit narratives: “By putting the focus on the disabling role of society, rather than an individual body that needs to be ‘made well’, the model allows for people with many separate impairments to come together to demand social change” (p.147). Working from the legislative context, it is more likely the case that the institution needs to adapt to accommodate students with disabilities, and this is particularly evident in the publishing of inherent requirements for courses. The NCSEHE-funded work of Brett et al. (2016) specifically examines the context of inherent requirement statements, responding to a dearth of research on institutional responses to the need to make reasonable adjustments that can be made to enable participation of students with disabilities in HE. Their research highlights how there is limited use of inherent requirement statements, with only 78 from a sample of 419 courses audited (only 18.6%) including such statements, and they observed substantial variation (in the terms used, length and nature of academic descriptors, which included, extent to which related to legislation, cross-referencing to other materials/documents, formats) across the 78 statements. Brett et al. (2016) argue that the inconsistent use of inherent requirements statements, and the lack of consistency across them “create information asymmetry” (p.3) which can disadvantage students and has an impact on equity and participation. Moreover, there are legal implications for institutions, as “Differences in inherent requirement statements may influence the provision and denial of specific reasonable adjustments across the sector placing universities at heightened risk of complaint and litigation” (2016, p.3).  

Annotation written by Anna Xavier 



Brett, M., Harvey, A., Funston, A., Spicer, R. & Wood, A. (2016).  The Role of Inherent  

Requirement Statements in Australian Universities. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth. 

Foreman, P.; Dempsey, I; Robinson, G.; & Manning, E. (2001). Characteristics, Academic and Post-university Outcomes of Students with a Disability at the University of Newcastle, Higher Education Research & Development, 20(3), 313-325. 

Gabel, S. L. and Miskovic, M. (2014). Discourse and the containment of disability in higher education: an institutional analysis. Disability and Society, 29(7), 1145-1158. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2014.910109  

Ganguly, R., Brownlow, C., Du Preez, J. & Graham, C. (2015). Resilience/Thriving in Post-Secondary Students with Disabilities. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth. 

Grimes, S., Southgate, E., Scevak, J. and Buchanan, R. (2018). University student perspectives   on institutional non-disclosure of disability and learning challenges: reasons for   staying invisible. International Journal of Inclusive Education, DOI:10.1080/13603116.2018.1442507  

Kent, M. (2016). Access and Barriers to Online Education for People with Disabilities. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth. 

Kilpatrick, S., Johns, S., Barnes, R., McLennan, D., Fischer, S. & Magnussen, K. (2016). Exploring the Retention and Success of Students with Disability. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth. 

Owen, C., McCann, D., Rayner, C., Devereaux, C., Sheehan, F. & Quarmby, L. (2016) Supporting Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Higher Education. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth. 

Ryan, J. (2011). Access and participation in higher education of students with disabilities: access to what:?, The Australian Educational Researcher, 38, 73-93. 

Vickerman, P. and Blundell, M. (2010). Hearing the voices of disabled students in higher education, Disability & Society, 25(1), 21-32. DOI: 10.1080/09687590903363290  

Wray, M. (2013). Comparing disabled students’ entry to higher education with their non-  disabled peers – barriers and enablers to success, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 14(3), 87-101. 

Dr Sally Baker is a lecturer for the School of Education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Sally’s research primarily focuses on equity in higher education, with her main interests being education policy, experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and educational transitions. She is currently the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group and the educational focal point in the Forced Migration Research Network at UNSW.

The thematic organisation of the open access annotated bibliographies (OAABs) does not reflect the intersecting and complex overlaps of the various foci in the literature, so please keep in mind that this is an interpretive exercise and one that could easily be reworked by another set of authors. An important note to make is that these resources should not be read as ‘the reading’ of any piece — rather they reflect the interpretive lens of a small number of people and should therefore be used as a ‘way in’ to the academic and grey literature. Hyperlinks have been provided to each entry (where possible) so that you may be able to access the original texts (although many of these will be hidden behind pay walls, which we cannot override for copyright reasons).

Furthermore, it is important to note that these resources are not a ‘finished product’; rather, they are reflective of an on-going, iterative engagement with the inter/national literature that critically engages with issues relating to equity in education. As such, there are unintentional omissions in these resources — if you see a gap in the literature, please feel free to make this clear, or offer an entry for inclusion. This annotated bibliography will be updated every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter.

Equity Groups: Students with Disabilities