Supporting Students with Unseen Disabilities

The barriers to learning for a student with a medical condition broadly fall within three distinct categories:

Below are some specific examples of barriers to learning which may be encountered by a student with unseen disabilities, alongside some potential adjustments which could be made to overcome them.

What is an Unseen Disability?

`Unseen disability´ is a potentially confusing term, chiefly because such a wide range of medical conditions fall into this category - from individual disabilities such as asthma or epilepsy to multiple disabilities associated with chronic illnesses such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Some medical conditions may be stable, some variable and others progressive. An unseen disability may be congenital, but it can also be late onset or the result of an accident.

By definition `unseen disabilities´ are not always immediately and superficially discernible in the individual. Generally students are well-versed in managing such conditions but it is important to acknowledge that an individual´s level of health and ability to study may fluctuate. Thus it is important to maintain an open dialogue with a student where appropriate, so as to ensure that they can be effectively and sensitively supported.

How might the disability impact upon the student and how can s/he be supported?

Physical setting

A student may have several requirements with regard to the location and physical environment of taught sessions. Such sessions should be timetabled so as to ensure that venues are as accessible and close together as possible, and so that breaks between taught session/meetings provide adequate time for students to move between them easily.

Students may use specialist equipment – from assistive software to postural supports or ergonomic aids - to ensure that they can work effectively and comfortably in any learning environment. Some students may find it easier to focus if they are able to sit in a certain position in a room. Other students may need easy access to toilet facilities whilst some may simply need permission to eat or drink in lectures.

When arranging practical sessions and placements, accessibility of work spaces is a vital consideration. A student may need a parking space in close proximity to the building they will be expected to work in.

Physical adjustments to the building may be necessary. For example, a student who occasionally uses a wheelchair may need adjustable-height benches

Delivery of teaching and learning

The effects of a student´s medical condition may mean that they are unable to undertake a course of study or a placement on a full-time basis. Thus, it may be necessary to consider alternative part-time course or placement structures.

It is unlikely that a student´s medical condition will necessitate changes to the delivery of teaching. It is more probable that due to the effects of such a condition a student will require flexible timetabling and deadlines, copies of lecture notes and for alternative arrangements to be made should their health affect attendance. Staff should be understanding in regard to such absences and should ensure that lectures, seminars, etc are supported by online teaching materials In a similar way, placement providers may occasionally need to be flexible with regards to student attendance.

Fatigue often accompanies chronic medical conditions and this is likely to make it more difficult for a student to focus for extended periods of time. It is good practice to integrate clearly defined `break times´ into longer teaching slots, as these benefit all students.

Students may also find it difficult to keep detailed records of what has happened in teaching sessions and thus may benefit from lecture capture or attend with note takers.

A student may find it difficult to focus or gain momentum on work if his/her condition is fluctuating and difficulties commonly associated with many medical conditions are likely to be exacerbated in the run-up to assessment hand-ins or exam periods. Ensure that students are provided with early notification of assessment cut-off points, and maintain an open dialogue with a student regarding extensions. If a student has disclosed a disability, it is important to take this into account when considering extension requests.

Students with medical conditions often employ time-management strategies in order to minimise fatigue when working and they are commonly granted extra time and rest breaks in exams in order to do so. A student may find the physical process of writing an exam exhausting and may therefore also benefit from having a scribe whom they can dictate their answers to. In exceptional circumstances it may be necessary for examinations or assessments to be rescheduled for students with unseen disabilities. In such instances any rearranged exam should be classed as a deferral, not a re-sit.

Students may need tutors to be more flexible in terms of times of availability for supervision sessions, etc. Due to enforced absences, students with unseen disabilities may also require more contact time with tutors, so that they can check their understanding of key points. It is often useful if the tutor emails the student a concise record of what is discussed and agreed upon in a meeting.

The student´s physical and social well-being

It important that those supporting a student with a medical condition have an accurate idea of their self-expectations. Over-ambitious expectations should be managed carefully from the outset, as otherwise encountering barriers to learning is likely to have a more adverse effect on a student´s ability (and desire) to complete a course.

A student may require the provision of refrigeration facilities for storage of medicines – whether they are on campus or on placement.

It may be that symptoms of a medical condition are `triggered´ by the presence of certain substances, and it is important that any such `triggers´ are identified well in advance of such sessions/placements so that alternative arrangements can be made.

When undertaking lab work, field trips or placements, students may require assistants to help them to conduct experiments - not only to make working in such an environment as easy as possible, but also as a way of ensuring that the student can work safely. Similarly, a student who uses a wheelchair occasionally may require the provision of a Personal Assistant to provide mobility support in some situations.

If a student is to be placed away from home it is important that the overall impact of relocating is considered.