Alistair McNaught Equality Policy & strategy Quality improvement

Humans, ladders, barriers and fish – the disability paradigm shift

""A hectic new term. You come up to breathe. Alistair McNaught explores  a new support service from Jisc and how it might help you better meet the needs of your disabled students.

The new term begins.

You have a new cohort of disabled students to work with. In many organisations, the support staff will be doing the same frustrating tasks they do every year; notetaking in the same lectures, sourcing alternative formats for the same books and journals, supporting with the same assistive technologies, running the same study skills sessions and so on.

Humans are still central to the support mechanisms.

The wrong humans?

There’s nothing wrong with humans being in the middle; humans are good, but you could argue that it’s the wrong humans. What about the humans who design and maintain the learning platform? How have they used their skills to build in accessibility features and guidance? What about the humans responsible for teaching and learning? Are they populating the learning platform with accessible content? Are they using technology to enhance the reach of the teaching and learning? And the humans who procure digital content for the library? Are they asking the right questions and demanding the right quality suppliers or do they procure inaccessible products and leave the learning support teams to pick up the pieces?

Does a fish see the water it swims in?

Last year’s changes to disabled student allowance (for English domiciled students) has begun to change the tide. Organisations begin to face the fact that supplying ladders to help students over over barriers only makes sense if you’ve already tried removing the barriers. But many of these barriers are difficult to see from inside your organisation because they’re part of your modus operandi. It’s like asking a fish if it has ever noticed the water it swims in.

This November, we are running an online course – two hours a week over four weeks – to ‘help fish see water’. We will be providing personalised input to help participants make the paradigm shift from “supporting students with accessibility barriers” to “being an inclusive organisation with fewer barriers”.

Targeted support

The course is based around the idea of making policies (i) inclusive and (ii) practically meaningful. It’s about minimising barriers for disabled students by using your technology infrastructure to provide more inclusive experiences for all. Consequently, it’s aimed at middle and senior managers who can influence policies and practices. We keep the group size small (15 maximum) allowing personalised support from both tutors and peers. This helps you explore the art of the possible within your own institution and, by running over four consecutive weeks, we provide time and tasks to help embed the actions you identify.

If you’d like to make sure that all the “right humans” are on board in your organisation or that the metaphorical fish are capable of “seeing the water” then you’ll find more details at

We’d love to see you; and work with your fish, humans, ladders or barriers – whichever you prefer!

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