Technology did make all the difference

One of the best things about my job has been promoting transformation. I have enjoyed helping people, organisations and systems change their expectations in response to emerging technology. 

I started my career in Accessibility and Inclusion, by accident, more than 20 years ago, because there was little support for the increasing number of diverse adults signing up for Adult and Community Learning courses. At that time the demand for IT skills mushroomed. Targeted recruitment far outstripped both our knowledge and our capacity to respond to the many challenges that these learners faced in mainstream learning environments. 

In those 20 years much has changed. Most educational organisations actively anticipate diversity and, to varying degrees, ‘champion’ inclusion. More and more learners with additional needs are entering tertiary education and being successful.  

Technology has played a large part in this development. It allows tailored delivery to suit different learning places, lifestyles, time zones and caring responsibilities. It has made it much easier to accommodate varied learning styles and strengths, and to respond to individual needs.   

The greater success is that many learners will never need to disclose their disability or reveal a difference if they don’t want to. Unnecessary barriers can be removed, learning support strategies and productivity apps made widely available and personalised devices treated as mainstream technology so they can support themselves.  

Students with disabilities know they are entitled to support and protection from discrimination by law. Ideally, they directed to that support at induction. Within these same organisations the situation can be very different for staff. 

A recent Jisc project investigated the experience of neurodivergent staff within member organisations where students with similar needs can expect good support. It revealed that staff are still reluctant to disclose a disability, but even when they do, outcomes can vary enormously.  Pathways are not made clear and procedures for assessment don’t join up. Budgets and admin are not managed centrally. It’s time consuming, unpredictable and emotionally taxing.

Neurodivergence is very individual and many people do not consider it a disability so they shouldn’t have to ‘disclose’. It can be seen as an underused strength because many will adapt very well to existing work practices given the chance.   

Even where strategies and tools are available to support executive function, writing skills, planning and managing time and stress, they are not routinely made available to staff. 

Our members focus group, drawn from those who support both students and staff, concluded that organisations should extend the support they make available to students to their staff.

Currently this is happening on an ad hoc basis without additional resource, which puts an unacceptable strain on support staff. It’s inefficient and unsustainable and provides no opportunity to evaluate the level of need or improve the response. 

They mapped out a process that would improve things:

  • All staff are made aware of neurodiversity and any available Assistive Technology at their induction. 
  • They can access case studies, and a peer / champions network, for self-support and training. 
  • Opportunities for disclosure are highlighted throughout the induction period and regularly in the performance review process. 
  • Any member of staff can be referred easily to a centralised, named team of responsible staff across HR, Procurement, IT and training. 
  • There is a departmental budget for Assistive Technology (AT) and clear application process to encourage self-referral. 
  • A mandatory, rolling programme of line manager training and awareness raising of self-help resources. 
  • There is a monitoring process for all Assistive Technology and a feedback loop to a peer network or working group. 
  • Regular working group discusses AT provision and includes staff from across all departments and roles. 

At Jisc we really want to improve the experience of our neurodivergent colleagues so they are at their best at work. One idea was to provide a self-assessment tool, giving everyone a chance to explore how their own mind works, raising awareness of the diversity of our brains and the strategies we can employ to make work easier.  

It was a revelation to find myself described as neurodivergent, within weeks of retirement and after more than 40 years at work. I have used technology to adapt throughout my career but there are so many others who have never had that opportunity and may never know how much it could help them.

A bit late for me, but better late than never?    


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