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James M Palfreman-Kay

Research Student,Department of Social and Community Studies, Faculty of Health and Community Studies, De Montfort University, Scraptoft Campus, Leicester LE7 9SU

Paper presented at Higher Education Close Up, an international conference from 6-8 July 1998 at University of Central Lancashire, Preston. This conference is jointly hosted by the Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University and the Department of Education Studies, University of Central Lancashire and is supported by the Society for Research into Higher Education


This research investigates the experiences of dyslexic and deaf students enrolled on access programmes at colleges of further education that are affiliated with De Montfort University.

Throughout the 1990s there have been attempts to improve the access opportunities into further and higher education for disabled students. The Tomlinson report (1996) recently recommended the move towards 'inclusive learning' for further education. Other developments within this sector have been through legislation such as the Further and Higher Education Act, 1992, which requires the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) to take regard of the requirements of disabled people by providing additional funding to individual colleges. For higher education attempts to improve access have occurred through the Higher Educational Funding Council Special Initiatives (M23/96). These initiatives have required individual institutions to competitively bid for money from the funding council to establish a provision for disabled students within each institution. Joint developments within both sectors have been the introduction of the disability statement through the Disability Discrimination Act (1995).

These changes in further and higher education aim to make both sectors more accessible for disabled people. Therefore it is crucial to investigate the student experience to discover if such developments are contributing towards a successful experience.

This research has been conducted in two stages. The aim of the first stage was to establish whether or not disabled students were enrolling on access programmes with a focus on dyslexia and deafness. This was achieved by conducting a series of un-structured interviews with key members of staff such as access, disability and learning support co-ordinators. One of the main findings to emerge from this stage of research was

That staff had limited experience of dyslexic and deaf adults enrolled in access programmes.

Before embarking on the second stage of the data collection, which is currently in progress, contact was made with the relevant institutions to determine whether or not dyslexic or deaf students were enrolling on access for the academic session 1997-98. The responses revealed that dyslexic rather than deaf students were enrolling on access programmes. Due to the lack of deaf students enrolling on access for this academic session it was decided to focus on the experiences of dyslexic students.

Methodological and Theoretical framework

Critical Ethnographic Method

A critical ethnographic approach (Harvey, 1990; Thomas, 1993) otherwise known as critical social research (Carspecken, 1996), was implemented to explore the student experience of access.

This method was adopted because of the value commitment of a critical ethnographic researcher, which is to fighting oppression within contemporary society. Carspecken (1996) summarises such values:

" Criticalists find contemporary society to be unfair, unequal, and both subtly and overtly oppressive for many people. We do not like it, and we want to change it. " (Carspecken, 1996: 7).

With the commitment of critical ethnographers towards fighting oppression and changing society for the better, this research method fits into the emancipatory approach (Oliver, 1992) towards conducting disability research. This is evident with Oliver's (1992) definition of this paradigm:

" The emancipatory paradigm, as the name implies, is about the facilitating of the possible by confronting social oppression at whatever level it occurs " (Oliver, 1992: 110).

With critical ethnographers adopting the values of the researched, there is a move away from a value free approach towards conducting social research. It can now be interpreted as a method with a political purpose.

Bearing this in mind, critical ethnography is able to overcome some of the issues that emerge during disability research. In the past, disabled people have viewed disability research as playing a role in their oppression (Hunt, 1981; Morris, 1992) Barnes (1997), feels that if disability research is to fight oppression researchers, should move away from the idea of 'academic independence' (Oliver & Barnes, 1997) and move towards " joining … [disabled people] … in … [the] … struggle to confront and overcome this oppression " (Barnes, 1997: 243). The value of critical ethnography for disability research is that it is a method which can assist in the fight for societal change (Thomas, 1993).

Social Model of Disability

The social model of disability emerged in the 1960s (Hunt, 1966) and 1970s (UPIAS, 1977) by disabled activists challenging the control that the quasi medical and social service professions exerted over disabled people. They used the medical and individual models to provide an alternative definition of disability. It was through the work of Finkelstein (1980) and Oliver (1990) that the social model of disability has established itself as an alternative in which disabled people can locate their experience of disability. According to this model disability is created through a society, which does not fully take into account the needs of disabled people by imposing:

" restrictions … ranging from individual prejudice to institutional discrimination, from inaccessible public buildings to unusable transport system, from segregated education to excluding work arrangements " (Oliver, 1996: 3).

The social model of disability is a holistic interpretation developed by disabled people to maybe show their position in society. It is attempting to collectivise and politicise disabled people into a single unit by establishing an identity for disabled people. Campbell and Oliver (1996) express the value of this interpretation when they state that the social model:

" freed up disabled people's hearts and minds by offering an alternative conceptualisation of the problem. Liberated the direction of disabled people's personal energies turned outwards to building a force for changing society. " (Campbell & Oliver, 1996: 20).

The social model highlights the areas in society where disabled people experience discrimination and provides an opportunity for disabled people to take collective action. By flagging up areas of discrimination, the social model is attempting to achieve for disabled people the same citizenship rights enjoyed by non-disabled people. The value of adopting this interpretation of disability is that it will help to identify the barriers that disabled students experience within the further educational environment.

Defining Access

The purpose of access is that it aims to attract "… specific groups of adults in the community which have been identified as under represented in higher education" (UCAS, 1996: 3). This interpretation ties in with the original aim of access when it was established in 1978, which was to attract " those groups who have been least well-served by the school system and who face particular barriers to entry to higher education " (Kearney & Diamond, 1987: 38). Therefore the goal of access is to provide an entry route into higher education for non-traditional groups such as disabled people and ethnic minority groups.


In this stage of research a range of categories emerged as important to the student experience of access. These categories represent a range of themes drawn from the interview data, which reflect the variation of experience between the respondents. There are some issues that could be placed in more than one category. However, it is important to identify distinct themes in order to present the data in an accessible form and also to be able to develop a practical application.

This paper presents a brief presentation of the first three categories and a detailed analysis of the fourth category. The categories are:

Prior Educational Experience

The prior educational experience of the respondents demonstrated little recognition of deaf issues and dyslexia. This lack of awareness resulted in the development of a range of coping strategies to survive secondary education. The implications of this are that prior educational experiences may act as a barrier throughout the educational experience. Therefore, it is important to market access in a manner which shows adults wishing to return to education that similar experiences will not be repeated.

Reasons for undertaking access

The majority of the respondents chose access because they viewed it as an entry route into higher education. None of the students identified their disability as a reason for undertaking access. This suggests it is likely that this educational route into higher education is providing new opportunities for adults who have previously experienced failure within education. However, in order for disabled students to maximise this opportunity it is important that access staff display disability awareness and the support provision available.

Discovery of dyslexia

The majority of the dyslexic respondents were not aware that they were dyslexic until they enrolled in access. Dyslexia was discovered through either college testing or marking procedures of written work. On confirmation of dyslexia the majority of the respondents displayed mixed feelings of anger and relief.

It is important to discover whether or not the adults enrolling on access are dyslexic at the earliest possible stage due to the short length of the course. The respondents showed various procedures in which they became aware of their dyslexia. A possible solution would be to screen adults prior to the commencement of the programme. This approach would provide a valuable opportunity to develop support packages for dyslexic students. However, access students would need to be convinced that such an assessment would aim to increase both the chances of a successful experience on the programme and increase their opportunities of progressing within the educational system.

Student Relations

Whilst investigating relationships formed between respondents and other access students different experiences emerged. The students provided examples of positive and negative awareness. Positive Awareness

When investigating the awareness displayed by fellow students there was a range of examples given such as general and educational support. One dyslexic respondent viewed their disability as an opportunity to provide and receive general support that helped to form good relations with fellow students.

" It didn't bother me because everybody else was doing the same thing, I passed it onto other people and vice versa it was a good group, it was not because I was dyslexic it was because everybody else struggled in some way or another, so everybody was helping each other. " (Dyslexic female respondent)

The respondent is open about declaring her disability because she feels that it is not an obstacle to forming good relations. A possible explanation for this is the similar educational backgrounds of other students and the target groups access was designed to attract. Access was originally viewed as a 'second chance' (McFadden, 1995) to individuals who previously had a poor experience of education (Stephenson et al, 1989). The students can view this entry route back into education as 'another chance to do something better with their lives' (McFadden, 1995: 40). Disabled and non-disabled students may not view disability as an obstacle because both groups of students have similar goals that have been hampered by poor prior educational experiences. This suggests that disabled students within this educational environment are not experiencing the same level of discrimination that disabled people face within society (Morris, 1993).

After declaration of disability, the development of relations between students progresses a stage further. This is displayed by fellow students showing a supportive attitude as is indicated by one dyslexic respondent.

" How can we help was their attitude which was the general attitude through the course anyway. If you could help somebody you would do. We discussed everything." (Dyslexic male respondent)

Possibly the level of awareness displayed towards the dyslexic respondents because fellow students are able to identify with these individuals because of their poor experiences of education. Previous research that has included an element of student relations within further (Ash et al, 1997) and higher education (Taylor, 1996) supports this view. Ash et al (1997) provides an example of some disabled and non-disabled students supporting each other in certain circumstances.

" On my course there have been a few people with problems writing essays and I was fortunate in reading a good book on how to write an academic essay and got a very good mark. Consequently, I've been asked for lots of help." (Student quoted in Ash et al, 1997: 616).

This supportive approach results in the respondents feeling included within the student body. Stephenson et al (1989) suggests a supportive attitude is a common characteristic displayed by access students irrespective of disability.

" It give you like a unison, you'd all get your heads together. If you only sat and listened, if you don't contribute, you'd learn something " (Student quoted in Stephenson et al 1989: 35).

It is the nature of access that helps to draw students together, which can be extended to include disabled students. This feeling of togetherness may be a result of the nature of the respondents disability. Non-disabled students may find it easier to bond with dyslexic students than students with other forms of disability. Yet again this unity is contrary to what dyslexic people experience in society especially in the work place. These positive actions may also have the effect of developing individual's self-esteem (Stephenson, 1989).

When investigating the experiences of deaf respondents, they displayed difficulties in forming good relations with fellow access students.

" The other people on the course, much as they tried to make friends with me I would cut myself off, if anybody would ask me questions about my private life I felt they were talking behind my back and stuff like that. " (Deaf female respondent)

The difficulty in forming relations with hearing students may be due to previous bad experiences that deaf students do not wish to repeat. Foster et al. (1991) provides an example of the difficulties in forming relations between hearing and deaf students.

" Some hearing people are afraid … if they sign to a deaf person they're gonna laugh at you for making the wrong sign. That's why a deaf person is afraid to talk, cause they're gonna laugh at you for making a wrong sound…the wrong pronunciation. It's just a fear of a new language that's what it is. " (Student quoted in Foster et al, 1991: 189).

Difficulties in forming relations between deaf and hearing students may be a result of communication problems between the two groups. Additionally, if the respondent attempts to communicate there is a fear that they are going to look stupid and become an object of humour. Therefore the need to withdraw could be interpreted as a coping strategy (Higgins, 1980) to survive within the hearing world. It may be an attempt to reduce the chance of stigmatisation. An explanation for this strategy is provided by Kirk et al (1993).

" Most people who have severe hearing impairments still find that interaction with the hearing world is both painful and difficult. As a consequence, they segregate themselves as adolescents and adults " (Kirk et al, 1993: 349).

It is the lack of awareness of deaf issues that is producing this obstacle between deaf and hearing students. This lack of awareness is displayed because hearing people assume that everyone is able to speak and hear (Higgins, 1980). Hearing people display such an attitude because deafness is a hidden disability and until hearing and deaf people interact, deaf people would be viewed as 'normal.'

Educational Support

While investigating the disabled student experience, examples of educational support being provided by fellow access students have been discovered. As one dyslexic respondent indicated:

" Yes, I suppose so in the sense of like note taking. I could borrow peoples notes if I had not got them. Sometimes I would have written absolute garbage down and would not of got anything right. " (Dyslexic female respondent)

Another example of support is respondents' work being typed by fellow students.

" There was this student girl she used to type my essays and actually got her a job, she was being paid which was really good. " (Dyslexic male respondent)

These responses show informal and formal educational support being provided by fellow students. Taylor (1996) suggests that it is likely fellow students would provide their disabled peers with this type of support such as offering to collect handouts and provide informal note taking for fellow deaf students. Both groups of students will benefit through this type of support by helping to develop their own learning skills and confidence. Cann (1985) supports this view.

"If opportunities are given for people to test their knowledge against others in a supportive environment then incidental learning can create general satisfaction" (Cann, 1985: 101).

As mentioned earlier this type of support can help to develop a greater unity and togetherness within the student body. Furthermore, such support allows the disabled student to feel more included and to develop good relations with others.

Educational support from fellow students has lead towards a feeling of greater inclusion,

which has raised the students' awareness within and outside the educational environment. Ash et al (1997) supports this with their investigation of the disabled student experience of further education.

" … they [non-disabled students] can start to learn everyday things about a disabled person. It does them good. They are learning as well as us" (Ash et al 1997:617).

Negative Awareness

While enrolled on access the respondents displayed examples of negative relations being formed between fellow students. One respondent talks about herself and another dyslexic student being treated as an object of humour.

" They would play silly games such as not speaking to me or her today. Or if you are going for a break, I would say do you want a coffee and she would say I am staying and I would bring you one up. I would go down with them and they would look at me and then run out the door " (Dyslexic female respondent).

Another respondent talks about fellow students not believing dyslexia existed.

" … She was, very patronising; I can't imagine she's dyslexic the way she thinks she is … it was just too much, makes no difference to me " (Dyslexic female respondent).

These responses show that awareness can act as an obstacle towards forming good relations between fellow students. This wrong type of awareness can possibly be attributed to this being the first time the students come into contact with a disabled person. The portrayal of disability in the media may also contribute to this lack of awareness.

Segregated education maybe the reason why non-disabled students display negative awareness. The research of Leicester et al. (1997) show disabled children being totally segregated from others throughout their schooling.

" I went to a special school for disabled so that I feel it cut me off from society. Because I was mixed in with children that had disabilities I never had the experience with people who didn't have disabilities and it was the same at college. I wasn't at school with children living near me. " Jane Dover (Leicester et al 1997: 113).

This form of separation could be interpreted as a form of apartheid (Leicester et al, 1997) and could encourage the negative stereotypes towards disability that have developed within society.

Oliver (1996) suggests that the reforms of the Education Act (1988) may reinforce this divide. The lack of student awareness is reflected in the work of Ash et al. (1997) and Low (1996) who provide a good example of such stereotypes in higher education.

" I wear shorts a lot … I don't even think about it and this girl said ' I don't know how you can wear shorts' … I said what do you mean and she said … ' I don't have too unattractive legs and I would never wear shorts … how can you wear them with your legs? ' "(Low, 1996: 242).

The representation of disability through the media may also explain the lack of awareness. Hevey (1996) feels that in all forms of media disabled people have been represented as tragic individuals. Examples within literature are Richard III and Long John Silver. Modern day media examples that have represented disabled people as tragic individuals have been the Telethon funding-raising event (Morris 1993). The significance of such negative representations is that disability is located within a medical framework by focussing on the individual and the body. This image is further shown in David Lynch's production of the Elephant Man (Darke, 1994). As a result of these negative images the non-disabled are likely to view disabled people as tragic individuals and are therefore unable to display any positive awareness.

The media representation of disability may also influence the perception of disability. Literary and film characters such as Shakespeare's Richard III and Joseph Merrick- the Elephant Man portray, disability within a visual framework. It is possible therefore when non-disabled students meet disabled students with a hidden disability such as deafness or dyslexia, a further lack of awareness may be displayed because they do not fit into the established media image. Lindesmith et el. (1975) illustrates this point when he states.

" … those they confront on a daily basis will ' appear to be normal. ' They will walk normally, speak intelligently, not have sight or hearing impaired, have the usual level of physical stamina, and be able to follow the train of a normal conversation with relative ease. Any alteration in these attributes leads others to define these individuals in less than positive terms " (Lindesmith et el. 1975: 535).

When discovery of deafness occurs the individuals will be stigmatised because they do not conform to the assumptions of the larger social world (Higgins, 1980).

Relations between fellow disabled students

While investigating the student experience it was determined that the respondents formed good relations with fellow disabled students enrolled on access. One dyslexic respondent talked about her friendship with another dyslexic access student.

" Like Sharon she stuck by me all the time we would do work together, study together, she saw me as me. " (Dyslexic female respondent)

Another dyslexic respondent would encourage students who felt they were dyslexic to be assessed.

" She even said I am sure I am dyslexic and I said why don't you get a diagnosis." (Dyslexic female respondent)

These responses show that disability is acting as a bond that unites dyslexic students. A similar picture is created when you look at the experiences of deaf respondents.

" She linked onto me because by the second year I have grown then I am realising that he obviously needs help and every time I wanted to speak to him I would tap on his shoulder and he would turn and we would talk. " (Deaf female respondent)

These responses show that disability is acting as a device to create another community within the student body. It is helping to create a sub-cultural identity between the disabled respondents. Becker (1963) supports this view when he states [substitute 'outsider ' for ' deviant ' taken from Higgins (1980).]

" Members of organised deviant groups of course have one thing in common: their deviance. It gives them a sense of common fate…. From a sense of common fate, from having to face the same problems, grows a deviant subculture: a set of perspectives and understandings about what the world is like and how to deal with it, and a set of routine activities based on those perspectives. Membership in such a group solidifies a deviant identity " (Becker, 1963: 38).

Disabled students are more likely to experience positive relations with fellow disabled students because their disability acts as a form of cultural identity. The community formed amongst disabled students may be stronger because the individuals may feel more involved; therefore a greater sense of unity and identity would develop than with fellow non-disabled students. This is supported by a deaf woman's experience of a deaf club. This experience may also be applied to dyslexic adults within a similar environment.

" At a club for the deaf, if I see a deaf person whom I don't know, I will go up to that person and say ' Hi! What's your name? I would never do that to a hearing person " (Higgins, 1980: 39).

Disabled students feel safer and more confident within their own communities because they are less likely to be stigmatised for being different. Foster et al (1991) support this with deaf students' view.

" A lot of times people, deaf and hearing alike, don't want to bother dealing with other people. They have enough friends in their own culture that they don't need to go after more friends elsewhere "(Foster et al, 1991: 190).

It is likely when disabled students meet whatever their disability is they will experience more positive relations than with fellow non-disabled students because their disability is acting as a form of cultural identity.


This research suggests that access is attracting disabled students back into education. However, the investigation of the student experience has raised a number of issues that need to be addressed if disabled students are to have a successful experience of access. Clearly, if this succeeds it will encourage disabled people to progress into higher education.

The Student Relation section shows that disabled students had positive and negative experiences when forming relations with fellow access students. With the student experience being drawn from the various colleges this suggests that it will be difficult to predict whether a disabled student will have a positive or negative experience of further education until they enrol on the access programme of their choice. The respondents' accounts revealed a variation in experiences between colleges and access programmes within the same institution. The contact with fellow students is key because it may help to determine whether or not a disabled student decides to progress within the educational system. It is therefore important for colleges of further education to recognise the unpredictability of whether or not a disabled student will have a positive experience.

A possible direction that could be applied to all four categories discussed is to raise and promote the issue of disability awareness throughout the student body. There are a range of positive steps colleges of further education can take to raise and promote the issue of disability awareness. One possible option would be to use disabled students, who have previously been enrolled on access, to talk to prospective or newly enrolled disabled students of their personal experiences. The value of this approach is that it would allow new students to have better informed expectations. The use of previous students would also help to make new students aware of the support available for those experiencing difficulties and may assist the promotion of disability awareness of non-disabled students. The colleges could develop links with adult user organisations such as local adult dyslexia organisations. The development of such links is that it may help to encourage disabled adults to return to education.

When marketing access it is important to consider the prior educational experience of disabled students. It needs to be explained that similar bad experiences will not be repeated and that specific entry routes into higher education are designed to provide adults with a second chance, irrespective of disability. A possible solution would be to use disabled students who have previously been on access to explain how the experience is different. The benefit of such marketing techniques is that they would attract more disabled students to access.

The reasons for undertaking access suggest that the respondents viewed it as an entry route into higher education. However, the failure to identity a disability as a reason for undertaking access suggests that disabled adults may be discouraged from undertaking such a programme. A possible explanation is that they feel previous negative educational experiences would be repeated. When marketing access it is important to stress that this programme is designed for non-traditional groups which would include disabled people. Yet again the use of ex-disabled students enrolled on access may help to overcome this particular barrier.

When investigating how the respondents discovered that they where dyslexic, various methods of discovery emerged. It is important to discover if a student is dyslexic at the earliest stage possible. Furthermore, it is necessary to convince students who think that they may be dyslexic that there will be no stigma attached in seeking assistance. Possible solutions would be using previous dyslexic access students to talk about their experiences of being dyslexic. Alternatively, the development of assessment procedures that will flag up the student at the earliest stage possible would be useful.

Raising and promoting the issue of disability awareness should help to promote the idea of inclusion and unity within the student body. This will ultimately help the disabled adult to feel more on an equal level within education and society.


I would like to thank George Taylor, Dr Carolyn Lewis and Rachel Shaw for their support while writing this paper.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 29 June 1998