Students with physical disabilities explain the challenges they face when they go to university

Students with physical disabilities explain the challenges they face when they go to university


The number of UK students with a declared disability rose by 46% over the five years between 2016-17 and 2020-21. Students with disabilities now make up over 15% of students.

These disabilities include learning disabilities, mental health conditions and physical disabilities.

Making the transition to university is not always easy for these students. They face pressure to choose the right course, adapt to an increasing expectation of independence, and socially integrate and thrive as university students.

And higher education is not always set up in a way that makes it easily accessible to students with disabilities. Some have expressed concern that inclusive education in higher education is a not prioritised.

Using individual interviews, our research explored the experiences of seven students with a variety of physical needs as they started university. Our participants attended several different universities across the UK, with a few having experienced more than one institution. We asked them about how they decided where to go to university and about their personal experiences of being university students on their chosen course.

Encountering barriers

Before going to university, some of the students attended open days and found that their options for institutions – and so also for the academic courses offered by those institutions – were constrained because they felt some were not set up to accommodate their physical needs. One student claimed that a university “didn’t want to know me” because they used a wheelchair. They said:

I’ve been on quite a few campuses that are not disabled friendly. The disabled access has been pretty poor.

The students also experienced challenges at the universities they chose to attend. These included poor wheelchair access in living spaces, inaccessible lecture theatres and consistently broken lifts. There were issues with both accommodation and learning spaces, affecting both their educational and social experiences. Telling us about their on-campus accommodation, one student said:

I could barely get through the door [in my wheelchair] and then it was literally like… the bed and then a desk, and then that was it. And I was like, I can’t… I couldn’t even turn around.

Some of the students we talked to praised their university’s central student services team for the dedicated time they were given when they first arrived at university.

Woman in wheelchair in casual meeting
The students praised their university’s central support services.

The students were given opportunities to discuss their individual needs and offered a range of reasonable adjustments that were formally documented on their individual support plan. This is a summary document which details the relevant support and adjustments which have been agreed to meet a student’s needs. It is prepared by the university’s disability advisor in collaboration with the student.

Not involved

However, on the courses they were studying, some of the students found they had to repeatedly tell lecturers about their disabilities and ask for adjustments as the lecturing team were unaware of their disability or had not prepared for their needs.

As a result, some students faced limitations in accessing specific optional modules, which constrained their curriculum choices. Some were excluded from participating in practical activities or excursions. One student said:

They didn’t make any effort to get me involved. I was sat there for an hour and a half just waiting for it to be over.

The students we interviewed were keen to identify practical solutions. One was for universities to offer open days specifically for disabled students. This would provide students with the confidence to fully explore the campus and identify potential issues, as well as provide a potential opportunity to meet and build connections with their peers.

In addition, the students thought that universities should consult with disabled students when assessing the accessibility of both the campus environment and the courses offered. One said:

I think a lot of the issue is [that] a lot of … the systems have been created by able-bodied people, and so no one actually thinks to consult with us about what is actually helpful. So, there’s a lot of things in place that are useless, and there’s a lot of things that need to be in place that aren’t.

Giving students with disabilities a voice here would allow them to play a crucial decision-making role in areas that directly affect them.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.