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Engaging stakeholders as experts in the trial and evaluation of Disability Language Guidance

To support inclusive and equitable study, universities often categorise students as ‘disabled’ for them to access specific support for their studies and require them to engage with terms such as ‘disclosing a disability’ and ‘reasonable adjustments’. This pathologises them by requiring them to identify as ‘different’ even if they do not consider themselves to be. Indeed, many students report that they feel uncomfortable with this; they do not identify as ‘disabled’, and this can discourage students from informing the university about their ‘disability’ and can create barriers to accessing support.

There is little understanding of how members of these diverse populations identify themselves or their preferences for discussing ‘disability-related’ support. In precursor studies, we sought to understand students’ language styles and preferences when it comes to discussing disability and study requirements, and contrast these with the language used throughout our institution (and UK higher education institutions in general) (Lister et al., 2019; Lister, Coughlan and Owen, 2020b, 2020a). Survey results from one of the precursor studies showed that terminology addressing students as ‘disabled’ was uncomfortable for many (particularly those with mental health conditions or specific learning difficulties); ‘additional study needs’ was preferred. However, we found divergence in these preferences across contexts, rather than consistent preference for any recognised language model. We also identified clusters with significantly different perspectives on language within the population. Building on these findings, the project team worked with a wide range of stakeholders to collaboratively develop drafts of guidance for student-facing staff, and researchers and policy-makers to use when talking to students about disability. We also developed draft guidance for students to explain the type of language commonly used by universities around disability (available on

This project aimed to collaborative with a wide range of stakeholders, in STEM and more broadly throughout the OU, to refine and improve the draft guidance, disseminate it with relevant OU groups, and evaluate its effectiveness. We did this using a participatory design methodology in collaboration with a network of staff and student stakeholders, and via a final survey.

This report details the participatory design approach used, explores the input staff gave and how this led to the co-creation of research-informed guidance on language use. Through this, we draw conclusions on how to develop understanding of inclusive language across an educational institution. This guidance will support stakeholders to understand and use inclusive, supportive language to discuss disability-related study needs, with a view to moving towards inclusive, student-led language approaches.

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