Case study A is about a full-time BSc Quality Management student with dyslexia. He describes the difficulties he has experienced and how his department has helped him. Case Study B is about student who is a wheelchair user and has hydrocephalus. This affects her ability to undertake numerical work.
Case Study A: This information has been extracted from the http://jarmin.com/demos/resource/interviews/09.html (information accessed and extracted May 2008)
Case Study B: This information has been extracted from http://dart.lboro.ac.uk/Joanna.htm (information accessed and extracted September 2008)
Case Study A
Saptal Bains is in the final year of a BSc Quality Management. Saptal describes the outcome of being assessed at University for dyslexia.
What sort of things did you find out about yourself?
I’m not good at – my reading and my writing skills are below average and the way I interpret things is a lot different to somebody else i.e. I can easily misinterpret something if I read it – I think it means something – but it doesn’t. So the process of my mind is different. I can’t go from A to Z just like that, I have to go through all the alphabet and it’s just a longer process.
In the first year I was quite naive – I just didn’t want to come to terms with it. It’s a disability, or a gift – some people call it that. It’s with you for all your life. It’s classed as an illness and I thought if a read a couple of books I will be fine. So I kind of plodded through the years until I came to this year and this year it has hit me big time.
So what’s hit you?
It’s the level of work you have got to do. In past years, you pretty much read a text book and describe it. This year you have to analyse it and be critical about everything and evaluate everything. For me that process takes a hell of a lot longer than the average person. For me it’s a hell of a lot harder. My first assignment is like a half module and we are given four weeks to do the assignment. The question was simple enough. The wording was poorly done. I had to read it about a thousand times just to make sense of it. I wasted almost three weeks just reading the question and trying to understand the damn thing. It took me the final weeks to just cram everything in. It was a shame because I should have done it in the first two weeks and allowed time to do the other two assignments – they all come in at the same time. So because I went in that mess and couldn’t understand my ability, I came out under attack for that particular assignment. It left me three weeks behind – and three weeks in you final year – you are on your deathbed, basically. It’s the wrong thing to do.
Do you get a personal tutor and regular feedback from staff?
I’ve only just had a personal tutor for the last two weeks. I think it’s such a bonus having a tutor because you sit down and rip the question to bits and brainstorm it. When I used to do my own I used to brainstorm my girlfriend at a tangent and on different topics. But this way she shows me how to focus on one area.
It says, ‘Provision of lecture notes in advance wherever possible.’ Does that happen much?
Would that help? When you do get them, does it help?
This has only been happening now recently. If this was done earlier on, say at the end of the second year. When I came back to start my final year I was really geared up and you are in that mood to do everything in advance. Because I am so far down the road, they can’t give me anything in advance now, because the exam periods are starting now. I’ve got the notes and now I have just got to revise it. When it comes to the second semester, if they give something in advance then, that would help because I could stay, not ahead of the game, but level with the game.
I was talking to someone before you and he said that in his department, often lecturers will do presentations and they will hand out slides and you can take notes with it. Yes they do that in lectures but if I had them beforehand, a week in advance, I would know that I would not have to research on that. I can go to the next stage. By the time I go to the next stage the other students would have done that and caught up with me as well. It would help if we were all in the same place.
So it’s constructing the essay that you need the extra time for, rather than reading through and trying to change the grammar and things like that. So, in lectures you take in aural information quite well and you prefer that method. So what do you do about taking notes?
I used to take a dictaphone in but I stopped that because you run out of tapes extremely quickly, your batteries die quickly and I was having like a double day at uni. So on Monday I was in from 9 til 5 and I would come home and do the same thing again and it got to me – it was way too much.
So the second time, were you listening to them to try and take notes, then?
Yes, you can stop the tape and rewind but I don’t think it’s a particularly good thing because there is a lot of the tape you don’t need but you record it anyway. I think a lot of people would agree with you. A lot of students do it but whether or not they then make use of it because it is so time-consuming. I’ve tried it many times. You’ve got head-phones on and you are intensely listening and trying to make notes. I still believe that handouts are the best. I saw my dyslexia tutor today and she has different coloured highlights and she highlights with one colour which basically describes it; then highlights one area saying a negative point and then a different colour bringing out the good points. It’s really wicked. It’s basically so simple and I never thought of it. I know it’s going to help because my time is wasted in going back and re-reading, going back and re-reading and this way I can pick out the good bits, the bad bits and the bits just describing it.
What about working in groups? Have you done group assignments? What do you do and are you good at it?
If there are four or five people in the group I can hide it. It’s come to the stage where I’m not really bothered if they do know. It’s not going to make any difference. I’m not saying in a group work situation that you should use it as an excuse, but it could come to draft something and you might feel embarrassed …
I’ll give a whole chunk for them to read and I might just read a paragraph myself right at the end. I try to be a bit of a leader, in that sense. I know that if I have to read a big chunk it is going to take me ages. I get somebody else to do the writing and I say that my spelling is atrocious. I’m not sure whether that’s good or not. It’s tactics! That’s what students with dyslexia do. Lots of them have these strategies of coping with it. Especially if you have been undiagnosed in the past – you’ve got to get through school and all that sort of thing.
Did you get a computer through the DSA and how do you use it? Were you handwriting assignments previously?
Yes, handwriting. Now I type it and you have the Inspiration program and the speech thing, which is not all that good because I hate the way it talks. You can’t blame the technology.
The speech feedback one, rather than the speech input, or do you use both?
I’ve used both but I’ve stopped using them. I just use the Inspiration and the mapping packages. Most of the software they have given me I don’t particularly use but I use the PC with it connected up to the Internet because I can’t be arsed with going to the University all the time. I have to pay a bit of money, which is sometimes a bit of a headache, but I have to pay some money in my flat and I use the money that way.
So you think your department is reasonably supportive?
Reasonably supportive and they are quite with it. They don’t completely discard it. Only a few of them might know the range of dyslexia. They all know about dyslexia, but only a few of them know about the range of it and not many of them know about the different levels.
So you think they are accepting of it, but they might not have the depth of knowledge
Yes, but I don’t think it’s too much of a weakness, because they are balanced by some that do, which makes it easier.
This year I need an interpreter for my exams – for my assignments and for my exams. You get two stickers to put on your assignments but they’ve changed slightly now. There is a bit to do with the interpreting of work and not just on the reading and the writing but the structuring and that’s changed a bit. There are one or two things that have changed – I’ll show you.
So this goes on your exam scripts, does it, and also your assignments?
Yes. That’s what I have been speaking to them about and that is what I need. The memo has been sent off to the Head of Department and so on.
This is quite a good document to go through because it will structure what we are talking about. It is asking for certain types of academic support. Does all this happen, the academic support? You’ve got concessions for spelling and coursework.
I don’t know how they do that. I don’t know how they make concessions for spellings. That’s not clear to me – I just leave the stickers and think that maybe they just do it.
When you get the coursework back, what sorts of comments are on there?
The usual average of my marks is not fantastic. My best piece would be a 60 something. Usually I’m like a 2.2 student. The comments will be like, ‘A few interesting points but didn’t mention/argue this point or that point and wasn’t able to put this across.’ So I do lack a lot.
But they don’t go through and point out your grammar and spelling mistakes?
No. The first time I handed in an assignment I was really worried about that. I thought it would shatter me because that’s all I had in my school life and college life – your spelling’s this, your grammar’s wrong and all this kind of stuff. But they just pointed out the weaknesses in my assignment and the areas I had covered – which was good.
So for you hearing information is a lot better?
Yes. Some lecturers do think I am quite bright in the sense that I can sit in lectures and you have those ‘light bulb moments’ when things click in your head. It all makes sense when the lecturer’s telling me something. But then when I go to do it myself, that’s when it goes all wrong. It’s the process in my head – it doesn’t sink in, won’t sink in. I have to take it in really small bite sizes and be really patient with myself. I can’t sit there and say; ‘I’ll read this whole book.’ I’ll just read a couple of pages of a chapter and come back to it next time.
Three tips for lecturers
If you could think of three top tips for lecturers that would make your life easier, what would they be?
Advance notes. Irrespective of whether the student reads them or not, he’s got them and there is no excuse.
What do you think about lecturers who say that if they give notes out in advance then they won’t turn up to lectures?
It’s the student’s fault. If they can do all they can, nobody can say to them, ‘You didn’t do this.’ So if they give a handout and if those students don’t turn up to lectures and then the student turns up at the end of the lecture and says, ‘What does this mean, what does that mean?’ They have the right to say, ‘Well, you didn’t turn up to the lecture. I give out handouts but you should also come to the lectures.’ It’s up to the student then, especially in the final year.
Examples: When you explain something, I reckon examples works wonders because you can relate to something and picture something.
The final one would be …
I think in some ways it is good that all the lecturers know that you are dyslexic. I don’t think it should be undisclosed. I do feel that the lecturers know not only that a student has dyslexia, but also the level the dyslexia is that he or she has got. They have got to know the level or they will think that if one student is like this then they are all like this. You can have quite mild dyslexia and just get on with everything and not have any difficulties. But then, on the other side you can be struggling. You know where it says about flexible arrangements for coursework. I think it’s about it running to deadlines. Has there been any talk or negotiation about it. Some courses have a ridiculous amount of written assessment and to keep banging on at a student with dyslexia and asking for a 5,000 word assessment and then another 5,000 word assessment, when in actual fact you know what kind of grade they are going to get, anyway.
Case Study B
This case study focuses on the experience of Joanna, a first year full-time student in the Department of Business Studies at an urban campus-based university. It was developed on the basis of an extensive interview with Joanna and her support worker. As well as detailing Joanna’s experiences, the Case Study incorporates perspectives provided by Joanna’s support worker. NOTE: Joanna has consented to her name being used in the Case Study. To safeguard the anonymity of her support worker she will be referred to as SW throughout this Case Study.
Joanna is a full-time student who is just completing the first year of a BA in Business Studies and Human Resources. At the start of the next academic year she intends to change her degree to a BA Honours in Human Resources (HR) because of a particular interest she has developed in the subject area following study and visits to several HR departments.
Joanna was born with Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus. The Spina Bifida has left Joanna paralysed from the waist down and a wheelchair user; the hydrocephalus (water on the brain) means Joanna has a shunt in the right side of her brain and a valve in her heart. If pressure builds up causing headaches, Joanna is able to press the valve, relieving the pressure. Because of the Hydrocephalus, Joanna has difficulty with maths, including working with figures, spatial awareness and drawing graphs. Joanna lives at home with her parents and travels to campus for her lectures by taxi. Whilst on campus she has a support worker with her at all times to help her get to classes and make use of library facilities.
The Student’s Experience
Learning and Teaching Experience
Joanna has encountered several barriers in learning situations since starting at university. Certain modules (such as economics, IT and data analysis) that have involved numerical work have as anticipated been very difficult for her. Joanna also has to be constantly aware of access to different learning environments such as classrooms, lecture theatres and libraries. Access issues include lifts to classrooms situated above the ground floor, the height of desks, width of doors etc..
Joanna has occasionally encountered the access issues previously described. During lectures, Joanna prefers to sit at the front because it makes her feel more involved in the lesson, while being closer to the door ensures an easier exit in case of fire.
Generally, Joanna feels it is important that lecturers are not only aware of students’ disabilities, but the specific impact the disabilities can have on individuals. This could be achieved if students and lecturers could meet in private at the start of term so that the student can explain to the lecturer about their disability and how it will impact on their studies. This would lead to greater understanding for the lecturer and negate the likelihood of unforeseen problems cropping up later in the year. For Joanna, being able to hold this conversation in private, rather than in front of her fellow students, is the key.
In group work, Joanna has faced several difficulties. On a practical level, she has to make sure that group work away from the main classroom is planned for a location accessible to her – something she occasionally has to remind her fellow group members about. In addition, Joanna does not feel comfortable about disclosing her Hydrocephalus to other students and so if calculations are involved she asks another group member to carry out that piece of work. She prefers to say “I don’t like numbers, can somebody else do that” than explain her disability and ask someone to help her with the number work. Joanna says she would only mention her disability if she had to.
Joanna tends to keep quiet during class discussions as she doesn’t like talking in front of large groups of people preferring discussions on a one to one basis. Although Joanna feels this is mainly down to her personality she admits it could also have something to do with her disability.
Accessing online and paper-based resources
Using the recommended reading lists for modules, Joanna searches for books in the library using IT facilities. Once she has located a book, if unable to reach the shelf, Joana will ask her support worker or one of the library staff to get the book for her. However, because of the height of Joanna’s wheelchair she is not able to browse the upper shelves and pick up alternative books that aren’t suggested by tutors – potentially missing out on other beneficial reading. When carrying out research Joanna prefers to use the Internet because this enables her to do all the searching and locating of information independently.
To date, Joanna hasn’t had to undertake any work placements for her degree. If such a situation arises in future Joanna says she would have to check out the accessibility of potential organisations in advance. For example, making sure toilets and lifts are accessible and emergency evacuation procedures are in place. In terms of disclosing her disability, Joanna wouldn’t disclose her Hydrocephalus and difficulty with numerical work straight away. She would only disclose if a trusting relationship has been established with a colleague/ manager, and only then, if a problem arises.
Assessment / Examinations
Joanna has encountered some difficulties with examinations mainly due to the Hydrocephalus affecting her ability to carry out numerical work and also her memory. Joanna receives extra time for examinations, which she rarely uses. She does not use any enabling technology within an exam setting.
Joanna prefers coursework as this gives her the time to plan, step by step the work that needs to be done and also sort out any problems as and when they arise. Joanna uses a laptop with voice recognition software that allows her to dictate her assignments and then have them read back to her. The voice recognition software was allocated to Joanna through a Needs Assessment carried out by the University Disability Services prior to the start of Joanna’s degree – the funding for the software came from the Disabled Students Allowance. Once completed, a member of Joanna’s family helps her with proof reading her coursework as Joanna finds proof reading difficult.
In terms of meeting deadlines, Joanna does not have any real problems because work assignments are given out well in advance of the due date. If work was due back in at short notice this would be more problematic for Joanna, as it wouldn’t allow her time to plan.
Impact on Learning and Academic Progress
Throughout her time in education, Joanna and her parents have adopted a strategy of staying ‘one step ahead’. This, combined with thorough planning, has meant that being a wheelchair user has not impacted significantly on Joanna’s learning and academic progress. The only exception that Joanna cites is not being able to browse books on higher shelves in the library and so potentially missing out on wider reading.
Arguably, the Hydrocephalus (which is unseen and often not disclosed by Joanna) has had a more significant impact. Particular modules involving numerical work cause Joanna the most difficulties. On one such occasion, unable to communicate effectively with her lecturer, Joanna had to proactively approach a different lecturer to get the help and support she needed. The new lecturer met with Joanna on a one to one basis and went through the processes stage by stage, allowing Joanna to ask questions and gain an understanding of the subject. Being able to meet on a one to one basis was hugely beneficial for Joanna in terms of understanding. However, the fact that this help was not forthcoming from the initial lecturer, and that Joanna had to proactively seek a solution herself, meant Joanna experienced unnecessary difficulty prior to completing this particular module.
Other practices adopted by the university that Joanna has found useful include lecturers giving out bulleted handouts to accompany modules, instead of dictating all information. The handouts enable all students to take brief notes at the same time as listening and so this practice is beneficial to disabled and non disabled students alike. In addition Joanna receives module guides and reading lists at the start of each module, showing her week by week, topics to be covered. This enables Joanna to plan ahead and let her support worker know times and dates when she will need assistance and when she will need to get books from the library in advance of lessons.
Joanna has found the ongoing support from the University’s Disability Support Office very helpful. However she feels that internal communication between faculties within the university could have been better. On one occasion the lifts, which Joanna relies on, broke down. Rather than Joanna being informed, she found herself having to let everyone know – her support worker, the disability office, security etc.. Improved internal communications could have saved her a lot of time and unnecessary difficulties.
Joanna is very independent and likes to do things herself. Although this has helped Joanna succeed, she is also aware that sometimes she may be missing out on support that could be beneficial (e.g. making use of the subject librarian).
Support Worker’s Perspective
Joanna has a support worker (SW). SW’s role involves helping Joanna throughout her academic day. This involves such things as helping her to get from place to place or finding relevant books in the library. SW has developed a close working relationship with Joanna and believes Joanna’s strong independent streak has developed from the way she has always had to fight to be accepted into mainstream education.
With respect to learning and teaching issues, SW echoes many of the points made by Joanna. In addition to these she identifies some further difficulties Joanna experiences. For instance, as well as not being able to browse books in the library, Joanna initially avoided the library completely because the difficulty she experienced in getting through the turnstile made her feel “very conspicuous”.
SW also feels that Joanna would have benefited from more support from academic staff. SW and Joanna are not aware that Joanna has a personal tutor which means Joanna has had to make difficult decisions about choosing modules involving numerical work without the support and advice of her academic tutors. As a result Joanna has tended to avoid such modules, arguably at a detriment to her education. In addition, the lack of a personal tutor means Joanna has had to convey all information regarding her disability to a number of individual departments, which Joanna and the SW have found very frustrating. SW also thinks Joanna needs more understanding from lecturers. For instance, in class discussions Joanna remains silent because she doesn’t like to stand out. With better understanding, lecturers would try harder to draw Joanna in.
In terms of assessment, SW believes more joined-up thinking between course leaders is needed. Joanna’s experience of exams in relation to this has been variable. Sometimes, the preparation is excellent, Joanna is brought into the room a few minutes beforehand with clear access to a strategically allocated desk and with consultation as to whether she is comfortable. While at other times, there has been no preparation at all, initially Joanna is left at the back of the queue outside and then has great difficulty accessing narrow aisles and getting passed settled students to find a vacant place. Attention is drawn to Joanna and the SW when they have to ask for a more strategically appropriate place. Students have to move and the problem is solved but unnecessary and unwelcome attention is drawn to Joanna and the SW when the examination itself is stressful enough for the both of them. SW and Joanna agree that having a dedicated centre, where disabled students can take their exams, may work. However, this would require arrangements to be discussed with disabled students in advance.
Finally, SW believes Joanna has missed out on the social side of Higher Education because of her disability. For instance the Student Union bar is up a flight of stairs which means Joanna can not meet people there for a drink and a chat and get to know other students better. Also, if outside seminars and meetings are arranged, the venues are often inaccessible for wheelchair users. So in these respects, Joanna is prevented from enjoying the wider HE experience.
A number of good practice points emerge from this case study.
Tutors with students who experience mobility difficulties might wish to consider the following:
- Do not assume that all students with mobility difficulties have the same needs.
- Do not assume that if a student’s disability is ‘obvious’ (e.g. they use a wheelchair) that he / she may not be disabled in other ways. He / she may have another ‘unseen’ disability that impacts on their study
- Make time to talk to disabled students in private to find out how the disability affects them, and what sort of support they may need
- When speaking to prospective disabled students, make sure they are also in touch with the university disability office. By contacting the disability office early, Joanna was able to ensure her study support needs were met right from the beginning
- If arranging an out of hours seminar, make sure it is held in an accessible venue
- Be aware that disabled students may have more difficulty in forming social networks. Try to ensure students take part in group work / class discussions so that they get to know their fellow students.
- Talk with other lecturers or course leaders: it may be that a uniform strategy can be put in place for a student, which both serves to meet their needs, as well as helping individual academics with the responsibility for teaching. A simple process, along the lines of emailing actions required by academics involved in teaching a particular disabled student prior to the term, on key issues, could provide useful guidance.
In terms of more specific learning and teaching issues, academic tutors might consider the following actions:
- Hand out module guides at the start of each module. Detailing weekly activities will help disabled students to plan ahead e.g. gets books in advance / arrange support etc.
- Hand out notes to accompany lectures. This means students will be able to concentrate on the subject in hand rather than desperately trying to keep up
- Be aware that some disabled students are lacking in confidence and do not like to draw attention to themselves. Try to ensure they are always drawn into class discussions
- When planning group work / meetings with students, consider accessibility / location of class rooms / offices.
- If asking students to carry out research in the library, be aware that some students with mobility difficulties may not be able to browse the shelves. Therefore make sure that students are made aware of resources available to help them e.g. subject librarian, electronic library catalogue
- Be aware that it can take disabled students longer to do coursework than non-disabled students. Give students assignments well in advance of the final deadline to allow them sufficient time to plan and carry out the work needed
- When it comes to exam time, make sure disabled students are involved with discussions about exam facilities and arrangements. Ensure all course tutors are aware of the disabled students’ exam requirements so that the provision of support can be consistent from module exam to module exam.
- A certain amount of sensitivity may be needed when doing group work. Leaving students to split up into their own groups may leave certain disabled students, lacking social confidence, in a vulnerable position. Overcoming this issue is admittedly not easy, and there are no straightforward answers, but it is something which you may wish to pre-empt in classroom and group work situations. You may choose, for example, to put students into groups yourself using a method that does not single out the disabled student (e.g. go around the class allocating students numbers from one to four to create four groups etc. The method splits up cliques, while offering no special treatment to the disabled student, nor does it bring any particular attention to the disabled student. This is in contrast to splitting groups by their location in the classroom, which maintains cliques, or allowing students to choose their own groups.)
In the final analysis, this case study highlights the need for tutors to form trusting working relationships with disabled students. Even though some of Joanna’s difficulties were caused by her non disclosure of hydrocephalus, a supportive tutor would have enabled her to make better decisions about overcoming the difficulties in a proactive, supportive environment. There would also have been benefits for the tutor in terms of increased understanding and awareness of issues faced by students with mobility difficulties, which potentially could benefit future disabled students.