A team from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne has developed theworld's first web-based resource aimed at supporting disabled researchstudents through their courses.
The resource was developed after research by the University foundthat many disabled postgraduate research students faced barriers whichhindered progress and dampened confidence.
The research also showed that supervisors and institutionalstaff could readily help remove or lessen the barriers, by putting morethought into tailoring the research environment and their workingpractices to meet the requirements of these students.
These findings led to the development of a world-firstweb-based resource specifically aimed at those who work with disabledpostgraduate research students. It will be launched on September 8 atthe British Academy in London and has the potential to be used byhigher education institutions around the world.
Newcastle University led the study and the creation of the websiteas part of the three-year Premia project, which received £150,000 infunding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England andWales.
The wide array of materials on the website are aimed at makingresearch education more accessible from the time students apply for acourse until they finish their studies and start their careers.
Resources include over 60 themed units including creatingaccessible information about research study, working with researchstudents with reading difficulties, making adjustments to supervisorypractice, to inclusive vivas and making the transition to employment.
The library has self-audit tools to help staff prepare fordisabled research students before they start their postgraduatedegrees, a plain English glossary of key research terms and testimoniesfrom students to give an insight into the types of issues they face.
About 5 per cent of the postgraduate research population isdisabled including students with specific learning difficulties likedyslexia, physical or sensory impairments and mental healthdifficulties.
The study surveyed 37 disabled postgraduates at a range of UKhigher education institutions. The Newcastle University team was toldthat life as a disabled postgraduate researcher was very different fromlife as a disabled undergraduate, because the pattern of work and theroles of staff had changed. For example, researchers are expected tospend more long periods working unsupervised, they may have to carryout fieldwork, attend conferences elsewhere in the UK and the world,and they may also have teaching responsibilities.
However, the disabled researchers identified a variety ofbarriers that they regularly faced, many related to supervision. Manyresearch supervisors had not thought about how to adapt the traditionalworking environment or did not reshape their working practices toprovide the relevant and appropriate support a disabled student mayneed.
For example, one student with a physical-mobility impairmentsaid six months of PhD time had been lost because the supervisor didnot understand the difficulties faced in executing a planned scheduleof fieldwork. Another student with chronic fatigue syndrome wasexpected to attend a lengthy seminar which involved a period of walkingaround.
Among the many other issues highlighted were inaccessibleinformation about research opportunities; slow processing of fundingfor learning support; impenetrable research terminology; health andsafety considerations and more.
However, many examples of good practice were also found by theNewcastle team and are included on the website. A blind student praisedthe supervisors who rethought the way they gave feedback on progress,and a wheelchair user was 'very happy' with a department who provided aspecial desk, designed a mouse pad and ensured access to a specialtoilet with a wide door.
Val Farrar, Premia project officer, said: "These students'stories show that, however well-prepared, flexible and student-centredan institution sees itself, individuals can experience it asill-prepared, inflexible and staff-centred.
"It shows that universities have to ask themselves rigorousquestions -- for example, do we systematically seek feedback fromdisabled students? Are we willing to tackle the issues they raise? Arewe reactive to crises rather than reflective in our practice?"
"We hope the Premia project will raise awareness of thesituations faced by disabled postgraduate research students and willmeet staff development needs with its focused training resources."
More information about the Premia project:
The Premia Resource Base for all staff involved with postgraduate research students can be found at www.premia.ac.uk.
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