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An exploration of the personal
journeys of disabled students during

the first year of Higher Education

Megan Harnett

Thesis submitted to Cardiff Metropolitan University in
partial fulfilment for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

Cardiff School of Education

Cardiff Metropolitan University

December, 2016

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This work has not previously been accepted in substance for any degree and is not being
concurrently submitted in candidature for any degree.

Signed ...................................................................... (candidate)

Date ..........................................................................


This thesis is the result of my own investigations, except where otherwise stated. Where
correction services have been used, the extent and nature of the correction is clearly marked
in a footnote(s).

Other sources are acknowledged by footnotes giving explicit references. A bibliography is

Signed ..................................................................... (candidate)

Date .........................................................................


I hereby give consent for my thesis, if accepted, to be available for photocopying and for
inter-library loan, and for the title and summary to be made available to outside

Signed ..................................................................... (candidate)

Date .........................................................................

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“I find it difficult to talk to people that I know. Kind of opening up to them because I feel if I
tell them certain things then they’ll think differently of me. I don’t know why it’s just

something that, is like a mind-set” (Phase 3).

In contrast, Luke remained unconvinced about the benefits of this type of support in

comparison to Molly and Elly. He stated:

“I don’t know, the mentoring is just like there if you want to talk about anything, it’s a bit
like counselling. They say things like ‘how does that make you feel?’ a lot!” (Phase 1).

The sarcastic tone adopted within his interviews emphasised a more cynical attitude towards

“counselling”. The differing perceptions held by these students were largely centred on

whether they felt they required this type of support. As Luke felt he did not need emotional

provision, it was not viewed as a significant element of his overall support system.

Nonetheless, Luke capitalised on the services offered. He used the counsellor to aid aspects

that caused challenges in HE such as awkward timetabling. However, he acknowledged that,

“It’s probably not the best use of mentoring but it seemed to work and … I’m happy” (Luke,
Phase 2).

Therefore, it contributed to his experiences of support in HE.

The students’ narratives of emotional support reflected both medical and social

models of disability. For Molly and Elly, their decision to receive such support was

predominantly to aid aspects associated with their impairment (i.e. medical model).

Essentially, they needed this element of support to aid aspects of their emotional health in

HE (Danforth, 2001; Goodley, 2011). However, they both demonstrated that they did not

always need to use this aspect of support within HE and reflected choice and control in

terms of how and when they accessed this. In doing so, their narratives also demonstrated

empowerment, reflecting more social conceptions of disability (Mackleprang and Salsgiver,

2009; Oliver and Barnes, 2009). In contrast, Luke’s decision to receive emotional support

was solely in relation to the social model of disability. Although he felt he did not

experience challenges in this area (and therefore did not feel he needed to access this aspect

of support), he realised he could make use of the emotional provision provided by the HEI

when he experienced a specific challenge within the HE environment. Thus, his experiences

also reflected choice and control regarding when to access and utilise support provided by

the HEI. Support from outside HEI
HE was not experienced in isolation and was also influenced by the support students

received outside HE. As indicated, all six students received some form of external support

within the first year. Some of the support was common to the general student population,

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but some was specific to disability. The support came from several places including

financial support services, medical professionals and families. It was integral to their overall

support system during the first year of HE.

i) Personal support
This support focused on the physical and emotional support students received from

medical professionals outside HE. Overall, four students (Molly, Luke, Simon, Melody) saw

medical professionals or therapists outside HE to sustain and improve aspects of their health

and well-being. These findings were unique as previous research has failed to discuss the

importance of external support services to support the physical and emotional needs of DS

during HE (e.g. Beauchamp-Pryor, 2013; Fuller et al., 2009; Goode 2007; Jacklin et al.,


The type of support received was associated with the students’ category of self-

identified disability and mirrored the institutional, personal support received within HE

(section Thus, it can be separated into physical (Luke, Simon, Melody) and

emotional support (Molly, Melody). Two students did not receive external personal support

while in HE. For Joanna, dyslexia was only considered to influence her reading and writing

difficulties. In contrast, Elly was assessed by a psychologist during FE, but the support from

this domain did not continue, instead it was suggested she seek emotional support from the

counselling service within the HEI.

As indicated, Luke, Simon and Melody received physical support from outside their

HEI. They attended medical appointments at certain points of the year to maintain their

health during HE. The type of support they received is exemplified below,

“Well I have to miss time for hospital appointments because I am ill or I’m in pain” (Luke,
Phase 1).

“[I missed time in HE] because I was working and trying to cram in work and I was getting
a diabetes pump insulin pump and I had to go to loads of appointments so I missed quite a

bit with that” (Simon, Phase 2).

“Spasms make it worse; I have to have Botox every three months in my calf, fingers, wrist
and peck” (Melody, Phase 1).

Melody discussed physical support more frequently than the other students throughout her

first year. This was influenced by the recent acquirement of her impairment and the

necessary treatment to ensure her physical progression continued. Interestingly, the

importance of the medical support received outside HE, was reinforced by the support she

requested on entry into HE. Melody’s initial support requirements in HE focused on

physical support, rather than academic support because it aided her movement around the

campus. However, this developed as the first year of HE progressed (section 5.2.4).

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work with disabled students throughout the year to ensure the support provided is

appropriate to meet their needs. This should ensure they are able to engage in

academic work and work independently within HE. It is important as disabled

students’ needs may change or additional impairments may be identified during the

first year of HE.

 Consider having a key person of contact for disabled students in departments

and encourage students to become familiar with their key contacts as early as

possible. This could help:

o Ensure the efficient communication of information regarding disability

provision between departments in HE.

o Aid dissemination of information about a student’s needs as early as

possible and subsequently help to develop staff awareness. This may also

help academic staff members to become aware if students may be absent

from HE.

o Ensure disabled students do not have to repeatedly disclose information

about disability.

o Monitor the provision disabled students receive throughout the first year of


 Consider having supplementary procedures in place for key person of contact

for disability.

 Develop links between disability support teams and other non-academic

departments throughout HEIs. This will help to ensure a more inclusive HE

environment and help to promote a positive disability ethos. Therefore, HEIs should

consider whether training for all staff members throughout HE is necessary.

 Ensure support is available for disabled students when applying for additional

financial funding related to disability, or when disabled students may need

additional support completing general financial forms.

 Encourage academic staff members to proactively consider, with support from

disability support teams, alternative forms of assessments for disabled students

who may have difficulties with group work. Training events/courses for academic

staff may be useful to consider in order to support this.

 Ensure the feedback provided to students in HE is clear and accessible for all.

Again, HEIs should consider whether training events for academic staff regarding

effective feedback for all students would be beneficial.

 Encourage academic staff members to proactively consider the learning

environment and teaching strategies, particularly in larger lectures, to ensure

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they are suitable for all learners. Again, HEIs should consider providing staff

training regarding more inclusive practices of teaching.

 Ensure academic expectations are made clear to all students from the outset of

courses and within individual modules to aid the academic expectations of


 Ensure there are quiet spaces for disabled students to study within HE.

 Consider monitoring the attendance of students. This should help to identify

those who are persistently absent and help identify whether there are any difficulties

or reasons for such absences.

 Consider processes so that HEIs can consistently gather feedback from

disabled students about their first year HE experiences. This will help HEIs to

proactively address any difficulties that students may experience within the HE

environment. This may involve exploring perceptions of support, courses,

friendships, social activities and alternative assessments. It may be useful to work

with the Students’ Union in order to aid this and provide a space for the disabled

students’ voices to be heard.

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