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Q&A: Mental Health & Disability

by | Feb 9, 2022 | Strategy & Transformation

Introducing another of our latest Consulting Fellow recruits – Pete Quinn. Pete collaborates with individuals, teams and organisations, enabling them to achieve greater accessibility and inclusiveness in their initiatives. Halpin’s Joint CEO Susie Hills gets to know him…

Susie: It’s great to have you on the Halpin team Pete. What are the main issues you have been working on over the past year?

Pete: Helping organisations’ HR, wellbeing and disability teams to improve their practises on:

  • Neurodiversity inclusion (particularly for students with ADHD or on the Autism spectrum facing several years now of home working, which used to be thought of as temporary but now looks to be a more permanent feature of organisational life).
  • Digital inclusion (to mitigate barriers which originated or were amplified by the pandemic).
  • Decolonising/inclusive curriculum.

How can governing bodies be assured that their institutions are inclusive places for disabled staff and students?

By coming out from the governing body meetings and meeting disabled staff and students where they live, learn and experience the fantastic and frustrating aspects of university life. By reflecting openly and transparently on how they meet the expectations laid out in the 2017 publication, ‘Inclusive teaching and Learning in Higher Education: a Route to Excellence’, meaningfully involving disabled people in governance decisions and having named champions throughout the governing body who take responsibility for strategic success for inclusive study, employment and sustainable pathways to inclusion.

Universities are going to be asked to re-submit their Access and Participation Plans – what can they do to ensure that they are considering disability within these plans? 

Co-production and co-creation with disabled students and staff and the wider community where they are. Ensuring the current progress on closing awarding gaps is maintained, put pressure on internal and external institutions to tackle decades-old barriers in living, learning and social and cultural capital. The government’s disability strategy was recently judged as unlawful in parts; can universities lead by example, exceed government and meet the needs of society?

How much progress have you seen in recent years on disability inclusion and equality?

There is a lot to do, but we are fortunate that there are pockets of good practice which means other organisations can learn by adaptation and reading across to their own context without needing to start from scratch. We’ve seen some fantastic work done with students on inclusive curriculum, inclusive assessment and inclusive internships and employability opportunities. Work is still needed on accessible clubs and societies, social opportunities and other events. But are disabled students celebrated as an asset?

In terms of academic and professional support staff we still have very few disabled people in leadership roles and less confidence in sharing disability information is evident in the data (on the journey from UG to PG, to PGR and into employment it dips at each stage). There’s still a big discomfort in combining *disability* with *excellence* for many universities and a real danger that the progress made during the pandemic , (which has demonstrated that  inclusive practice is possible),may be undone as universities, colleges and other organisations to try and revert to prior practice.

How has Covid-19 impacted universities’ abilities to meet the needs of disabled students?

It has spotlighted that inclusive practice is possible but also the entrenched attitudinal barriers, present throughout society, that exist for disabled students. Some of the projects I’ve worked on have demonstrated that an underpinning inclusive approach can enable success, progression and progress for all learners; not just disabled students.

Beyond disability inclusion, I think most universities are currently impacted adversely in meeting the needs of students and colleagues.

Senior teams have been under intense pressure and scrutiny and haven’t been allowed to take a breath for reflection as they seek to continue at pace.

Frontline teams are stretched and we know from mental health surveys many individuals are close to collapse in many places. The teams who’ve adapted, pivoted and shown flexibility have continued to meet the constant uncertainty without respite. I have been working to help leadership and teams to make authentic connections with staff and students.

We have all learned what to avoid by observing the NHS workers clapped by the nation but not given a pay rise or much authentic meaningful recognition. The disconnect between leadership and teams is evident in initiatives like giving people additional wellbeing days near Christmas but not spotting that many of the people most in need of them were on call, managing crises or still swamped with business as usual. Many student support frontline teams, particularly in mental health study support, are feeling overlooked. It is a genuine challenge for leaders to give authentic recognition for their service which cuts through the ‘noise’ and means something to the individuals involved.

What do you think universities should be doing to reconsider the health and wellbeing of their staff and students due to the impact of Covid-19?

Health and well-being issues for students and staff tend to overlap in the main particularly in areas such as common mental health problems, financial concerns, loneliness, sleep problems, diet and exercise challenges and stress. The sustainability of the current model of being all things to all stakeholders is doubtful. A more fruitful approach might be to be very clear about boundaries between what the university can do, and what is legitimately the realm of the health service such as it is, ensuring that students and employees are supported in terms of an educational community but clarity from university leaders that universities cannot fill the treatment gaps that are currently very evident.

Let’s acknowledge there are resource constraints that have impact, deadlines to get assessment done and certified in time for exam boards and limits to how many additional staff can be deployed for these processes. Let’s also be clear that each time we try and reduce pressure on academic and professional support staff, we likely extend the time period to students’ receipt of results.

Universities should be:

  • Looking to reduce stress on students and staff around assessments and other time-pressured points perhaps by piloting extending the length of timed assessments for all with a normalised/realistic upper time limit avoiding impacts on perfectionist, anxious or neurodiverse students.
  • Stopping the ‘exceptional circumstances’ tsunami and highlighting normal common challenges and perhaps exploring the adoption of self certification processes that are widely used across workplaces.
  • Implementing kindness in policy,
  • Seeing inclusion and diversity as a strength, not a deficit challenge,
  • Acknowledge the impact of precarity.

As a consultancy Halpin is committed to EDI, what should we be considering as we work to ensure that our work is inclusive and accessible for disabled staff and governors? 

Through authentic allyship, sustainable pipelines, reflecting on the WEIRD* systems and processes we encounter and the value of being interested in cultural diversity, kindness in policy and practice and the willingness to experience the discomfort of diversifying.

*Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD)

Pete Quinn is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education.