Improving support for HE students with learning disabilities

It’s widely acknowledged that learning pace and ability vary from one individual to another. Despite that, students with learning disabilities (LDs) or specific learning difficulties (SpLDs) often face a range of challenges throughout their education. 

According to the World Bank, almost 1 billion people or 15% of the world’s population have some form of disability. In England, schools report that 34.4 per 1000 students have a learning disability,, yet often the facilities and resources at schools and universities don’t reflect this. 

The impact of failing to adapt to students’ needs

Lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion can make learning harder than it should be for many students with diverse learning needs. Conditions such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia and auditory processing disorder (APD) are common among university students, however many institutions don’t provide the physical and electronic resources to cater for these requirements.

Research in the UK reveals that around 56% of students with learning disabilities feel that they are not given equal opportunities in education. Examples include: exclusion from certain courses; teaching staff not adapting to needs-based learning styles; discrimination; and being discredited because of a disability.

Undergraduate students with learning disabilities are more likely to drop out of university according to a 2019 report from the Office for Students (OfS). And ‘only 1 in 4 students with LD tell their college they have a disability’which compounds the problem. 

The continued stigma surrounding learning differences can result in students being labelled as unmotivated and facing continued barriers to inclusive learning. Such discrimination can deprive individuals of access to higher education, along with all the social and economic benefits this has to offer. So, it’s vitally important that Higher Education institutions uphold and instill the values of equity and inclusion by implementing systemic changes that cater to special needs students. The HEA framework for student access, retention, attainment and progression states that: 

“Inclusive learning and teaching recognises all students’ entitlement to a learning experience that respects diversity, enables participation, removes barriers and anticipates and considers a variety of learning needs and preferences.” 

How universities can evolve

Those universities that have prioritised diversity, equity, and inclusion have seen their mission – to help students from different backgrounds and with a range of learning needs succeed – start to pay off. Simply endorsing these principles can lead to lower dropout rates for students with learning disabilities or specific learning difficulties. But some institutions are taking this further and leading the way in delivering tailored programmes of support for their students. 

In 2018, five UK universities (UCL, University of Manchester, University of Sheffield, University of Sussex and University of Brighton) were recognised as providing the best support for students with autism. Some of the strategies adopted by these institutions include providing students with a designated disability advisor, setting up supportive communities where individuals ‘can meet other students who share their disability’, mentorship programmes, and summer schools. As well as impacting academic attainment by empowering students and encouraging them to use the resources available to them, these programmes can also help tackle problems of loneliness and isolation.

Research also suggests that when universities acknowledge the need for inclusion, diversity, and equity, they create a more positive and productive environment. When they prioritise inclusion and equity, they are more likely to instigate changes such as educating staff to identify and adapt to students’ different learning needs; tailoring resources to the needs of individuals; and investing in both structural and cultural changes – from more accessible facilities to inclusive teaching practices. 

The adequate provision of electronic resources is also crucial when it comes to meeting the academic needs of students with learning disabilities and specific learning difficulties. Whilst many individuals will get the support of a Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) to help fund specialist equipment and other day-to-day support, universities and other institutions can bolster support programmes by investing in technologies that are specifically designed to help students read and understand their course material. 

The role of EdTech in enhancing the reading and learning experience for students

For any new student, adapting to independent study at university can be daunting. As well the substantial reading and writing requirement, course material will be much more complex than many are used to. For those with a learning disability, this adjustment can often be overwhelming. Teaching staff may not always be able to create a personalised learning environment for everyone, and not every student will have access to individual support. This is where education technologies designed specifically to help with reading and comprehension can really make a difference. 

Research suggests that students in general struggle with identifying key information from their reading material, often because they lack the background knowledge required to do so10. These same students are likely to feel that they have too much to read and not enough time to absorb it. Particularly for those with conditions such as dyslexia or ADHD, being able to identify key information within dense literature can be very challenging.  

However, by breaking down reading materials into bite-sized chunks, providing links to definitions of some of the terminology, and automatically highlighting key information, reading technologies such as Scholarcy are helping students to approach their reading in a more systematic and less overwhelming way. This can help them not only get to grips with more complex material without giving up, but also encourage them to read more and develop the skills to study autonomously. 


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  9. Ryan, T (2009). Why It’s So Hard to Get Students to Read the Textbook, and What Happens When They Do. Available at:
  10. Hoeft, ME (2012). Why University Students Don’t Read: What Professors Can Do To Increase Compliance. Available at: