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Home Info for universities, colleges & schools Resources Resources for staff Students with disabilities: good practice

International students with disabilities in Further & Higher Education: notes on good practice

This guidance has been produced by UKCISA with assistance from Eversheds LLP for staff in further and higher education: disability co-ordinators, international recruiters and advisers, admissions staff and their managers.  It aims to provide a statement of best practice, supplemented by illustrative case studies from the sector. The case studies are taken from real examples supplied by institutions to Skill: the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities (a now defunct charity which helped us produce the original version of this guidance).

Institutions should also refer to the Part 6 of the Equality Act 2010 (“EA”).  The revised Code of Practice for Post 16 education published by the Disability Rights Commission in 2007 also provides some useful guidance.  Institutions referring to the revised Code of Practice should bear in mind that it has not been updated since the EA repealed the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. This document does not constitute authoritative guidance, and on some matters institutions may wish to seek legal advice


Under Part 6 of the Equality Act 2010, further and higher education institutions must not discriminate against disabled people. Institutions have a duty to not treat disabled students less favourably than non-disabled students, and a duty to make reasonable adjustments for all disabled students, including international students, to ensure that they are not placed at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with someone who is not disabled. Paragraph 3.11 of the revised Code of Practice for Post 16 education states that

The Act applies to any disabled people (including those overseas) who are enquiring about or applying to a course, and any disabled students (including those overseas) attending, undertaking, or enrolled on a course.

This remains the case under the EA.  However, institutions are used to the UK system where funding for home domiciled students is made available through the UK funding councils or the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA).  In the case of most international students, no additional funding is available, and institutions will therefore need to identify a suitable stream of funding, for instance from overseas fee income, to support international students with disabilities.  The EA requires institutions to anticipate students’ needs, and therefore institutions will need to plan in advance, as well as reacting to the needs of individual applicants and students.

This information and guidance does not specifically mention students on European exchange programmes such as the Erasmus-Socrates. These programmes have separate funding mechanisms and students with disabilities are able to apply for extra funding to support their disability-related study needs while they are on an exchange programme. For more information, please contact the Erasmus department of the British Council  - see http://www.britishcouncil.org/erasmus

2      Admissions and disclosure issues

Institutions can more easily meet the needs of international students with disabilities if they encourage students to disclose these before admission. 

Potential barriers to disclosure are:

  • Students may fear discrimination if they disclose a disability.
  • Definitions of disability and terminology used vary between countries; students may therefore not see themselves as falling within the categories described, or may not understand what information is being sought, or why.
  • Issues of stigma or willingness to disclose personal information will be affected by cultural background.
  • Students’ expectations of what institutions should provide will be affected by structures of provision in the home country.
  • Students may feel they are able to cope on their own without assistance, and therefore do not need to disclose details of their disability.  However, this can be problematic where studying abroad and away from the support mechanisms they are used to imposes additional strains which may make it harder to study effectively.

The main prerequisites and incentives for disclosure are:

  • A full understanding and recognition on the part of the student and the institution that international disabled students are covered and protected by the EA.
  • Overseas agents having effective disability equality training so that they are clear about the legal framework and the importance of encouraging any disabled student who is at the application stage to disclose.
  • Reasonable steps to encourage disclosure – the institution needs to provide genuine opportunities for a student to disclose a disability. These opportunities may include on first contact with the institution, on the application form, at induction, or at exam time.
  • A commitment from the receiving institution to offer (and fund) appropriate support, eg notetakers, adaptive technology for computers, etc.
  • A commitment from the receiving institution to offer, where it is required, extra time or support in examinations and assessments for students with disabilities.

Admissions offices and international recruiters therefore need to ensure international applicants are given:

  • Assurances that disclosure of a disability will not prejudice an application, and details of how institutions will follow-up disclosures to discuss support needs and availability.
  • Assurances about institutional procedures for ensuring confidentiality and appropriate use of information etc.
  • Details of the institution’s disability policy and supporting literature that outlines their commitment to students with disabilities.
  • Clear information about the availability of disability support services and how to access them, without assuming familiarity with UK norms.
  • Information about the accessibility of the institution and local area, taking into account that visiting the location in advance may not be possible (eg use of access maps and virtual tours)
  • Information about the availability and costs of personal assistance, social and medical care and transport costs which may fall outside the scope of institutional provision.

Yeung applies to undertake a sociology degree at a UK institution. She receives the institution’s International Students’ Handbook, which includes information for students with disabilities. She finds this very helpful as she suffers from mental ill-health. Some details are included under the section on health, for example it explains that there may be extra stresses involved in studying abroad and encourages her to discuss her plans with her doctor, counsellor or psychologist and to disclose her disability to the host institution. The section gives details of where to find assistance in the college. The handbook also includes a separate section on the institution’s disability support services and the academic, personal and financial support it can provide.

3      Meeting students’ needs

 Potential barriers to meeting students’ needs might include:

  • The institution not being aware of a student’s disability. After arrival, information about disability support services needs to be provided to students at orientation, and at other key points, eg library induction and examination periods, to encourage those who did not disclose before arrival to do so. Just as for home students, international students need to have genuine opportunities to disclose and an open culture in which to do so.

Priya is visually impaired. When she arrives in the UK from India to attend her university course, she is met by a student guide, who is employed by the university to help international students to settle in. The student guides meet students from the airport, are involved in registration, organise social events, answer any questions, and support students where necessary. The student guides undertake training for their role, including training on disability, so that they can recognise disability, encourage disclosure if appropriate, and understand the different societal backgrounds and taboos which may affect international disabled students. Student guides are often second or third year international students, so they can pass on information about disability and disclosure and support in the student’s own language.

  • Information about a student’s disability not being communicated effectively to the relevant people.
  • Difficulties in identifying an international student’s disability and the support needs they will have because of language and cultural barriers.

An institution designated a budget to finance meeting the needs of disabled international students. In order to put provision in place, it was necessary to identify disabled international students and assess their needs. Therefore the disability office and the international office worked together to produce a self-assessment form to send to overseas applicants to invite a certain level of self assessment. The form asked about the student’s disability and support they had had in the past. This form was then used by the Disability Office and the International Office as a basis to assess need and ascertain what the institution could provide.

  • The institution not having the resources to provide the necessary support for a student.  Institutions should be aware that the EA includes a concept of reasonableness. If an institution does not judge a particular adjustment reasonable, then it may not be appropriate to offer the student a place on the grounds that they cannot meet the student’s needs.  However, institutions must be able to demonstrate that a decision was made on the basis of an assessment of each individual’s needs, rather than a blanket decision that the institution cannot cater for a particular type of disability.

Disability co-ordinators will need to work with international officers to:

  • Establish procedures for carrying out and funding diagnostic and needs assessments for international students.
  • Establish how to assess the needs of international students, for example in the case of dyslexia in non-native speakers of English (expertise within the sector may build up, and networking is likely to be helpful to identify appropriate experts).
  • Work with international students to determine their personal support needs and how these might be met in the UK. Students need to have realistic expectations of the personal support they can expect and also of how much it may cost. The institution should also consider if it can help provide any of that support, for example providing accommodation for a personal assistant.

To be eligible for disability benefits in the UK, such as Disability Living Allowance and carer’s allowance, disabled people must have been present and ordinarily resident in Great Britain and have been present for not less than 26 weeks in the last 52 weeks. Moreover, many international students are only allowed to remain in the UK with the condition that they make ‘no recourse to public funds’, meaning that they usually cannot access welfare benefits in the UK.

Mike applied to undertake a one-year postgraduate course. He has brittle bones and uses a wheelchair. The university agreed that it would be able to provide support with his studies, such as book fetchers, and specialist equipment would be available to loan for the year. Mike explained that he would also need a personal assistant to help him with personal care needs. Although the institution was not able to provide a personal assistant, they decided they could provide the assistant with a room next to the student for the duration of his course. His options for personal assistance were to pay for a personal assistant himself, to contact CSV, or to try and obtain funding from social services.

  • Develop feedback loops to improve advance information for international students, eg identifying common misconceptions.
  • Utilise the institution’s website as much as possible, supplying up to date and accessible information on the admissions procedures for international students, and information on institutional policies for supporting disabled international students.
  • Ensure management is aware of the need to provide funding for international students with disabilities.
  • Ensure that support is available for international students, for example notetakers and loaning of equipment.

Paulo is disabled and applied to study an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. He explained that he was disabled and would need some study related support. The institution sent him a disability information pack containing information about the support that the institution offered. The support included initial screening for study difficulties, identification and assessment of needs, as well as general advice and administering access to appropriate learning support and personal care. The institution also stated that they would be able to offer the loan of equipment eg dictaphones, tape recorders, wheelchairs, portable hearing systems and arrange support for lecture access. He learnt that alternative arrangements for exams and assessments would also be made, and that he would have access to the Learning Support computer suite, which included voice-activated software, page reading scanner, magnification and text management software.

  • Work with community and other groups to provide services to disabled students.

Maria is blind and applied to undertake a masters degree course at a UK institution. Upon receiving her application, in anticipation of her needs and of the needs of other international blind and partially sighted students, the Disability Adviser contacted the Local Authority Sensory Support team to enquire about support and facilities.

The institution’s Disability Support team asked Maria if she would like orientation and mobility training and support from local organisations.  Maria’s support needs were assessed through a range of questions. Maria did request assistance, and her details were passed to the Head of Sensory Support at the Local Authority who liaised with local organisations to provide this training. Details of the campus and buildings Maria was likely to use were discussed, and a plan for orientation to the city centre, local shops, supermarket etc was agreed with her. Maria’s orientation took place before her studies started, over the summer period. The local Blind Association was also able to loan speaking kitchen equipment to Maria to use for the duration of her course.

The institution noted that liaison with the Local Authority Sensory Support manager and other organisational representatives proved invaluable in meeting Maria’s support needs, and gave the institution access to a significant pool of expertise.

4      Management and budgetary issues

The senior managers of institutions need to:

  • Recognise that they have a legal responsibility to plan to provide international students with comparable treatment to home students.
  • Identify a realistic budget for assessment and support for international students with disabilities, which might be funded for example from a proportion of overseas fee income.

One institution has set up an International Disabled Student’s Fund to be able to pay for support needs. The money is top-sliced from international student fees, and the amount of funding needed is calculated by multiplying the current number of international students who have disclosed a disability by the average DSA award. The Fund is administered through the Equality and Diversity Department. Individual students apply to the department for the funding and their needs are assessed to determine what support they need. The Fund is also able to pay for dyslexia diagnostic assessments for international students.

  • Decide on a concept of ‘reasonable adjustment’ which is appropriate to the institution’s circumstances and overall budgets.
  • Ensure that the policy is understood in all relevant departments, especially where devolved admissions policies exist.
  • Establish how central and devolved budgets will share the costs if appropriate
  • Allow a roll-over of funds from year to year to allow for the fact that numbers and support needs will vary; students with very high cost support needs may be rare, but the duty to anticipate needs means funds should be flexible enough to deal with such cases when they occur.

Funding Councils’ mainstream disability funding (or equivalent) and international disabled students

Funding Councils grants such as HEFCE mainstream disability funding can only be directly used to support home funded students, and therefore cannot be directly used to provide support to international disabled students. Mainstream disability funding is intended to recognise that institutions incur additional costs in recruiting and supporting students with disabilities. Mainstream disability funding can be used to improve infrastructure and services that all students can access.

There may be other funding sources that institutions can access in order to improve services for disabled students. An example of this would be the Project Capital Funding from the HEFCE. Again this is intended to support home funded students, but by improving general services for disabled students, this may indirectly support international students.

Examples of steps that an institution could be taking to ensure that they meet the needs of all disabled students include:

  • Networked software
  • Equipment available for loan
  • Note taker support
  • Dyslexia study skills support
  • Adaptations to teaching, eg providing hand outs in advance, or on the Intranet.

5      Wider issues

Institutions will also need to consider:

  • The provision of information for international students in accessible formats.
  • Balancing realistic information with marketing needs.
  • Ensuring agents and staff recruiting international students on behalf of the institution have knowledge of disability issues and where to refer students for more detailed information.
  • Considering whether any enhanced duty of care may be owed to international students with disabilities.

Last updated February 2012


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