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Supporting brain-injured students during the pandemic

Laura Barlow is an Associate Solicitor in the Adult Brain Injury team at Bolt Burdon Kemp
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#ThinkDifferently – Disabled students make up a significant proportion (around 14%) of the UK higher education population, but sadly, it has become apparent that disabled students found it more difficult to study in the 2019/20 summer term.

Teaching during this time was largely delivered online due to the coronavirus lockdown measures and this had a negative impact on disabled students, including students living with a brain injury.  

How are students with brain injury likely to be affected? 

A recent NUS survey found that out of the 29% of respondents who were receiving learning support, the disabled students felt less satisfied that they had received adequate support to enable them to work to the best of their ability. 

The survey didn’t look specifically at students with brain injuries, however, many of the issues that people with brain injuries commonly face will only have served to exacerbate the overall difficulties associated with studying during lockdown, including: 

Organisation and planning. Having a less structured day, for example, where course content is delivered in a format that is to be completed at a time that’s most convenient to the student, can throw students who have a brain injury off-track. Brain-injured people often find that having regular routines and schedules helps them to complete tasks. Without a schedule or set timeframes they can have real difficulty planning their days, and as a consequence they may feel disorganised and fall behind with work.  

Attention and information-processing. Lessons or interactive sessions that take place in an online video format may be very difficult for brain-injured students to follow. Brain injury very often results in slower information-processing and problems with attention and concentration. These difficulties present challenges even in person, but online, the problems can be much worse.  

Headaches, dizziness and fatigue. These symptoms are all commonly experienced by brain-injury survivors, and they can be exacerbated by spending more time than usual looking at a computer screen.  

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Emotional difficulties. Irritability, frustration and anxiety are just a few of the emotional difficulties commonly experienced by people with brain injuries. Lockdown has been especially stressful for people with brain injuries and this can heighten the effects of their emotional difficulties, making it very difficult to study. 

How can brain-injured students be supported in the 2020/21 academic year? 

Education providers have an established duty, regardless of the ongoing pandemic, to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure disabled students can fully participate in education and other benefits, facilities and services provided for students (i.e. they are not to be discriminated against). 

The NUS survey respondents who received learning support said that they would like more individual support, regular contact and check-ins, more information about their course/options, more online provision and increased financial assistance.  

First and foremost, higher education institutions need to take time to listen to each brain-injured student’s individual circumstances, to understand the difficulties they face and to work out how best to facilitate their ongoing learning throughout the pandemic.  

Some strategies might include: 

  • Extra 1:1 or small group ‘in-person’ lessons/seminars (provided the particular student is comfortable with in-person learning. The NUS survey found that disabled students, along with international students and those with caring responsibilities, were more concerned about the risk of catching coronavirus on campus). 
  • Additional computer software and/or equipment to increase their accessibility to online learning 
  • The provision of suggested daily/weekly schedules for online learning to provide structure and routine 
  • Recording of live online lessons/seminars to allow repeat watching 
  • Allowing extra time for completing work 
  • Encouraging regular breaks from study to combat fatigue and anxiety 
  • Setting up buddy support system 
  • Facilitating professional emotional support 
  • Scheduling regular meetings to check-in and see if any further adjustments to support learning need to be considered. 

With the right planning, higher education providers can ensure that they are providing their brain-injured students with the best possible chance of a successful educational experience – throughout the pandemic and beyond.  

Laura Barlow is an Associate Solicitor in the Adult Brain Injury team at Bolt Burdon Kemp

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