A Comparative Study of the Experience of Disabled and Non-Disabled Students on Professional Practice Placements

  • Shirley Hill

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Education


    The experience of disabled students in UK higher education has been the subject of research for many years, particularly following legislation in 2001 that introduced responsibilities on universities to make reasonable adjustments for disabled students. Most of this research has focused solely on the experience of disabled students, and typically only within one discipline, with limited comparison with their non-disabled peers; particularly in the context of students’ experience on practice placements where professional competencies are developed and assessed.

    This thesis therefore sought to address this gap in the research by investigating the experience of disabled and non-disabled students on practice placements across six professional disciplines, utilising a mixed methods research design. Students at a Scottish University who were studying medicine, nursing, dentistry, education, social work or community education were invited to participate in an anonymous online survey and a follow-up semi-structured interview. These particular disciplines were selected on the basis of enabling comparison with previous research and also to explore the dichotomy between the social and medical approaches to disability; and the potential impact of these approaches on the experience of disabled students.

    Over 350 students responded to the survey from all six disciplines and a total of 21 interviews were conducted with disabled and non-disabled students. The results were also compared with the student placement feedback obtained independently by the individual disciplines involved in the research.

    Many students provided positive feedback on their placement experience and clearly valued this as preparation for their future careers. The students’ relationship with their placement supervisor was also clearly an influence on the quality of their placement experience. However, statistical analyses revealed that disabled students’ overall rating for their placement experience was lower than that of non-disabled students, and that disabled students experienced
    more difficulties on placement.

    Subsequent thematic analysis of students’ qualitative responses revealed that, although disabled and non-disabled students reported similar issues, these were exacerbated for some disabled students by the nature of their impairment or the attitudes of others to disability. Indeed, there was evidence that a medical model approach to disability was more prevalent in the disciplines of medicine and nursing. It was also clear that some disabled students did not identify with the terms ‘disabled’ or ‘disability’.

    The results of this study highlighted in particular the need for a review of disability disclosure procedures in the placement context and for clarity in the role and responsibilities of placement staff. Recommendations for practice are identified that aim to enhance the placement experience of all students and to remove any barriers to access; ensuring disabled students are not disadvantaged in the placement context and their needs are appropriately met.
    Date of Award2014
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorJennifer Harris (Supervisor) & Angela Roger (Supervisor)


    • Disability
    • Students
    • Experience
    • Professional Programmes
    • Practice Placements
    • Higher education
    • Disclosure
    • Identity

    Cite this