UK Disability History Month – Reflections from UHI’s disability support coordinator

As UK Disability History Month draws to a close, Mark Ross shares some reflections on his role as UHI’s disability support coordinator.

The theme of this year’s UK Disability History Month is ‘disability, health and wellbeing’.

The Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education is taking the opportunity to highlight the experiences of disabled staff working in student services.

Lived experience helps

Sir Ranulph Feinnes is considered to have written a definitive biography of Captain Scott, due in part to his personal experience in Antarctica. As Feinnes explains:  

“No previous Scott biographer has manhauled a heavy sledgeload through the great crevasse fields of the Beardmore Glacier, explored icefields never seen by man or walked a thousand miles on poisoned feet.”

At the same time, every individual knows their own situation best and it is only by working with the student that student services staff can determine the impact of the student’s needs on their learning. The needs assessment process is underpinned by informed professional judgement and I would like to think that my lived experience as a disabled person gives me a head start in terms of cultivating empathy and understanding with the students and staff I work with. In a complex organisation like UHI, building relationships is key, after all.

Student equivalence

As a UHI graduate, I understand the practical realities of studying with a disability. I received an excellent standard of support as a student and my main motivation since taking up my current post in 2010 has been to use that experience to benefit others. As disability support coordinator, my role involves supporting our partnership to deliver consistent processes with student equivalence in mind.

At UHI, students can disclose formally and informally and at any time during their student journey. Student services staff at your UHI partner would be happy to speak with you if you would like to know more about the support available to you.

Flexibility is important

I believe passionately in UHI and work with a tremendously supportive group of colleagues. We all have extremely busy and varied workloads and, like many, I work flexibly. This flexibility is important because it allows me to manage the varying impact of my own needs on a day-to-day basis. It also enables to shape my role and, to some extent, make it my own, so I am proud of the role I play in ensuring disability support is an institutional strength at UHI.

All about the students

When our dean of student experience suggested I write something to mark UK Disability History Month, I wasn’t sure what I could contribute at first. As I see it, I am simply doing my job – it is a job I have grown into over the past thirteen years and one in which my lived experience is a definite benefit. For example, one of my former students feels that:

“Having a disability adviser with personal experience of disability…provides a kind of reassurance or confidence which is rare. This has been a really valuable thing for me during my time at UHI.”

The British sociologist Michael Oliver, who pioneered the academic discipline of disability studies, rightly described disability as “an essential part of the self.” Still, one of the many wonderful things about UHI is the recognition that, whilst my disability is a significant part of my life, it certainly doesn’t define me or change what is expected of me. I much prefer to let my character, work ethic and abilities speak for themselves – which frees me up to be as full a member of our student services team as anyone else, and hopefully to inspire one or two people along the way. As our team motto says: “It’s all about the students.”

Quote from Dr Iain Morrison, Dean of Student Experience

Mark is highly professional, hard-working, conscientious, respected across our complex partnership and externally, a charming and enthusiastic ambassador for UHI and an unending source of puns and jokes that are annoyingly better than my own. He is also a disabled person. He is certainly not defined by this and, as one of my longest lasting colleagues, is a core member of my team purely because of his many personal strengths and the expertise he brings to his role.

The extent to which his own health conditions inform his work is a matter for Mark and I would not presume to fully understand the challenges he faces. What I see are the benefits in the empathy, understanding and insight he applies through his work to the benefit of our students. I can think of no issue or situation through the 13 years of working closely together that have caused problems in ensuring that Mark played his full part in the life of the team and UHI. It is his ability that has shone brightly.

I am delighted that, through his blog and the focus on student services colleagues with disabilities as part of UK Disability History Month 2022, we can celebrate Mark’s work and underline how we can create supportive and encouraging environments for all our colleagues to thrive.

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