The Reasonableness of Reasonable Adjustments

The Reasonableness of Reasonable Adjustments

The Reasonableness of Reasonable Adjustments 

By Dr Geraldene Codina and Dr Rosemary Shepherd (University of Derby, UK)

May 2022


The most significant piece of legislation in the United Kingdom (UK) which pertains to the inclusion of disabled students in higher education (HE) is the Equality Act 2010.  A fundamental element of the Act is the requirement for anticipatory and responsive reasonable adjustments to be made for disabled people. In a higher education context, the anticipatory element means having in place those structures that support the inclusion of disabled students; for example, having a disability support team, embedded accessible software, ensuring that all staff take part in continuing professional development (CPD) around inclusion, etc. The responsive element means ensuring that individual disabled students’ needs are met; for example, this might include the provision of specialised equipment that meets the needs of an individual.

It is commonly accepted, both in the school inclusion literature and the higher education inclusion literature that provisions initially made to remove barriers for individuals, can in time, become embedded into everyday inclusive practice. For example, at the University of Derby a number of disabled students with a Learning Support Plan* were given permission to record seminars using a Dictaphone. This responsive reasonable adjustment has now been altered and instead of individuals making a recording of each lecture, all lectures are recorded using a system called Panopto and routinely posted on the University’s virtual learning environment (VLE). Thus, this responsive reasonable adjustment that was once made to meet the needs of the individual, is now anticipatory in nature and of benefit to all.

As academics passionate about the inclusion of disabled students, it is our hope that more anticipatory reasonable adjustments will become embedded into everyday higher education practice. This in turn, should then lead to fewer disabled students needing responsive adjustments because the higher education sector as a whole is more inclusive.

The significance of heading in the other direction and increasing the number of responsive reasonable adjustments, is brought into ever sharper focus, when a light is shone on the inappropriateness of some students’ ‘reasonable’ adjustments.

The Inflexible Adjustment

Lidia (student with a visual impairment and dyslexia)

I got assisted technology which is great apart from the fact that the people that supplied it do the training, and they are not dyslexia friendly… They train in six-hour blocks which my brain can’t cope with… I went back to them [Student Wellbeing Services] and I said look, I want extra training with the Dyslexia Association because they are not training in the way that I need. I am six weeks away from finishing my degree, still not had the training… I’ve been back to them and they simply won’t have it… and they are the ones who are supposed to enable the disabled (Shepherd, 2018, p.124).


The Embarrassing Adjustment

Bev (student with a spinal injury)

I was told that I would have a specific chair... like the computer chairs… with a back support to be put in every classroom but that seems to have disappeared, but, saying that… it sort of made me feel a bit isolated, because there was a big, big thing on it [sticker] with a ‘for the disabled’ on it… and so everybody was going… “who is going to be sitting in that seat”? So I didn’t want to use it anyway…. (Shepherd, 2018, p.127).


The Rejected Adjustment

Ramanique (student with a visual impairment)


Ramanique: So some of the things that I was going in and requesting were things like an iPad, because that's all I've ever known as a mainstream student in Visual Impairment (VI) settings. When I went to my needs assessor and said can I purchase an iPad, they said “no you can't” because I had a previous iPad which was much, much, much older; however, it didn't meet the standards that I wanted it to.

Peter White (Interviewer):  So because you already had a piece of equipment, they were saying that you can't have another one even though that would have been better for you?

Ramanique: Yes exactly.

(Radio 4 - In Touch, 2022)


These students’ lived experience accounts of, so called, ‘reasonable’ adjustments, highlight the broken pathway that can exist between legislation and practice, and the problems that occur when organisations interpret legislation and translate it into practice. Far from being responsive reasonable adjustments, the unresponsive and unreasonableness of the adjustments is experienced by these students as:

-          inflexible adjustments;

-          embarrassing adjustments;

-          rejected adjustments.

At the present moment, it seems at a distance to envisage a future when all higher education settings have embedded anticipatory reasonable adjustments, such as:

-          user friendly assistive software which is accessible to all;

-          adjustable ergonomic chairs in all classrooms;

-          computer equipment for every student which can handle the ever-increasing demands of updates.

That said, an immediately available anticipatory reasonable adjustment that can be embedded today is the gift of listening. Or to put this in more professional terms, enhanced staff training around the meeting of individuals’ needs and the embedding of an authentically person-centred approach.

Person-centred approaches put the disabled person at the heart of the responsive reasonable adjustments process, and bring together other relevant professionals to ensure that meaningful changes take place. A person-centred meeting often follows a specific format:

-          Identify what is important to the student at the present moment?

-          Identify what is important to the student in the future and what must be present in the future?

-          Identify what is the best support (i.e. what do others need to know and do to meet this student’s needs in a way that makes sense to them and fulfils the statutory requirements)? 

-          Focussing on the multiple perspectives of those attending the meeting, what is working and not working for the student at the centre of the review? 

-          In relation to the student at the centre of the review, what questions need answering?

-          In relation to the student at the centre of the review, what outcomes and actions are desirable?

(Adapted from Helen Sanderson, n.d)


In conclusion, it is acknowledged by the authors of this Blog post that multiple factors impact the efficacy of reasonable adjustments, and these factors extend beyond the distinction between anticipatory and responsive reasonable adjustments. For example, there is controversy in the sector regarding the overlap between universities’ responsibilities for making reasonable adjustments and the Government’s funding responsibilities. The wider debates should however not detract from disabled students own lived experience accounts of trying to obtain reasonable adjustments. For these lived account experiences raise one very important question:

For whom are the adjustments reasonable –

the disabled student, the needs assessor, or the Higher Education Institution/sector?



*Learning Support Plans are written for disabled students at the University of Derby and they detail the responsive reasonable adjustments that need making for the individual student (for example, extra time on an assignment).



Equality Act 2010. London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office

Radio 4, British Broadcasting Cooperation (BBC), (2022, 5th April) In Touch: Education – Proposed improvements (Presenter: Peter White).

Sanderson, H. (n.d) Person-Centred Reviews.

Shepherd, R. (2018). A phenomenological study of students with hidden disabilities in higher education: A cross sectional study of learning support needs in a University in the UK. University of Derby [EdD Thesis]