Understanding Disability

A disability, under the Equality Act 2010, is defined as a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.  ‘Substantial’ means that the effect is more than minor or trivial (e.g. it takes significantly longer to do something) and ‘long-term’ means that is has lasted or is expected to last 12 months or more.

The Disability Service co-ordinate support for disabled students at Lancaster, but any staff member working with a disabled student is responsible for accessing and implementing the relevant support. 

A frequent request we get from staff is for more information about particular types of disability.  The information below gives a brief explanation different disabilities and some of the challenges students with those disabilities may encounter.

  • Specific learning difficulties (SpLDs) including dyslexia

    Characteristics of SpLDs

    Specific learning difficulties (SpLDs) impact upon the way information is processed and learned. SpLD is an umbrella term used to cover a variety of specific difficulties which sometimes but not always co-occur.  The term ‘specific’ learning difficulty is used to identify a difficulty which is not explained by general intellectual ability; in people with an SpLD there is a large discrepancy between general intellectual ability and ability in specific areas of learning (such as written language or number skills).


    Dyslexia affects around 10% of the population and is the most common ‘disability’ among students at Lancaster University. Common characteristics include:

    • Strange spellings
    • Strange pronunciations
    • Short, ungrammatical sentences
    • Simplified language
    • Illegible handwriting
    • Poorly constructed arguments in written work
    • Discrepancy between spoken responses in class and the quality of written work.

    Dyspraxia or developmental coordination disorder (DCD)

    This disorder affects fine/gross motor skills resulting in poor co-ordination which may be evident through clumsiness and difficulties with accuracy and/or speed of handwriting. Common characteristics include:

    • Struggling to absorb information from text
    • Difficulties with planning and organisational abilities
    • Weakness of working memory and speed of working
    • Difficulties associated with spoken language such as expressing ideas
    • Poor visual perception and spatial awareness
    • Weakness with handwriting and/or typing.


    Dyscalculia causes difficulties in learning basic arithmetic facts, performing accurate calculations and understanding magnitudes. Common characteristics include:

    • Poor perception of number and estimation
    • Slower to perform calculations
    • Difficulty remembering mathematical procedures, especially as they become more complex
    • Weakness in mental arithmetic
    • High levels of anxiety about mathematics.
  • Attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder

    ADHD affects a person's ability to concentrate but may also result in behaviours not appropriate to that person's age. Common characteristics include:

    • Inattention, restlessness
    • Difficulties remaining focussed and paying attention
    • Unpredictable, impulsive and erratic behaviour
    • Excessive interruptions
    • Inappropriate comments and/or behaviour
    • Inability to apply feedback effectively.

    Where signs of hyperactivity are not present, attention deficit disorder (ADD) is a more appropriate term.

  • Visual stress

    Also previously known as Meares-Irlen syndrome and scotopic sensitivity syndrome, visual stress causes discomfort in people when reading, particularly over longer periods of time.


    The following may be associated with visual stress:

    • Blurring of letters/words, going out of focus
    • Headaches resulting from reading
    • Struggling to track across the page (may have to use a finger to keep track)
    • Difficulty with glare on page, sensitive to bright (especially fluorescent) lighting
    • Words or letters breaking into two, appearing as double
    • Small, crowded print much harder to read than large, widely spaced text.


    You will need to visit a specialist practitioner. Visit the British Dyslexia Website for a list. Students who suspect that they have visual stress could also take our online QuickScan screening test: some of the indicators for visual stress may also be indicative of dyslexia. We would also suggest that you book an appointment with a disability adviser to discuss these issues in more detail.

  • Autistic spectrum disorders (ASD)

    Autism spectrum disorder is an umbrella term for the separate diagnostic labels Asperger’s syndrome and autism. People with ASD are often referred to as having a triad of impairments, having difficulty with: social communication, social interaction and social imagination. A list of difficulties that people with ASD may experience are listed below. However, it is worth remembering that generalisations can be unhelpful, especially as autism is what is referred to as a spectrum disorder, so the characteristics will be as individual as the people themselves.  Characteristics of people on the autism spectrum may include:

    • Difficulties understanding other people’s feeling and emotions
    • Difficulties initiating and sustaining casual conversations and making friends
    • Unusual non-verbal communication (body language and eye contact) and difficulties understanding gestures and facial expressions and in some cases difficulties recognising faces
    • May use quite formal and/or stilted language
    • A limited range of interests or activities
    • Restricted or repetitive patterns of behaviour which can make changes in routine extremely distressing
    • Difficulties with changes to patterns of thinking

    Heightened sensitivity (hypersensitive) to sensory input (sights, sounds, smells etc.) which may lead to adverse responses and stress. In contrast some people may lack sensitivity to some sensory information (hyposensitive).

  • Long-term medical condition

    You may meet students who have long term or permanent medical conditions that impact on their studies. These may result in ‘hidden’ effects, such as limited or varying stamina. We list some of the most common below, and give more detailed information on certain conditions where specific risks to health may occur, but if you are unsure about the effect of a condition on study, ask the student concerned.

    Examples of such health problems include: diabetes, myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), cancer, cystic fibrosis (CF), epilepsy, multiple sclerosis (MS), hyper-mobility syndrome, HIV and AIDS, heart and lung conditions and allergies (note: hayfever is not considered to be a disability).

    Some of the difficulties experienced by students with these conditions include:

    • Fluctuating/worsening condition
    • Inability to attend lectures or study
    • Struggling to concentrate as a result of pain/medication
    • Difficulties meeting coursework deadlines
    • Lack of stamina
    • Gaps in knowledge having missed school due to their condition
    • Concerns about people finding out about their condition.

    Asthma is increasingly common although it is not always severe enough to affect a student’s study. Asthmatic conditions can be affected by stress, air quality and even the cold. A computer at home may help a student on days when breathing is particularly affected. For those working in laboratories or workshops, it will be necessary to ensure adequate ventilation.

    People with diabetes do not produce enough of the hormone insulin to control their blood sugar level. On rare occasions someone with diabetes can suffer from low blood sugar level. The person becomes drowsy and confused and if left can become unconsciousness. If this happens they should immediately eat some sugar or glucose. If they become unconscious, emergency help is needed.

    Epilepsy is a neurological condition defined as a tendency to have recurrent seizures (‘fits’ is no longer considered acceptable terminology). Seizures may only be brief (a few seconds), known as absences and go largely unnoticed, although the student may miss key parts of a presentation or conversation and become confused. In the case of major convulsive seizures, people lose consciousness completely. If this occurs, place something soft under the student’s head, move any objects on which they might injure themselves, and make them comfortable once the seizure has finished (preferably by placing the student in the recovery position until they have regained consciousness). For helpful information and guidance about epilepsy, please refer to the Brief Guide to Epilepsy and Higher Education produced by the Young Epilepsy charity.

    People with cancer or leukaemia may suffer a variety of physical and mental health issues. Although symptoms vary, students with these conditions are likely to experience fluctuations in their health and may miss lectures as a result of this or for treatment. Fatigue is likely to be a major factor, and those who are in remission may also experience ongoing side effects from past treatment. Students with cancer or leukaemia may also benefit from receiving support from welfare and/or counselling staff, or making use of helplines such as Nightline or cancer charity helplines/websites (e.g. Macmillan Cancer Support).

  • Mental health

    Mental health problems are common, especially depression and anxiety. The stigma often associated with mental health can deter people from seeking help so it is important to be aware of how attitudes towards mental health problems can perpetuate problems. Everybody has mental health which influences how we think and feel and how we interpret the world around us. It impacts upon our ability to make and sustain relationships, to communicate and to learn.  It helps us to cope with difficult events, changes and transitions. Mental health problems occur when there are disturbances to our thinking, emotions and behaviours which affect our ability to function.

    It can be very difficult and daunting to know what to do to help a student who you feel is struggling due to mental health difficulties, particularly if they are reluctant to refer themselves to the University's Counselling team. Below are our suggestions for how best to help students in such circumstances:

    • There are professional people employed by the University who have experience with mental health issues. You are not expected to be able to deal with complex issues on your own if you don't have any training, so please contact the Base or Wellbeing, Counselling and Mental Health for advice.
    • The student may find that having a chat with someone from Student Wellbeing less intimidating, particularly if they just want advice or to explore their options. Appointments can be booked via The Base in person, over the phone  or by email. If the wellbeing advisors feel that counselling is required they can arrange for the student to be seen as a priority.
    • The student may be willing for you to sit and go through the counselling online self-referral form with them. However, please be aware that risk factors (such as suicidal thoughts) are considered and students may not feel comfortable sharing that information with you.
    • If you are concerned and unable to get hold of anyone in Wellbeing, Counselling and Mental Health, please bring the student to The Base: they have more access to members of wellbeing and counselling staff so may be able to get help more quickly.
    • If you feel like the student is in imminent danger, phone an ambulance. Dial 0 from an internal phone and ask for Security (or 01524 594541 if you're on a mobile) - they will then phone for and meet the ambulance to direct it when it arrives.
  • d(D)eaf and hearing-impairments

    People who are d/Deaf or hearing impaired may experience accessibility issues during lectures, field courses and in social settings. Details of hearing loop accessibility on campus can be found on the DisabledGo website, although these may not be sufficient for all students.


    Definitions of deafness

    d/Deaf - the term 'people who are deaf' is the preferred term (according to the RNID) for people with hearing loss, especially when it is severe/profound (unable to hear anything below 70Db). People who consider themselves part of the Deaf community (see below) might refer to themselves as Deaf with a capital D to highlight their Deaf identity.

    Deaf community - people who are prelingually deaf whose first or preferred language is British Sign Language (BSL) may consider themselves part of the Deaf community.

    Deafblind - this term refers to people who are totally deaf and blind as well as people with some hearing and some vision.

    Deafened - people who were born with hearing and became profoundly or severely deaf after learning to speak.


    Categories of deafness

    Mild - this can cause some difficulties in following speech, especially in noisy environments. Quietest audible sounds are at 25 to 39 decibels.

    Moderate - may be unable to follow speech without a hearing aid. Quietest audible sounds at 40 to 69 decibels.

    Severe - rely extensively on lip-reading (even if using a hearing aid). BSL may be first/preferred language. Quietest audible sounds at 70 to 94 decibels.

    Profound - BSL may be the preferred/first language, but other people may use lip-reading instead. Quietest audible sounds at 95 decibels or above.

  • Visual impairments

    People with visual impairments may either have been born with their impairment (congenital) or they may have acquired an impairment later in life. While some people may only be slightly affected and have clear sight with help of glasses, contact lenses or surgery, a small proportion of people cannot see clearly even with corrective measures. When diagnosing visual impairments there is generally a distinction between people who are severely sight impaired (or blind) and those who are sight impaired (also called partially sighted). Some of the difficulties that may be faced by people with a visual impairment include:

    • finding rooms
    • accessibility of lectures, reading materials and other resources
    • recognising/finding people, especially in crowds
    • using pigeon holes.
  • Mobility impairments and physical disabilities

    Examples of physical disabilities can include amputated limbs, mobility issues and conditions such as cerebral palsy (CP) and hypermobility syndrome. While the physical conditions themselves may be visually obvious, students may also suffer from mental health or other hidden disabilities.


    The biggest challenges faced by students with physical or mobility difficulties are in terms of physical accessibility. At Lancaster, the campus has been assessed by DisabledGo: there are a range of different searches available on their website for facilities and provision.

    Personal care

    The University does not make provision for personal carers, so if students require this kind of support, we recommend that they get in touch with their local authorities as soon as possible before coming away to University to ensure that they have in place the support they need.

    Evacuation plans/health and safety

    For students who are unable to evacuate a building on their own, we put in place personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPs). These are usually put together by accommodation managers. For more information, please contact the Disability Service.

    For students who have personal carers, we recommend that they view our Health and Safety Guidance document.

Disability Service, Student Wellbeing Services, University House, Lancaster, LA1 4YW - 01524 592111