woman using Microsoft surface tablet in classroom

How the right technology can help disabled students make the grade

By Mark Walker 

Students entering higher and further education for the first time face all kinds of new challenges. Whatever subject they’ve chosen, whatever their age, background or life ambitions this is a time of big changes in their life. As well as moving home and meeting new people, many will need to learn new study habits, using new tools and learning solutions. This is particularly true for students with disabilities, who may face additional challenges and stresses. 

In this digital age every student will be expected to get to grips with technology. Laptops, tablets, smartphones and digital learning resources are now a key part of every student’s life, whether taking notes in a busy lecture theatre,  delivering essays on time or learning to cook for themselves. How well they use those tools can have a profound impact on their academic success, as well as their quality of life.

At AbilityNet, we help people of all ages and disabilities use digital technology to achieve their goals at work, home and in education. Our experts know how powerful techn can be and can recommend the hardware or software or other adjustments that can help people be more productive and ensure they achieve their true potential.

Girl, school, STEM

When we first started in the late 1990s, we would typically recommend specialist hardware or software, often highly personalised and usually very expensive. But mainstream technology has been transformed over recent years and now we are much more likely to recommend solutions which can be used on any laptop, tablet or smartphone. This can include free software, adjustments using built-in settings and small changes to routines that could benefit any student, whatever their needs.

The stress of starting at university brings financial concerns and a pressure to succeed that can lead to all sorts of mental health issues. A high proportion of the students we assess are experiencing debilitating levels of anxiety and depression. They may be failing to attend lectures, missing deadlines and feeling alone and unsupported, creating a vicious cycle of academic pressure and subsequent failure.

It may not be obvious but technology could help these people take back control and reduce day-to-day anxieties. Using calendar reminders and personal organisers can help create a routine that brings stability, and mind-mapping software can help organise thoughts and bring shape to ideas and plans.

We also see a lot of people struggling with dyslexia. It’s estimated that as many as six million people of all ages in the UK  may have dyslexia or similar learning disabilities. Many students will know about their issues before entering university and may be familiar with relevant solutions. Others may not know how small changes can help them work with written materials much more effectively.

A simple first step is to change the background colour of a document or application. This can make it much easier to read and is fairly easy to do on any mainstream device, or within your word processor.

There are also all sorts of ways that you can make your spellchecker more effective, including training it to spot the most common errors. As this Microsoft guide shows, you can add the words or phrases that you know you usually get wrong, add the correct spellings and autocorrect will pick up the majority of your errors.


Dictating notes instead of writing them out may also prove helpful. Our factsheet about controlling your computer with your voice explains that every new phone, tablet or laptop has voice-to-text options built in. There are also plenty of free or low-cost dictation apps that can add special functionality or deal with different languages, while virtual assistants such as Cortana can help with all sorts of tasks without worrying about spellings.

Whatever their needs, many students could benefit from more effective note-taking in lectures. Some may have difficulty with their hearing, or may not be able to see the whiteboard or learning materials clearly. They may have physical impairments that make it difficult to use a pen or a keyboard, or have dyslexia or other learning needs which mean they need to return to materials frequently to ensure they have absorbed all the relevant information.

Students often use their phone to record lectures but it’s usually much better to use specialist note-taking software. As well as an audio recording, it is possible to annotate notes, create markers to jump to specific content and easily add images and videos.

If you want to understand a few of the options, take look at this video by CodPast about note-taking options. Or try their guide to Zotero – a solution our specialists often recommend to students looking for help with note-taking. CodPast are dyslexia specialists but their bite-sized intro is a great first step for anyone and shows that one size never fits all.

AbilityNet provides factsheets and other expert resources about a range of adjustments and technologies that can help students. Our free, confidential helpline offers one-to-one help on 0800 269 545.

We can also tell you more about Disabled Student’s Allowances (DSA). DSAs can help cover the extra costs you may have because of your disability and they don’t have to be repaid. For example they can help pay for:

 – specialist equipment you need for studying, such as a printer/scanner or microphone for your laptop or smartphone

– specialist software, such as text to speech, speech to text or mind mapping

– non-medical helpers, such as study skills support or specialist mentor

– extra travel costs you have to pay because of your disability

– other costs such as photocopying or printer cartridges

Pupil and teacher in classroom

Our experts provide assessments to students who are eligible for DSA, including students with anxiety, dyslexia and a range of other conditions and needs. If you are eligible, you will receive an assessment to identify the technology and other solutions that are best for you. How much you get depends on your individual needs – not your household income or where you’re studying – and if you’re a part-time student your “course intensity” can affect how much you get.

For more information, speak to your university support services and get help early to prevent problems growing, take a look at our range of free factsheets or call our free helpline on 0800 269 545 for friendly and practical one-to-one help.

Mark Walker is a Marketing Manager at AbilityNet