The importance of practice placements for social work students is
shown by the 200 days of placement experience prescribed for the
new social work degree.
A good placement provides safe learning. It needs to be
inspirational as well as grounded in the nuts and bolts of
practice. It should bring theory and practice together, not
privileging one above the other. It should also provide a model of
equal opportunities. The extent to which disabled students are
welcomed and supported on placement will be a measure of the
success of the new award. It will test the strength of the links
between academic institution and practice agency. Placements will
measure the capacity of the agency concerned to respond to
For some agencies, making placements accessible to disabled
students is likely to involve traditional approaches, such as
developing wheelchair access. Yet other disabilities do not
manifest themselves so clearly. Unseen disabilities such as mental
health problems, dyslexia, epilepsy or arthritis require thought
and greater changes in practice and attitudes. Students may be
unwilling to disclose such disabilities, particularly on placement.
Some may fear a negative reaction, or that the workplace will be
unresponsive. For others there may be a wish to have a fresh start
and to be seen as any other student. Negative experiences may
confirm fears of being excluded from the profession.
Previously, educational institutions have worked with individual
students to assess the risks of disclosure. Many have developed
knowledge of supportive agencies and practice teachers. At times
negotiations have taken place about risks which teaching staff have
felt should be communicated to placement agencies.
Approaches based on work with individuals are now governed by
legislation and good practice guidance. Higher education, for
example, is now responding to the demands of the Special
Educational Needs Disability Act 2001. Its remit covers placements
as well as formal learning.
For students this has major advantages. Resources and support are
becoming more available. These can include equipment but also
additional study time, help with photocopying or materials.
Students may feel that it is worth disclosing their needs. We have
yet to learn if such resources and support are easily transferred
into placements. Can the workings of an office be put into
large-print? How will the team feel when a student with dyslexia
has good computer equipment and other members do not? Who needs to
know about a student’s mental health problems?
The Professional, Education and Disability Support team at the
University of Hull is exploring these questions. Funded by the
Higher Education Funding Council, we are surveying students,
practice teachers, practice co-ordinators and disability support
staff. Their experiences and views will be used to develop good
Three issues are emerging. The first is that discussion about
placements needs to come out of academic and training settings into
the world of practice. What skills will practice teachers need to
respond to students with unseen disabilities? Do they possess them
now, and if not, how can we develop these in the context of
numerous other demands?
Second, while students are likely to expect more of the workplace,
existing practitioners will want similar levels of support if they
acquire or disclose a disability. Agencies will need to respond to
both groups; not simply because of the legal imperative but for
recruitment and retention reasons too.
Third, many of the issues likely to be raised by disabled students
mirror work with service users. Confidentiality, risk and needs-led
responses are relevant for students, users and staff. Agencies
offering student placements will need to ensure that their practice
teachers are equipped to meet the demands for equal opportunities
in both education and the workplace. CC
– If you are a student or practice teacher and are interested in
contributing your experiences of support for students with unseen
disabilities to the Professional, Education and Disability Support
team project, please contact Ben Fell at B.Fell@hull.ac.uk 01482 466161.
All communications will be treated confidentially.
Jill Manthorpe is reader in social work at the University
of Hull. Co-authors Nicky Stanley, Jane Wray, Ben Fell and Emma
Coyne work in the social work department and in the disability
office, University of Hull.