The University would like to ensure that all students feel safe and confident to share information about their disabilities and that staff are confident in handling disability-related information. This page provides answers to frequently asked staff questions about disability and confidentiality. Comprehensive discussion is included in this document.

Information about disability is considered sensitive personal data and is therefore subject to stringent data protection requirements. However, the underlying legal position is that once one person in an organisation knows about a disability it is assumed that this becomes institutional knowledge and thus we are required to respond appropriately. The challenge is to share this information safely and sensitively. The goal is to reduce as far as possible the number of times in which a student must describe their disability.

For reference, visit the information about the use of student personal data, the University Policy on Data Protection the University Policy on Information Security and Safeguarding at risk adults and children.

How should students be encouraged to tell us about a disability?

  • Place clear information on your website welcoming applications from disabled students. Consider adding profiles of disabled students to your alumni pages.
  • Provide re-assurance that any information will be treated confidentially and as sensitive personal data.
  • Widely promote the contact details of the Disability Lead and Co-ordinator.
  • Clarify the breadth of conditions the term disability encompasses. Many students do not realise they are eligible to receive disability-related services. The Disability Advisory Service uses the phrase: This includes, for example, students with sensory or mobility impairments, long-term health conditions, specific learning difficulties, autistic spectrum conditions or mental health difficulties.
  • Ensure pre-entry documentation includes ample opportunities to declare – do not rely on application form information alone.
  • Use communication about examination adjustments to invite contact if there are any concerns about disability.
  • Clearly explain how to disclose a disability. Students should either: update their student record in Student Self Service; contact the disability lead or co-ordinator in their college or department; contact the Disability Advisory Service or speak to an academic member of staff.

 Why must we repeatedly ask students about disability?

Students can be nervous about declaring a disability. Repeated requests might encourage them to come forward. Well publicised opportunities to disclose will provide evidence of meeting the anticipatory duty to support students with disabilities required by the Equality Act, and it will pre-empt any claims of failure to provide support if such channels are not used by the student. There is no need to include such opportunities in every single communication. Once reasonable direct opportunities have been provided and high profile general information is available, responsibility to disclose can reasonably be expected from the student.

Why do students choose not to disclose?

There are many reasons but those commonly reported are:

  • Concerns that disclosure will have a negative impact on an application
  • Concerns about staff attitudes and responses to disability
  • Concerns about confidentiality
  • Previous experience of discrimination
  • Lack of awareness that their condition would fall under the heading of disability – this often applies in cases of hidden disabilities such as long term health conditions, mental health conditions, or specific learning difficulties. International students in particular have different understandings of what might constitute a disability.

What to do if a student declares a disability to you

  • Note the date and brief details of the conversation in your records
  • Gain the student’s consent to share the DAS Consent Form, which can be found in Related Documents on this page
  • Email the student after the meeting to confirm your conversation
  • Advise the student to contact either the Disability Advisory Service or the Disability Co-ordinator at their college for undergraduates or department for graduates
  • Email the Disability Advisory Service to refer the student if the student has consented to his or her information being shared. Mark all such email correspondence as confidential in the subject line
  • All notes, emails and other documents must be stored securely

What if a student wants me to know but no-one else?

If a student approaches you indicating they wish to share personal information you should not give absolute assurances of confidentiality. It is better to say that there may be good reasons for sharing information with others within the University, if this is in the best interests of the individual and/or others in the community, but that this will be carried out with the utmost discretion and will be limited according to the permission given on the Consent to share disability information form from the Related documents section in this page.

If the student nevertheless asks you not to share any information with others please encourage him or her to take a different approach and explain that there are significant limits to the support and services that can be provided without disclosure. If possible, ensure the student knows before disclosing any information that you cannot guarantee absolute confidentiality even if they sign the consent form saying that they do not want their information to be shared. You should say that you might still have to make a disclosure in exceptional circumstances, for example where there was evidence of risk of serious harm to the individual or others.

In all cases, including if they insist they wish the information not to be shared, the student should be asked to sign the consent form.

Note the date, time and brief detail of your conversation in your records. Send a summary email to the student. Ensure that the subject of the email is marked confidential.

Please don't tell my... only tell...

Encourage students to take a different approach if possible and explain limitations of support if information is not shared. You could offer to support in helping them discuss their disability with the member of staff with whom they have concerns. It is helpful to encourage students to think about how they can explain the impact of their disability but also the strategies they have developed to overcome any difficulties. This encourages a more positive approach.

If the student insists they wish the information not to be shared, they should still sign the Consent to share disability information form from the Related documents section of this page. The form should be modified by hand to reflect the student’s specific requests regarding the individuals to whom a disclosure can be made.

Note the date, time and brief detail of your conversation in your records. Send a summary email to the student. Ensure that the subject of the email is marked confidential.


What to do if you suspect a student might have a disability

Although some formal reasonable adjustments are not possible without disclosure and appropriate evidence, there is a responsibility to act if there are reasonable grounds to conclude a person has a disability. If you would like to discuss your observations anonymously, contact the Disability Advisory Service to see if there appears to be grounds to move forward.

The best approach is to talk to the student directly. Rather than suggesting a disability is present, discuss the nature of the problems you observe and ask sensitively if these kinds of issues have presented themselves before. Ask the student what impact they are having on their studies. Ask if the student feels they need any support in dealing with these difficulties. It is better not to say ‘I think you have dyslexia’ or ‘it seems you might have Asperger’s’.

After some discussion, you can suggest they talk to an appropriate person. This could be their GP or a college nurse or you could offer to contact the Disability Advisory Service on their behalf, depending on the nature of the issues. Advise the Disability Advisory Service  that you have concerns but there is no existing diagnosis.

Take notes for your student records to demonstrate you have offered the opportunity to discuss. This will be useful should the college be challenged that it did not take note of any presenting evidence of a potential disability.

If you and the student remain concerned that disability exists, consider if there are any low key, immediate steps which you can reasonably take to make adjustments which are proportionate and will not unduly advantage the student. The Disability Advisory Service  will be able to provide advice if needed.

With whom should you share disability-related information?

This must be limited strictly to relevant individuals within the collegiate University, for example those who are directly concerned with teaching or supporting students with disabilities. If there is a need to share this information with other individuals this must be expressly agreed with the student and evidenced in writing.

Discuss student cases with great care. Good practice would be to only discuss issues with the student present, or advise them of others who you might involve before doing so. If seeking advice about how to help a student from a colleague you could work anonymously.

Avoid casual discussion of student cases at all times. Any email correspondence should be professional, relevant and respectful of the sensitive nature of the disability and preferably should have confidential in the subject line. All notes and written records can be required should a subject-access request be made and will become part of the student’s legal record of their interactions with the University.

Also consider if others will maintain and respect confidentiality considerations. You should not share information with someone if you have any concerns about this.

If students are going abroad what disability-related circumstances will they face? Will they be provided with similar levels of support and accessibility as in the UK? Establish shared understanding – what is reasonable in Oxford might not be reasonable elsewhere – a student must have realistic view of what is achievable.

Reference requests for students with disabilities

You should not include information about a disability on a reference. You should consult the student. You should refer to the talents, skills, strengths and weakness of the individual without reference to the disability.

Contact us:

Disability Advisory Service
3 Worcester Street
Oxford, OX1 2BX
01865 280459

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