Stephen Harper from Ulster University is our new NADP adviser for Norther Irish affairs and all things that affect Northern Ireland.
Lynn Wilson, our Executive Director, and Stephen talk about his career, his current work and his views and ideas for the adviser-role in Northern Ireland.
A great podcast for all our members who want to know about the role of our advisers but especially useful for our newer members who live in other areas of the UK and would like to see some ideas on how support in Northern Ireland differs.
Full transcript available here and from the NADP Office
NADPVIC2021: Joining the dots of inclusive practice – what is the picture now?
Lynn Wilson in conversation with Stephen Harper, NADP adviser for Northern Ireland.
Lynn: OK, for the third in our series of podcasts we're chatting with Stephen, who is the NADP country adviser for Northern Ireland. All our NADP projects and plans rely on input from members and colleagues. In addition to this we have special advisers and Stephen is our ‘go to’ person for all things Northern Ireland, welcome Stephen,
Stephen: Thank you very much for the introduction, Lynn. Yes, I'm really delighted to have joined the board in that advisory capacity, and really kind of relishing looking forward to the role.
Lynn: Right, to start off with, can you tell us something about yourself and the institution where you're working at the moment?
Stephen: OK. So, my name is Stephen Harper, and I suppose, when I think of myself, the biggest thing that defines me is I'm a father of two. So, I have two young girls, two daughters. They are five, and three, Róise and Saorlaith and, really, my world kind of revolves around them, and my wife, Ailbhe. I suppose, in addition to that, I suppose my main hobbies would be playing golf, when I'm allowed to. This is quite a time- consuming project - getting out for three or four hours for a run of golf. Then I will also go for a run and we just love being outdoors, as well, and getting outdoors onto the coast as well.
I suppose I've been an AccessAbility Adviser, which is the same sort of role as a Disability Adviser in other universities, at Ulster University for the last seven years, and my professional background is as a social worker, originally. During 2019, I was acting Disability Services Manager at Ulster University. And that's across the four campuses. So, I would have had some experience of looking after the likes of the Needs Assessment Centre. We had our own internal support register for non-medical help. And also, like our assistive technology, as well.
Now, we restructured at the end of 2019, early 2020. So, we've actually went to campus-based teams. So, previously, I would have worked at our University of Ulster Coleraine campus on our University of Ulster Magee campus. I would have had a split week, whereas now I would be based out of our Coleraine campus, and we actually have an overall Student Wellbeing manager for each campus area, and they would look after the wellbeing team, the AccessAbility team and the admin team for that particular campus area. So, it's quite a kind of change from what we had in place previously. And I suppose, at Ulster University we have had some exciting developments recently. We're about to open the doors on our new flagship campus which is going to be based in the cathedral quarter in Belfast City Centre. We've always had a campus there, but this is a much bigger development. There's been a lot of investment, and it's very exciting for the local community in Belfast as well and a lot of partnerships that have started through that. And in addition to that, quite recently, we've had confirmation that we're going to have a new medical school based up in our Magee campus up in Derry, which is going to be fantastic for that region as well. So, some really exciting things happening there at the minute, Lynn.
Lynn: That sounds great. I've been to Belfast myself and loved it as a city. So, I'll have to come over again and visit you, I think, so I can see your new developments.
Stephen: I think so. For sure, we'll have to organise an event and get youse over here. Hopefully some nice state of the art spaces to book.
Lynn: Sounds, good. So, how many disabled students do you support across your campuses.
Stephen: Oh, well, we have over 25,000 students in total, and students who we would have met and completed our initial assessment with, put in a reasonable adjustment recommendation report or got funded support for, is roughly around 2300 students who have disclosed those disabilities. Now, we've probably seen greater numbers than that actually disclose through UCAS but sometimes you're not able to get all of those students to come forward and complete the initial assessments for various reasons and sometimes complications with gathering up medical supporting evidence etc. as well. But we're doing our best to try and target that and kind of get as many students to come forward. And so, I always think of it as roughly around 10% of our student population and that's probably increased quite a bit over the last few years, we're probably looking at closer to 8 or 9% then a few years back, but we've seen big, big increases and the amount of students coming through with mental health diagnoses. And, in addition to that, even students with ASD diagnosis. And the other thing to note is this, what we would call greater complexity, there's more comorbidity of, kind of conditions coming through with multiple disabilities being diagnosed what we're finding is that some of the cases that we're looking after can be more complex in nature. Now, at the minute, because I was kind of acting up in that managerial capacity for a while, my own caseload around 300, but I suppose at the height of my time I also may be supported up to 500 students across the board, and I would have maybe focused on supporting students who had a diagnosed mental health condition. Over my time here, so that's just a rough overview.
Lynn: Yeah, sort of numbers are the sort of numbers we're hearing a lot of at the moment and NADP are putting some work in to talk about actually getting some standardized figures from the Government, from the Disabled Students Commission about what is the recommended support numbers because it's years ago since those were published, and they seem to have doubled and tripled in some universities from the recommended figures published a while ago.
Stephen: Yeah, no, absolutely, and I suppose at Ulster university, we've been quite lucky, I suppose, to have had a little bit more kind of support and investment. We brought in a CRM, Customer Relationship Management System, last year, that really allows us to pull some of the data out. We’re really able to evidence of the amount of appointments etc. The amount of assessments we were completing. So, we've had a little bit more investment and as part of that restructure. We've had a few additional team members added so that's something to help us address those kind of large caseload numbers, you know.
Lynn: How many are in your team?
Stephen: And so, in total, if I think about the overall Student Wellbeing team, we have around 50 staff now, and that would include maybe the likes of two or three placement students that we would have through the year as well. In terms of AccessAbility advisers or disability advisers, we would have seven full time disability advisers who would work with those kind of caseloads and would look after that cohort of 2300 students, you know. I suppose the thing to mention actually, is actually getting the student placements in has been great. We've had what we call a ‘Mind Your Mood’, a charitable organisation set up by the university which is trying to address the stigma of mental health. We've had one, that's student led, and students come in and work with our department. It has really been… the students we've had for the last two or three years have been really, really proactive in terms of, you know, fundraising around it, and increasing awareness and appointing student ambassadors across our campuses. I think part of that work, we're seeing coming through now where we've actually got more students here, willing to disclose a diagnosis of mental health and come forward and get support and get some funded support, reasonable adjustments put in place, you know, so the directions been good that way.
Lynn: Yes, that's interesting because I know some universities have struggled with the confidentiality bit of using students in support. How have you dealt with that?
Stephen: I suppose it's really been… we've seen an increase of, I suppose, just awareness. We've done a lot of work. We complete a lot of ‘Lunch and Learn’ with our academic staff and our professional support staff across the university. To, kind of, increase awareness around various disabilities, and how to, I suppose, effectively support and signpost students to, kind of, make that disclosure, you know. So, that's a work in progress but it's something that we have noted that has, kind of, improved, and, you know, I think, word of mouth by the students is a really big thing as well because my decisions… I've maybe worked with those who have come back and said,
“Look, I've told my friends that this is a really good. It's a confidential service. It's really helped me.”
And when they've been, they've maybe signposted each other as well. So, I think even getting that reputation for being very approachable and very supportive and being very cognisant of, you know, the importance of confidentiality, has been really key, and it's making sure that more students are coming forward to get the support to know when they need it.
Lynn: Yeah, it certainly helps having the right number of people around to be able to do that. I remember I was working at a small postgraduate University, and because it was small, I managed to attend every induction and stand on the stage and talk about disability services, and we always planned it just before lunch because I'd get off the side of the stage and I be inundated with people coming to chat to me because they'd seen my face. And therefore, they understood that disability services was actually people, and they felt happier about coming forward and I'm sure your student ambassadors and that are doing that for you too in the fact that they're showing a face of someone who's approachable that they can come forward, they're confident to talk
Stephen: Absolutely. That's it, and it's just the support has been embraced by the senior leadership team, as well at the University over recent years, certainly I can see more change from when I first started at the university, seven years ago when we’ve, kind of, restructured in the current leadership team and, you know, how supportive they are at the minute. When I talked about the fundraising initiatives earlier on, like the staff involvement with students has been amazing. Like groups of students and staff doing the marathons together and legs of the marathons together, abseiling down buildings and whether it was a Christmas time on each campus we had our Santa run where we all ran 5k with our Santa hats on and, you know, it's been a real joint initiative between the staff and students of the university and members of local community, as well, supporting that. So, that's been really, I suppose, one of the driving factors in our seeing lots more students coming forward and kind of, you know, using our service and I think it's a good thing. You know, I think we were doing a little bit, little incremental steps to kind of address some of the stigma there around coming forward to get support, but as I say it's a work in progress, and, you know, there's lots left to do, as you well know Lynn.
Lynn: [laugh] Yeah. Well going back to the more kind of official side of support, many of our members are familiar with the English system, where students can study higher education at both colleges and universities. Is that the same in Northern Ireland?
Stephen: OK, well, I suppose there's certainly some overlap. Although, we would, kind of, have the two big universities Ulster University and Queen's University and Queen's University have maybe 26 or 27,000 students as well. So, it would be the two of those who will have been the biggest, and now we would have some of our regional colleges where students are coming through various foundation level degrees or access courses and maybe coming to join us in the second year of their programmes. In fact, the social work students complete their first two years plus their professional placements at the regional College, and then they all come together on the RGR route which is over three years. They would come together in final year to complete their final year up on our Magee campus, up in Derry. And then, I suppose, in addition to that, you know, we've got the likes of Open University, and St Mary's teaching college and Stranmillis teaching college which is affiliated with the Queen's University. And there is some of our agricultural courses would be completed through CAFRE as well and they would get some of their degree qualifications. There's definitely some overlap there, but for the most part, the majority of courses would tend to be, kind of, separate within the… between the two main universities of Ulster University and Queens.
Lynn: OK, thanks. So, there is a difference there. But you mentioned UCAS earlier, so I'm presuming that the UCAS system is actually the same in Northern Ireland as it is in England and Scotland and Wales?
Stephen: Yeah, it is indeed. We would have the students applying through UCAS and, I suppose, that's an opportunity, not necessarily the first, but one of the first opportunities, to kind of, disclose a disability. Then we'd obviously have a number of students come in through direct entry as well onto a lot of our courses; the post grad courses, etc., and they're given an opportunity to disclose at that stage, but I suppose our process is that we would follow up and, you know, request if we could get some medical evidence, and we also issue out, something called an additional study needs forms really. That's an opportunity for any students with disabilities or additional needs, to kind of, give more detail on that. What support maybe they've had in place before, you know, what assistive technology they've used, and for some they find that form useful. That's an easier way for them to get information across and they can complete that prior to coming to see us for our initial appointment with an accessibility adviser.
Lynn: OK. Now, I think you and I have got confused over Government initials before, so I will ask this one. So, most of our members are familiar with the UK Government Department for Education (DFE), that underpins support for disabled students in England and then delivers through the Student Loans Company. Now I believe DFE is somewhat slightly different in Northern Ireland is that right?
Stephen: Yeah, and I'm just going to really confuse everybody now like. So, yeah the boundaries are blurred to the point that I get myself a little bit confused by this one. But, no, the DfE with the same acronym, over in Northern Ireland, we're referring to the Department for the Economy and it’s the Department for the Economy, who provide the funding for Disabled Students Allowances etc. As well as, you know, the block grants and different things that go to the university. So, it's DFE, but it's not the Department for Education.
Now, the students would apply through… Northern Irish based students would apply through Student Finance NI, which is kind of the equivalent of Student Finance England, Student Finance Wales, etc. And that is actually managed by the Education Authority in Northern Ireland who would be responsible for support for primary and secondary school. So, the boundaries get really quite blurred, with this but the actual money and the decision-making about where the money goes, comes from the Department for the Economy, and it would be the Education Minister and his department who would be making the decisions around primary and secondary school, you know, the A levels and NVQs and things like that. I hope that clarifies it! [laughter] I've probably muddied the water.
Lynn: So OK, so having haven't spoken to Jonathan and found out differences with Scotland; and spoken to Christine and found out the stuff I didn't know about the way the DSAs apply in Wales. Do you know of differences between England and Northern Ireland with DSAs and the way they fund things?
Stephen: Oh, I mean, there's a few differences that stand out. One of those that isn't in place here, is around the students paying the first £200 contribution towards the laptop, if laptops are recommended through the Needs Assessments. I know some of the institutions may have put a fund together to maybe to cover that. In Northern Ireland that the DSA would still cover the full cost of the equipment; students are not asked to pay an amount of money towards that. But what we have found over the years is that sometimes what's maybe happening in England, a few years later, kind of filters down. And if it's an opportunity for cost savings then sometimes we can see that being implemented over here. I suppose, there will be a lot of political pressure put on, if they were to try to introduce that over here. And that's probably, I suppose, one of the things, peculiar to Northern Ireland that they need to kind of take into account what the political fallout certain decisions might have if there are either, I suppose, students from maybe more deprived backgrounds not, you know, not being covered as well. Or putting up more barriers to inclusive education. So yeah, that's one thing I hope doesn't come into place here, and I hope they continue to fund the full kind of assistive technology support. In terms of the likes of non-medical helpers as well, we would have a different structure over here. So, we would have our own internal support register and we would recruit self-employed, support workers to do that who would then be matched to work with the students. And then we would be, they will be getting paid directly from the education authority then, who will be funding that. But the bandings are all different. We might have like mental health mentor, study skills coach or dyslexia coach. So, some of the role titles and the banding and the pay rates and stuff would be significantly different from across England and Scotland and Wales, you know.
Lynn: Does that cause problems when, say, you have students from Northern Ireland studying in England but claiming DSAs from Northern Ireland, and vice versa?
Stephen: So, it shouldn't impact on the students studying over in England, because if the recommended costing for the support at that university, goes back to Student Finance NI and the Education Authority will pay for that support. Where it does cause some confusion is maybe the likes of students from England coming across to Northern Ireland here; funded through Student Finance England, and then they're not getting matched up with support from our support register, but they're working with some private providers to be matched up with that support. So, for the majority of our Northern Irish students the support is all in the house, although they're self-employed individuals. But for students coming across from the likes of England, they're working with private providers outside of the university. So, there's a few kind of discrepancies there and the supporting roles.
Lynn: Yes, I can see that. You mentioned inclusivity a minute ago and that was one of the things I wanted to talk to you about. We hear an awful lot nowadays about inclusivity in England. It's been a justification for some of the DSA cuts, and a very welcome emphasis in a lot of cases as well. So, what does inclusivity mean to you in Northern Ireland? Does it have as much of an emphasis there?
Stephen: I think so. I mean, there's so many different definitions that, kind of, take into account the kinds of practices that are trying to ensure that no group is going to feel more marginalised etc. to you know, opportunities or resources. But I feel that, within our leadership teams, certainly among the big HEIs - so Queens and Ulster University, there's definitely focus on it, and investment in it, and I suppose a kind of a culture shift or culture change towards it. A really interesting person to talk to at some point Lynn, would be Tracy Galvin at Queen's University Belfast. She's really active like encouraging inclusivity and she's quite big on Twitter as well. So, you know, she's always promoting kind of equality, decolonisation of the curriculum, across social media, and with a real focus on universal design for learning and accessibility. So, I would follow her a lot of the time because she tends to have her finger on the pulse.
But I suppose for me, personally, inclusivity is really about those personal interactions and creating the space and opportunities for both students and staff experiences to be heard and for them to be respected, and really for value to be given to each of those voices, and especially the collective voice of those who may feel marginalised, and I suppose, for me, our approach is really key, just listening to those lived experiences, and planning what you can do to, kind of, address any of those inequalities.
So, some of the ways we can do that as you know is by carrying out self-audits. So, by being self-reflective, you know, in our own practice any assumptions that we may be prone to, and, kind of, just taking some time to look at those. And it's just really important that we listen, and we learn and then, I suppose, we act on the advice from, from those with experiences. You know that they're experts, and it's really important that that is more than just listening, that there is actions on the back of that, you know.
Lynn: The other term that we're actually hearing a lot about is intersectionality. It's certainly helping us as NADP where we're talking about intersectionality, we're trying to increase understanding in the ‘powers that be’ that one size does not fit all when it comes to disabled students, and that we need to match our services to individual students, depending on all their intersectionalities. Now I think sectionality is a bit of a different term in Northern Ireland, in a lot of ways, but is intersectionality coming into play? Are people talking about backgrounds and how they interact with disability?
Stephen: So, I think what you're saying there is absolutely true, and that individualised and tailored approach, you know, and certainly getting away from the, you know, ‘this is what support looks like, if you have such and such a condition’ or whatever, you know. So, I think certainly within the disability teams, you know, those conversations are happening. We're really looking at some of the factors at play for individual students within our team, the conversation is starting to creep in there. But I suppose it's been gaining momentum at certainly, at an institutional level, it's really beginning, kind of, a lot of momentum. Suppose within, kind of, law, we have the Northern Ireland Act 1998. And we have certain section 75 requirements, and that has always, I suppose, placed the responsibility on any public authorities to look at intersectionality really. In terms of their policies, practices and procedures and certainly, it has come into play whenever we've been kind of reviewing, on a regular basis, our policies and procedures and things, but maybe just not been given that title.
I suppose, I was chatting actually last week to a colleague Cara McShane, who's our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Adviser at U.U. and she was just giving me a little bit more background about the various staff networks that have developed. More so, over the recent few years. So, we've got the likes of the Staff Disability Network now. That's been in place since 2004, but we had the Women's Network that started in 2019, January of 2019, and then really with the impetus and the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, we had the BAME Network set up in November 2020, and then, more recently in February of this year, the LGBT+ Network has launched as well. And for the first time we've really seen that it's been embraced, kind of, I suppose, at a senior leadership level as well. So, they've recently established an EDI steering group, senior management level, and there are specific subgroups there in terms of gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, race, and the leads of each of those groups will meet up and they'll develop and implement actions that are cross cutting and specific to more than one category of people. So, it's really something that's gaining a lot of momentum, and we're no longer working in the silos and those networks are not working in silos, they're sharing resources, they're, coming together to see how they can best, kind of, support each other. That's really quite a recent movement that's kind of been pushing forward and that's supported through our Students Union as well, and a couple of years ago the first time there was a Inclusivity Officer appointed through the Student Union, and they would link in to each of those kind of networks as well. So, it's definitely gaining momentum. But, I think, personally, within our AccessAbility service, that is something really that I think we should be spending a little bit more time; creating some time for reflective practice around that and looking at it in more detail and looking at that, kind of, you know the one size fits all approach not being appropriate and what we can, kind of, do to address that. Maybe creating some action plans off the back of it. So yes really interesting area at the minute.
Lynn: Yes, it is and we're seeing some interesting work coming out of various universities. You mentioned decolonising. We have a presentation on… I think it's week one of the conference… by De Montfort University, who started off by looking at decolonising the curriculum, which a lot of universities are doing are actually no decolonising the disability service.
Stephen: Great, OK, yeah.
Lynn: Certainly in its infancy, but their ideas are fabulous and instead of looking and thinking “yes we're supporting all students”, they're looking at the diversity of students that are accessing Disability Services, and does that actually reflect the diversity of the university.
Stephen: Fantastic. That's really interesting.
Lynn: Yeah, so I recommend that video to have a look at in conference. It's some exciting stuff, and I know she'd love some feedback from across the country.
Stephen: I look forward to that. Very much so.
Lynn: What do you think you can bring to your role as the Northern Irish adviser?
Stephen: And, well, I suppose, I'd like to think that I've probably gained some substantial knowledge, you know, within the sector across Northern Ireland really, you know, over the last, when I say seven years in my current role, but even through my previous roles, working as a social worker within the Trusts and, you know, within education, welfare and mental health sectors and stuff as well. Give me a real kind of background and kind of knowledge. I suppose one of the one of the things that I hope to gain is that we can establish closer links with, I suppose, not only NADP but even like our partners AHEAD in the Republic of Ireland and also internationally as well. I think we had mentioned earlier, just before we started on the podcast, I'm involved in week four of the virtual conference, on UDL and inclusivity. In particular, I think I'm going to do a little piece and focus around inclusive assessment through the pandemic and beyond. I think it's just generally good practice and knowledge, you know, that's really beneficial.
And I also want to be a representative there for all the members across Northern Ireland as well. We can escalate issues or concerns that, you know, sometimes can be better addressed collectively. I think, build on those already well-established connections too.
And then from a personal point of view. I hope to bring, like, enthusiasm, and just like a real fresh perspective to the role. I suppose is my big aim.
Lynn: That sounds good to me. Is there anything off the top of your head you can think of that you feel that NADP could actually do for our colleagues in Northern Ireland? Are there training and events, or anything like that, that you feel that we could, at the moment, bring over virtually but in the future, come over and deliver events for you?
Stephen: Absolutely, and I think you've hit the nail on the head there, and I mean from speaking with colleagues across the various institutions as well, and the feedback has all been, you know, it would be great if there was a conference or training based over here, in Northern Ireland, that would be great. And that's something that, hopefully, we can take forward, you know. Certainly, whenever we get this new space and Belfast, this new flagship campus, that would be, I think, it would be amazing to have an NADP event or conference or training session or something across in Northern Ireland and possibly Scotland and, you know, Wales as well. Just, kind of, I suppose to mix it up and it makes it makes it more accessible, you know, for some of the members over here. And that increased presence will also encourage more to, maybe, kind of, join up as well and become involved with NADP.
Lynn: Yeah, that would be good. It's nice to be able to support all our members and the move to having to do stuff virtually due to COVID has meant some really good feedback from people who haven't been able to access our events before because they either haven't been able to get there due to distance or funding, or due to personal disability. We're getting some really good feedback on that, but I must admit I'd love to do some blended stuff so we can actually do some face to face as well.
Stephen: It would be ideal. When you get face to face training and it's there, somebody can log in, watch it on the live stream. At the same time.
Lynn: Oh yes, I'm gonna have to get some more technology expertise to make sure that doesn't go wrong!
OK, so back to you, we've not been able to get away much in the last year, and that's led to some people taking up some great new hobbies. Have you taken up anything new, besides your golf?
Stephen: But yeah, apart from finding golf again. I used to play a lot when I was younger and then after lockdown. So, after lockdown, the first time coming out of lockdown, I decided I'm going to take… when I actually start playing regularly again… I did make a conscious decision after being cooped up for so long, and kind of walking past the golf course. You know I'm going to try and play at least once a week so, yeah, I've really enjoyed that but that the most extreme thing that I think that we have done as a family, is that we have taken the staycation to an extreme. So, I don't know if you can see this backdrop? We're chatting at the minute on camera. This is actually the interior of a touring caravan. So, we purchased a touring caravan, this year. It works as my home office with Wi-Fi and everything in it. I've got my own space to come and work in and, in addition to that, we have had some fantastic little experiences, staying in our driveway doing a camping trip in our driveway with the two girls, and we actually got away last month. Whenever the restrictions were lifted on the 30th of April, over the May bank holiday weekend, we had a couple of days away, and we weren't that ambitious. I towed it a mile and a half up the road to Portrush from Portstewart, but the girls loved it. It was an adventure for them, and it was really good practice for me. So, I've had to embrace everything to do with camping and caravanning, even the stuff you don't want to talk about. from how the electronic toilets work, how they're emptied, Lynn. I've had to embrace it all. But yeah, that's become a new hobby and we've actually got somewhere booked for two or three days every month now through the summer and this September time so that's our little joint family hobby.
Lynn: That’s lovely! I home educated my kids and so we used to go away an awful lot, just for a night here and a night there and camping and things and, yeah, you get to know them so much better when you're fighting through difficulties together, stuck in a tent in the rain.
Stephen: Brilliant, brilliant. I'm just hoping that we embrace this new flexibility in terms of the work model as well as it doubles as my home office and it gives me that kind of headspace, to be able to get some time to think. During the first time, we were looking after both children and my wife's a teacher, so she was working, and I was working, and we were trying to keep the three-year-old at that stage, happy, and a five year old, and it was, it was quite stressful, but lots of fun as well.
Lynn: Yeah, yeah, I must admit I loved my home educating days I learned so much that I never discovered in my own childhood when I was at school.
Lynn: So, all the lockdown and COVID has also led to many of us evaluating our own lives and our careers. What in terms of your career, have you found yourself reflecting on this year?
Stephen: I suppose in terms of my career and my job role, probably touched on it there in my last answer, it's really been a bit, kind of achieving a better work-life balance for me. And so it's just been really amazing to be able to walk my children to school in the in the morning and early afternoon to go and collect them and, you know, bring them home as well and it's just all those little interactions and I'm kind of really aware it's their kind of formative years, and just having all those little moments and those little memories together that I just simply wouldn't have got, had it not been for this, kind of, pandemic. So, if you're looking for a silver lining on the cloud, really, that's been it for me.
And it's really that kind of model of support, and where we ask the students what do they prefer, you know, would you rather… because I've had mixed responses from the students I've worked with. Some have loved the ability to be able to log onto a Microsoft Teams call or a Zoom call to be able to complete their assessment, it's been less costly, they've been able to… and it's just felt more accessible. A massive reduction in the amount of the DNAs or ‘did not attends’ for appointments as well since we moved to the kind of model but, for me, like some of the other students, I really miss the face-to-face interaction. I'm a people person, and, and I suppose in an ideal world, career wise, I would love to be able to kind of have some flexibility in my day to work two or three days in the office and work a couple of days at home and just get that better, work-life balance. And so really, yeah, that's, that's it for me, I suppose.
One thing that I did think and reflect on quite a bit was about the interactions that are happening via telephone call. Compared to how my face-to-face interactions were previously and about some of the challenges that, kind of, presented, and I've had to, kind of, think about my own, kind of, skill set and when it comes to, kind of, active listening, as well. I can, kind of, improve as a practitioner, delivering that remote service, as well as the face-to face service, and it's really been around, kind of, getting comfortable with things like radio silence. So, when you're in a room with somebody you're reading their nonverbals, so you're able to give them a little bit more time when you, you can recognise that they're gathering their thoughts, or their thinking about the question you've just said to them, and you're able to be comfortable in that space and give them time and space, to answer. Sometimes when we’re over a phone call, and you're missing the non-verbals, and you've got that kind of radio silence, and there is a little voice inside thats saying,’ Go on, ask the question again, ask a different question’, you know, and I suppose one of the pitfalls of that is that you could potentially bombard somebody that you're working with two or three questions and because you're thinking a little bit uncomfortable with the silence.
So, in terms of my own skill set, I’ve been taking some time to, kind of, reflect on that and have discussed with some of my colleagues about how we do that and, you know, how we could do better and sometimes it's just about actually at the start of the call with a student, explaining that it's OK to have some quiet moments and you know, it doesn't mean the connection is gone. Not always. Sometimes. But I think sometimes we just have a chat about it in advance and then it just leaves a little bit more open for people to collect their thoughts and to have an opportunity to kind of express themselves more fully. So yeah, that's just another little comment.
Lynn: Yeah that's really interesting that, because I've done mainly Zoom calls and most people have been able to have their video on that I have done some calls whether the connection hasn't been strong enough and we've had to switch the video off and I hadn't really thought about it, but yes, the silences don't happen because you're both frantically trying to keep the conversation going. Yeah, good point.
Stephen: But you know that's it and we've given our students the option, you know, ‘Do you want to do a video call, or do you want to do a telephone call?’ And we do have a lot that do prefer to have a telephone call over a video call, you know, our preference is probably towards the video call, because we can kind of read some of the nonverbals. But, yeah, it's an interesting landscape kind of moving forward and I think there's something first of all to kind of learn and reflect on there.
Lynn: OK, one last question for you, what advice would you give a young Disability Adviser just starting out.
Stephen: Oh wow. OK, so the first thing I would say is, you know, you're at the very beginning of an amazing journey, and it's going to be an emotional roller coaster. I suppose, Be yourself. Embrace the challenges that are provided, and I suppose, really try and embrace the network of people in support that are around you - that kind of shared knowledge is amazing. So, to kind of pick up the phone and go and ask a colleague for coffee and, kind of, be part of the conversation, you know, and kind of try and learn from others. It’s that kind of sharing and I suppose that's one of the things we've missed a little bit in this remote environment, and we've missed those little informal coffee breaks or making a cup of tea where you maybe get chatting to somebody or it might be one of the academic staff has stopped you in the canteen and, you know, that those kind of really insightful conversations that you're having and sometimes in this remote environment we're not kind of having some of those. Definitely for a new disability or accessibility adviser, that would be kind of my advice. Share that wealth of best practice and knowledge, and get involved with the NADP. Sorry there's, there's the plug. I'm only kidding.
But in all seriousness, I suppose, I undertook and completed the accreditation programme last year, and I felt that was really good opportunity for me to, kind of, reflect on my journey and reflect on my practice and stuff as well. So, that's something really that I would encourage any young practitioner to do. To kind of engage in that process of self-reflection and, after they've gained some experience, consider the likes of accreditation and stuff as well.
And I would say from my own experience, expect the unexpected. In my first year, it was actually maybe my first or second week on the job. I thought I had one student in for an appointment and you know there was an entourage of 11 people arrived and I had this little small room of like four and I spoke the student and I think the student had been given the opportunity, ‘would you like anybody else to attend on the day?’ but they hadn't got back to us. In the meantime, mum who's very passionate and very persuasive, had a number of education professionals; she had a number of medical professionals; she had a full entourage arrive on the day. And very quickly I had to think on my feet and try and organise an alternative venue because the student was very keen that everybody could be present. And so needless to say, I had a number of challenges, trying to keep that meeting within the 90 minute time slot, before I would see the next student. But we did create some time and space and we created a follow up appointment where the student was able to come along themselves and have more of an opportunity to have their say. I think that wouldn't have been by design, having so many people in the one room during the initial assessment, you know. So just, yeah, expect the unexpected. And I suppose that was actually my second day on the job, seven years ago. We had just completed a restructure at the time so we had some new staff who had started; we were waiting for some new staff to come in; the person completing my induction was there one week. So, on my second day, appointments that hadn't been scheduled but because students hadn't been seen across the summer period there was a backlog, so it was just a drop in all day, and I remember completing I think it was 9 or 10 assessments, all day, without lunch, and I just thought, wow. However, I got through that day and then came back the next day I realised, I'm gonna be OK because it's never gonna be as bad as that again. And so, you know, that was pretty challenging at the time, but I suppose for a new disability adviser, when you have those experiences, and you get through those difficult days, rely on the support of your colleagues and your friends around you, and when you get through, you get through it. Very much peaks and troughs, so there's times in the year when you will have more time to think and more time to reflect, and there's also going to be times in the year when it is, kind of, nonstop. So, just to be prepared for that - those peaks and troughs at different times of the year.
Lynn: That is fabulous, it's been a really interesting conversation. Thank you so much for sharing your personal life and your knowledge about Northern Ireland and the processes with all our members, thank you so much.
Stephen: Thank you, thank you so much, Lynn, it's been a pleasure and thank you so much for inviting me along today.