Accessing the curriculum; university based learning experiences of visually impaired physiotherapy students

Accessing the curriculum; university based learning experiences of visually impaired physiotherapy students

Table of Contents


This study aimed to explore the learning experiences of visually impaired physiotherapy students in the UK, specifically focusing on barriers and enablers faced within the university and classroom-based education.

A qualitative multiple case study design was used due to the unique and small group of participants under exploration. Course Leaders of all universities in the UK that offered Physiotherapy education at undergraduate or pre-registration level were approached as gatekeepers to access participants. Four visually impaired physiotherapy students consented to take part in the study, each from a different institution.

Semi-structured interviews were used at a time and setting chosen by each participant. Data were recorded and transcribed verbatim, and analyzed thematically using NVivo 10. Both barriers and enablers were identified, with sub-themes within the data; the barriers were: environmental factors, unsupportive behaviors, and time and effort. The enablers were: supportive relationships, student attributes, and strategies, and adaptations.

All participants experienced barriers to learning within their university setting, despite having disclosed a disability and having access to and provision of reasonable adjustments. However, despite facing barriers, many positive experiences enabled learning, particularly when staff and students worked together in an open, supportive, and proactive environment.


Visual impairment, Higher education, Barriers, Enablers, Inclusion, Physiotherapy


This paper discusses the learning experiences of four visually impaired physiotherapy students from four different universities in the UK, focusing on their experiences of university and classroom-based learning. This study built upon an exploratory study of three visually impaired physiotherapy students within a single UK university (Frank et al., 2014).

Physiotherapy has a unique history in the education and inclusion of visually impaired people who have long been accepted and valued as physiotherapists. Historically, student physiotherapists undertook their training at the RNIB School of Physiotherapy in London (Barclay, 1994Atkinson and Owen-Hutchinson 20052013Owen-Hutchinson and Atkinson, 2010). Since its closure in 1995, visually impaired students have chosen where they would like to study physiotherapy, reflecting student choice and principles of inclusive higher education.

All registered healthcare professions offer approved and validated pre-registration university education courses, to ensure that appropriate standards are met for practice. The HCPC (Health and Care Professions Council) who approve physiotherapy courses, and the NMC (Standards Framework for Nursing and Midwifery Education) have specific standards and requirements to ensure that student and registered healthcare professionals are treated fairly and equitably within the premise of the Equality Act (Legislation govuk, 2010The Equality Act, 2010), during their professional pre-registration education, and in practice, once they qualify (HCPC, 2015). The Equality Act (2010), guidance from the Quality Assurance Agency (UK Quality Code 2013) and a recent paper from the Department for Education (2017) all state that the provision of anticipatory reasonable adjustments ensures that disabled students can access Higher Education (HE) where registered healthcare professionals such as nurses, midwives, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, paramedics, and others gain their qualifications.

Healthcare students are encouraged by their regulators (HCPC, 2015Nursing and Midwifery Council, 2018) to disclose any disability to their HEI, to ensure that support can be provided in university classroom-based and practice-based education; access to education should not be limited by disability (Moran, 2009Veck, 2007). About nursing, Hargreaves and Walker (2014 p.1752) suggest that disabled students should not pose any greater difficulty in demonstrating “fitness to practice” provided that disclosure is made, and support and reasonable adjustments provided. Indeed, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (2018), HCPC (Clouder, 2013HCPC, 2015) and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP, 2012) have published guidance to enhance inclusion and support for disabled students, including those who are visually impaired (Owen-Hutchinson and Atkinson, 2010). However, despite this, barriers to entry and practice as a healthcare professional for disabled students remain.

“Barriers and enablers” are terms that feature in the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health (ICF) (WHO 2010). Unlike the social model that suggests that disability is caused by society, culture, economic constraints and the environment (French and Swain, 2008 p.28), the ICF considers how both impairments and environmental factors act as barriers and/or enablers, affecting participation in society for disabled people, which includes going to university and training for a career (WHO, 2010), such as physiotherapy. The ICF provided an underpinning theory of participation for this study, enabling exploration of the factors that affected participation in university and classroom-based learning for the participants.

The experiences of disabled students in HE has received a great deal of attention in recent years, especially about dyslexia and specific learning difficulties (MacCullagh et al., 2016) with a recent study reiterated that students were still experiencing challenges with disclosure and identity, and were facing negative experiences of higher education (Kendall, 2016). As there is evidence to suggest that more students are disclosing disabilities in healthcare education (Ryder and Norwich, 2018) this poses a potential problem for healthcare students, who are choosing to enter, and are the future of the healthcare professions. Specific research into the experiences, barriers, and enablers of disabled students in different professions such as Medicine (Miller et al., 2009), Occupational Therapy (Gitlow, 2012) and Nursing (Ryan, 2011Wray et al., 2013Tee and Cowan, 2010) exists, identifying many barriers and enablers to learning. About healthcare education, disabled nursing students continued to face poor attitudes towards them from their colleagues (Shpigelman et al., 2016), supporting previous claims of inadequate inclusion in higher education (Claiborne et al., 2011Papadopoulis and Goudiras, 2004Kioko and Makoelle, 2014). The literature has also shown that disabled students require additional time and an “emotional” effort to study, suggesting that their experiences in learning are challenging and more time-consuming than non-disabled students (Goode, 2007Mullins and Preyde, 2013Magnus and Tossebro, 2014). Whilst this is a significant problem for the students, it has ramifications for educators in university who must provide inclusive and accessible learning for students (Department for Education, 2017). About physiotherapy, Frank et al. (2014) identified that visually impaired physiotherapy students needed to be highly motivated and strategic with their time and effort to complete their studies. Although little research has specifically considered visually impaired students in HE (Bishop and Rhind, 2011Reed and Curtis, 2012), and only one has considered physiotherapy students (Frank et al., 2014), all three authors confirmed that barriers to learning were encountered. These were specifically about visual teaching methods, reliance on reading, difficulty using adaptive technologies, and access to demonstrations or visual media. These authors also suggested that support was inadequate, indicating that resources and staff attitudes were poor, supporting the findings of Shpigelman et al. (2016). However, there was also evidence of enablers which supported participation in higher education reflecting the ICF. This study, therefore, sought to explore both barriers and enablers in university and classroom-based education, to offer insight into the experiences of four visually impaired physiotherapy students to facilitate inclusion in physiotherapy education. The following research questions were posed:

  1. What barriers do visually impaired physiotherapy students experience in university-based learning?
  2. What are the individual strategies, factors, or behaviors that enable learning physiotherapy for visually impaired student physiotherapists in university and the classroom?

Whilst the participants were unique to physiotherapy, the author was interested in inclusion and participation, hence the underpinning of the ICF. The discussion considers to what extent the findings from this group of students can be reflected in wider higher and healthcare education, to facilitate inclusion and accessibility for all.


These findings show the existence of both barriers to and enablers for learning physiotherapy within the university setting. The barriers prevented students from fully participating and accessing the curriculum effectively, despite support and reasonable adjustments being put in place. However, some excellent practices ensured participation and access to the curriculum in both theoretical and practical teaching and learning, reinforced by strong “human” and compassionate support.

These findings support previous research into the experiences of disabled and visually impaired students in the university, suggesting that physiotherapy education is not unique. Despite the physiotherapy profession being open and supportive of visually impaired therapists, there are still barriers that ultimately result in students having to work harder and longer to access the curriculum to achieve their educational goals. However, if barriers can be identified and addressed through open, collaborative relationships and reasonable adjustments, access to the curriculum can be enabled, and full participation in physiotherapy education can be achieved.

About KSRA

The Kavian Scientific Research Association (KSRA) is a non-profit research organization to provide research / educational services in December 2013. The members of the community had formed a virtual group on the Viber social network. The core of the Kavian Scientific Association was formed with these members as founders. These individuals, led by Professor Siavosh Kaviani, decided to launch a scientific / research association with an emphasis on education.

KSRA research association, as a non-profit research firm, is committed to providing research services in the field of knowledge. The main beneficiaries of this association are public or private knowledge-based companies, students, researchers, researchers, professors, universities, and industrial and semi-industrial centers around the world.

Our main services Based on Education for all Spectrum people in the world. We want to make an integration between researches and educations. We believe education is the main right of Human beings. So our services should be concentrated on inclusive education.

The KSRA team partners with local under-served communities around the world to improve the access to and quality of knowledge based on education, amplify and augment learning programs where they exist, and create new opportunities for e-learning where traditional education systems are lacking or non-existent.

FULL Paper PDF file:




Author links open overlay panelHelenFrankaMikeMcLindenbGraemeDouglasb

Institute of Health and Society, University of Worcester, Henwick Grove WORCESTER, WR2 6AJ, UK
VICTAR, School of Education, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT, UK

Received 30 May 2018, Revised 2 August 2019, Accepted 22 August 2019, Available online 29 August 2019


Citation Text

Frank H, McLinden M, Douglas G. Accessing the curriculum; university based learning experiences of visually impaired physiotherapy students. Nurse Educ Pract. 2020;42:102620. doi:10.1016/j.nepr.2019.102620

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

Funding sources

This research was funded by the author as part of her Doctoral studies.

Ethical approval details (if applicable)

Ethical approval was gained from the School of Education Ethics Committee, the University of Birmingham as part of Doctoral studies 2008–2017.

Appendix A. Supplementary data

The following is the supplementary data to this article: Download: Download XML file (248B)


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Professor Siavosh Kaviani was born in 1961 in Tehran. He had a professorship. He holds a Ph.D. in Software Engineering from the QL University of Software Development Methodology and an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Chelsea.

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Maryam Momeni was born in 1970 in Tehran. She holds a degree in Literature - German language from the Melli University of Tehran.
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