Bilaal Ali holding a football
Bilaal Ali plays plays football for people with visual impairments at Sheffield Business School, where he is studying accounting and finance © Amy D'Agorne, for the FT

A business school education can unlock opportunities for people from a wide range of backgrounds and circumstances — and this increasingly includes record numbers of students with disabilities.

European universities and business schools are reporting large rises in enrolments by people with disabilities, whether visible or not. At Bocconi University in Milan, for example, 368 students with disabilities enrolled last year — 2.5 per cent of the total, a 31 per cent rise compared to 2021, and an 87 per cent increase on the figure for 2020. At HEC Paris, there were more than 100 business students with disabilities last year, approaching 2 per cent of the total and an increase of 33 per cent compared with 2022.

“It is the highest number we’ve recorded, but . . . a humbling reminder of the distance we still have to cover,” says Marcelle Laliberté, chief diversity officer at HEC Paris. “The increasing numbers in many business schools, including ours, can be attributed to greater awareness and acceptance of disabilities. However, it’s paramount to remember that these figures only capture students who have chosen to come forward and self-identify.”

Significant challenges remain, for both students and faculty. One of the most immediate concerns continues to be physical accessibility, says Francesco Perrini, associate dean with responsibility for diversity and inclusion at SDA Bocconi School of Management. The school is shortlisted for an AMBA & BGA Excellence Award for its work with people with disabilities. (Run by the Association of MBAs and the Business Graduates Association, the awards will be announced in January.)

“Students and faculty may struggle to navigate campuses that lack adequate ramps, elevators or other accessible facilities,” says Perrini. “Students with visual or auditory impairments often find it difficult to access educational resources, while a lack of accessible educational technology limits the teaching methods available to faculty.”

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Even where schools offer additional accommodations, such as extra examination time or specialised equipment, securing these resources often involves time-sapping bureaucracy — another hurdle for students grappling with the demands of their programme. “Students may experience social isolation, too, due to a lack of awareness among their peers and faculty,” adds Perrini. “Some face biases or lack of accessible facilities when seeking internships or job placements. Faculty members with disabilities can also be subjected to stereotypes and biases that may hinder their career progression and job satisfaction.”

Business students with less visible disabilities may face other challenges, says Gisela Guttmann, associate director of psychological services at Insead, which has its main campus south-east of Paris. “The swift and competitive nature of business education can lead to a limited comprehension of the diverse requirements of individuals with less visible disabilities,” she says. “There may be an assumption that everyone can easily adapt to the same rapid pace.”

State support can be critical. In England, for example, there is a Disabled Students’ Allowance of up to £26,291 a year, available to full and part-time undergraduate and postgraduate students. Bilaal Ali, who is registered blind and in the second year of an accounting and finance degree at Sheffield Business School, says studying would have been a struggle without the allowance.

Person kicking a football
“My disability adviser is there to help with anything I need in relation to my studies or my wellbeing’’ © Amy D'Agorne, for the FT

“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I was determined,” he says. “At the beginning of my course, I was introduced to my disability adviser, who helped me apply for the allowance and has continued to support me . . . I can just call her, and she’s there to help with anything I need in relation to my studies or my wellbeing. There are a lot of buildings on campus, so I used some of my funding to help me with cane training — to increase my confidence and skills when . . . navigating around somewhere new. I’ve also used this funding to buy the technology I need to access my learning materials and to hire a note-taker for help in the classroom.”

Michelle Blackburn, teaching and learning lead at Sheffield Business School, says: “Developing inclusive and responsible future leaders is at the heart of what we do . . . and that includes having a curriculum and teaching team that reflects the diversity of the people around us.”

This year, the school introduced a “no questions asked” policy for assessment extensions — students are given four opportunities a year to request a one-week extension without having to provide evidence. “It helps our students complete their work to the best of their ability.”

Schools are developing a variety of technologies and approaches. Bocconi has installed a radio beacon system to improve accessibility for people with visual impairments, made its websites more accessible, introduced an automatic converter to transform inaccessible documents, and digitised texts for students with disabilities or specific learning disorders.

In Angers, western France, Essca is developing a classroom adapted to different disabilities. Co-led by Professor Julien Jouny-Rivier, the room is being designed with specific furniture and decoration to accommodate the needs of students and faculty with a wide range of disabilities — from height-adjustable tables, adapted lighting and noise-limiting floors to pastel colours and hearing loop technology throughout.

But business schools need to collect more sophisticated data on how effectively they are meeting the needs of students and staff with disabilities, says Kim Hoque, professor of human resource management, at King’s Business School, King’s College London. He has conducted research on disability for more than 10 years, and played a lead role in developing the Disability Employment Charter, which sets out actions governments should take to improve the working lives of people with disabilities.

“Many business schools have done a lot of work around gender in recent times, focusing in particular on Athena SWAN accreditation,” says Hoque, referring to an international framework used to support gender equality in higher education. “By comparison, disability often struggles to garner this level of attention.”

In his teaching, Hoque says he also introduces his students to a range of disability-related debates, including labour market disadvantages and workplace barriers faced by disabled people — and how these might be addressed.

“Central to this is challenging prevailing prejudice and stereotypes,” he adds. “I leave students in no doubt about the enormous contribution disabled people make to the economy and society more broadly.” 

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