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The social support networks of university students with social communication difficulties: The role of educational support workers and the implications for retention and progression

By Vanessa Hinchcliffe


This study has utilised multiple methods that incorporate the use of ‘innovative’ communicative technology to provide an extensive exploration of students with social communication difficulties’ (SCD) social support networks whilst attending university. Ten semistructured online interviews were carried out with educational support workers (ESWs). Their analysis provides original and valuable insights into student disability support and the views of ESWs are further pursued in a series of seven web-based diaries with university\ud students with SCD. Information gained here furnishes a critical account of student disability support. Critical points in the accounts of both ESWs and students are presented and evaluated in detail. Findings illustrate that informal personal support, such as peer networking, is vital for students’ educational competence, social confidence and a sense of belonging at university, but is currently not\ud taken into account in a system that promotes formal academic support alone. Lack of informal personal support could impact negatively on student personal adjustment and relationships, thus hindering access to the learning community. Universities have a key role in facilitating student social support networks that promote\ud collaborative social networking. The dominant conceptual framework, based around the social model of disability and situated in a morality\ud of ‘rights’, is considered in practice to atomise the person and overlook wider social aspects of disability. This study proposes to\ud move the disability agenda away from one based on individualism to one based on social connection and located within a morality of care. This approach re-conceptualises students with a disability as interdependent, both in their capacity for personal autonomy, and their social need through relationships. This may go some way in improving university disability policy and practice by encouraging professionals to work in negotiation with students. Thus, appropriate\ud plans can be put in place to meet students’ wider academic, personal and social needs

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