Students with specific learning disabilities experiences of pre-registration physiotherapy education: a qualitative study

Meriel Norris, John Hammond, Annabel Williams, Saskia Walker

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Background: Attainment gaps for students with disabilities have been noted in pre-registration physiotherapy courses in the UK. Previous research suggests disclosure, lack of staff knowledge and poor communication between University and placement sites may be relevant, but these are limited to small case studies with students with visual or physical disabilities. The purpose of this study was to explore disabled physiotherapy students' experiences of their education in order to elucidate factors that may influence success. Methods: Qualitative study drawing on phenomenological traditions. Four focus groups including 15 students with disabilities were conducted. Transcripts were analysed thematically. Procedures for transparency and rigour such as member checking and peer debriefing were implemented. Results: Three major themes were derived from data. "It was quite a relief" explores the personal and social implications of diagnosis. "They're not natural" focuses on academic assessment and the specifics of adjustments made and not made within that context. "My dyslexia doesn't switch off" explores the inaccessibility of the learning environment and dissects the contrast between the 24-h nature of having a specific learning condition and the somewhat piecemeal nature of adjustments during their education. Conclusions: This study indicates that having a specific learning disability or anxiety creates a number of hurdles to success in physiotherapy education. Most were within the University setting and were perceived to result from staff ignorance or piecemeal approaches to inclusion. A lack of consistency alongside facilitated dialogue and acknowledgement of enhancements results in frustration, ambiguity towards disclosure and reinforcement of a deficit model. Such an approach belies the intention of the profession and the NHS and does not maximise the potential of widening participation.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number2
    JournalBMC Medical Education
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2019

    Bibliographical note

    This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.


    • Attainment inequalities
    • Disability
    • Physiotherapy
    • Qualitative
    • Student


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