Unready at risk as disability law bites

August 30, 2002

Many universities are "woefully unprepared" for new disability rights laws and risk prosecution, lecturers' leaders and disability groups have claimed.

From next week, all education providers must make "reasonable adjustment" to accommodate disabled students and ensure they are not treated "less favourably", either during the admissions process or during their studies.

The new regulations represent an extension of the Disability Discrimination Act to cover further and higher education institutions.

But lecturers' union Natfhe said this week that colleges and universities had not done enough to prepare for the new laws.

Skill, the national bureau for students with disabilities, also warned that institutions may be dragged into court before they appreciated the seriousness of the new legislation.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind said it would pounce on any university or college falling short of the new laws and initiate court action.

Natfhe's equality official, Kate Heasman, said that she feared many colleges and universities were woefully unprepared for their new responsibilities. She said the recent controversy surrounding Brasenose College, Oxford's rejection of Anastasia Fedotova, the deaf student with six A grades at A level, had caused concern.

"Whatever the truth about this incident, it rings alarm bells about the extent to which universities are prepared to accept their new responsibilities under the DDA," she said.

Barbara Waters, chief executive of Skill, said that while institutions had received a lot of information and had implemented training, senior university managers were failing to grasp the seriousness of the laws.

Ms Waters said: "The point not understood is that this is civil rights legislation. It is not an add-on - it's like race and gender. People are not getting the message that that is how important it is.

"If universities are not going to end up in court, they will need very good complaints procedures, with senior managers taking a decisive role."

Ms Waters said that universities must monitor and evaluate their policies and practices so they are sure that they are admitting students and treating students in a non-discriminatory way. She said institutions should review their teaching and learning process, looking at the core curriculum, to ensure access to all courses.

The RNIB said it was ready to act as watchdog for the new legislation. Kevin Connell, director of post-compulsory education and training, said:

"RNIB is keen to ensure that the rights are properly taken up and enforced, so we will be monitoring the implications of the act very carefully."

Roderick Floud, president of Universities UK, said: "Universities are working hard to improve access and support for students with special educational needs, and to ensure that they meet the requirements of the legislation. Of course, there is always more we can, and should do - equal opportunities is not a finite business.

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