Who funds equal access?

Sally Feldman says the responsibility for financing disabled students is unclear

October 30, 2008

You don't really notice when you meet Tara Flood that she doesn't have any hands and that she uses prosthetic legs. She's so full on, so bursting with enthusiasm, so unstoppable. She regards her physical impairments as a bit of a nuisance, but won't let them get in the way.

As director of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, she is a passionate advocate for disability rights. And when she addressed our university last week as guest of honour, I found her confidence, passion and sheer energy forced me to think again about how universities address disability.

It is not always easy. Not that long ago Times Higher Education reported that a disabled student was suing his university for causing loss of dignity. Although it had supported him well during his course, it had failed to provide wheelchair access to the stage where degrees were being conferred.

The case highlights the problems facing enlightened but embattled employers: how can we ensure equal access to people with disabilities when we can never be quite certain what that commitment might entail?

Last year, for example, we had to foot the bill for a walker for a blind student's guide dog. The year before, we had to pay outstanding costs for a signer for a deaf fashion student whose funding from her local authority had run out. Like most universities, we have to find the money to cover extra teaching for those with dyslexia and pay for equipment not covered by local authority grants. We have a whole team of disability specialists who are on hand to give expert advice and help.

Such additional expenses are perfectly justifiable. Disabled students are entitled by law to some financial and practical assistance. But all too often, while it is clear what should be provided, it is not clear who should provide it. And as long as there's no clarity, there will be no equal opportunities.

This is just as true for other forms of discrimination. The law may guarantee maternity pay for pregnant workers. But there is no recompense for employers who, in most cases, will simply expect the remaining workforce to cover for their absent colleague. This, in turn, encourages managers to avoid hiring fertile women.

Tara Flood agrees that integration comes at a price. But that does not alter her uncompromising stance. There should be no segregation, no special schools, mainstream education must be available to all.

And this policy should extend to universities, too. No student should be refused access on the grounds of disability, and funds must be made available to make this possible.

"I suppose it is utopian," she acknowledges. "But only in the sense that the ideal isn't achievable yet. It's not impossible. Properly managed integration is actually cost-effective." She insists that a diverse school population fosters tolerance and acceptance and that a well-educated workforce creates less of a burden on the state.

But the main reason she is so passionate about integrated education is because, she says flatly, she wants to save lives. Her own was very nearly blighted by her experience at a special school where pupils were taught that they weren't normal; they were inferior. "We were expected to try to fit in, to disguise our disabilities. It was like burying yourself." The result was that many led appallingly sad and limited lives, or else ended them.

Tara was rescued from this despair when, long after leaving school, she enrolled in a part-time degree and discovered sociology. That was when she realised that while physical impairment may be a medical condition, disability is a social construct. "It was like a revelation. Suddenly that huge cloud was lifted. I could be who I wanted to be." So now she refuses to see herself as a victim.

Her utter conviction can come across as too shrill, almost fanatical. But most liberation movements begin with similar militancy, making large demands to place the cause firmly on the map. Back in the early 1970s, the newly emergent radical feminists declared war on men, became lesbians, refused to give birth to boys and advocated knifing all rapists.

We have calmed down now. But the disability lobby, with so many more urgent reasons to be angry, is just getting into its stride. For example, some deaf parents have demanded the right to select a deaf foetus in protest against the Human Fertility and Embryology Bill, passed through Parliament last week, which outlaws such a preference.

And this is not some outlandish fringe group. The claim is strongly supported by the British Deaf Association and the Royal National Institute for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People.

It seems like sheer lunacy. What could possibly justify inflicting such a massive limitation on another human being? For the deaf community, though, it's an assertion of identity and pride.

Tara Flood disagrees with them for extreme reasons of her own. All selection, she maintains, is wrong - even if a foetus is so damaged that the baby will live a short, painful life. But she has made me see that such passion is polemical. If you are going for equality, you cannot make exceptions. The deaf lobby, in choosing its extreme position, is announcing its right, its absolute determination to be heard.

People with disabilities don't want to be hidden, they don't want to be grateful and they don't want to be carried on to the stage to receive their honours. They want to be equal, and they are prepared to fight and shout to insist on their rights.

Universities, committed to inclusiveness, understanding and enrichment, should be leading the way in ensuring that students with disabilities are welcomed, valued and supported. But we need to know the true costs. And who is meeting them.

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