From September, students with disabilities will be able to take legal action against institutions that fail to meet their needs, and it is likely that universities will be named and shamed if they are not properly prepared, says Helen Hague.
Come September, turning down an academically gifted dyslexic student on the grounds that the course she applies for is not suitable for dyslexics could cost a university dear. And we are not just talking financial penalties. The prospect of "Boffins snub dyslexic genius" screaming from the tabloids is not one that any vice-chancellor would relish.
If a visually impaired student submits work electronically and gets handwritten comments on her work, the university she attends will, before long, risk falling foul of the law. The same goes for an institution where a lecturer refuses to clip a radio aid to her lapel so a partially deaf student can hear her lectures.
It has been a long time coming. But the first phase of landmark legislation giving disabled students rights for the first time is just five months away - whether or not the sector is prepared. With able-bodied people still twice as likely to go to university as their disabled peers, the legislation should help boost the sector's drive to widen participation.
The Disability Discrimination Act part IV makes it unlawful for education and training providers to discriminate against disabled people. The act covers everything from physical disability to mental health problems and asthma, and encompasses any services provided for students - education, training, leisure facilities and accommodation - and also covers admissions, enrolments and exclusions.
It has two main planks. First, responsible bodies must not treat a disabled person "less favourably" than a non-disabled person for reasons related to his or her disability. If this happens, institutions must be ready to justify their decision. The dyslexic would-be history student would have grounds for complaint under this provision.
Second, responsible bodies will be required by law to make "reasonable adjustments" to ensure that a disabled student is not placed at a "substantial disadvantage". The visually impaired student who could not read hand-marked essays and the partially deaf student who could not hear lectures will have to wait until September next year to make their cases, when provisions covering auxiliary aids come on stream.
Adjustments to the physical environment must be made by September 2005. Where the institution is found wanting, the buck stops with the governing body, which will be held responsible for the actions of its employees and agents, including contract workers and temporary staff. But where a staff member "knowingly or recklessly" passes on false or misleading information causing someone else to discriminate, that individual could be criminally liable and face a £5,000 fine.
It is hardly surprising that lecturers' union Natfhe, whose vice-president, Gerard Kelly, announced in December that most universities were not ready for the legislation, is calling for earmarked funding for staff development around disability training.
Universities UK is also lobbying the government for extra resources for staff development and teaching infrastructure to cover the cost of complying with the new legislation.
It will be up to aggrieved students to raise their cases with a tutor or disability coordinator. If the issue is not resolved through internal complaints procedures, the Disability Rights Commission can arrange conciliation with the institution. If the student still feels they are not getting the change needed, the case could go to court with or without backing from the Disability Rights Commission.
Institutions that have pushed the needs of disabled students to the margins will have their work cut out to mainstream disability, embed inclusive practice and anticipate the needs of students yet to apply. Ad hoc provision for disabled students who happen to enrol will no longer be good enough.
Crucially, providers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments - from admissions procedures, to teaching arrangements, exam procedures or course content - to disabled people generally, not just to individuals. This means universities must anticipate what sort of adjustments may be necessary for disabled students in future and, where appropriate, make adjustments in advance.
Sophie Corlett from Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, helped write the code of practice accompanying part IV of the act, which is before Parliament. Corlett, who is widely acknowledged as an expert in disabled students' needs, has audited the policies and procedures of all higher education institutions in Scotland in a Scottish Higher Education Funding Council-funded project. She has done the same for a number of English institutions. The reports are confidential - Skill does not name and shame - but the "general picture" is that there is "quite a long way to go".
Corlett elaborates: "People do quite a lot of good stuff ad hoc in response to individual needs, but their systems let them down. Often there's no proper communication system - so a student may tell a staff member they are disabled but the information doesn't get back to the person who needs to make an adjustment. Or it doesn't get to a person in a position of authority who can get things done. Or an admissions system is completely thrown by someone applying for a course that they perhaps thought a disabled person couldn't do."
Universities' reactions to the forthcoming legislation can, Corlett says, span two extremes. First, there is the complacent "we're doing a lot anyway, it's all down to the disability adviser" camp. And then there is the "oh my God! We're going to go bankrupt. We're going to have to spend millions on buildings" camp. Both are mistaken.
"Good training is the only thing that is going to keep institutions this side of the legislation," she says - alongside the necessary communications systems that many institutions do not yet have in place. She notes that when the Higher Education Funding Council for England runs training sessions, many senior managers do not show up, delegating to disability advisers. She says senior managers need to get involved to ensure that changes in policies and procedures are embedded in a sector that will soon be vulnerable to legal challenges.
Anne Simpson, head of the special needs service at Strathclyde University, devised a Shefce-funded resource pack that is helping institutions audit themselves in readiness for the legislation. Teachability: Creating an Accessible Curriculum for Students with Disabilities is a thorough piece of staff development in itself - equipping institutions to take stock of how they are providing for disabled students, with material to help academics consider changes needed to meet disabled students' needs. It is unashamedly grounded in the social model of disability: while people may have impairments, it is the environment - attitudes as much as inaccessible buildings - that can be disabling. "If disabled students are going to study successfully in the future, it is course provision that has got to change. Institutions will have to work with students to interpret what their disability means in a range of teaching," Simpson says. "There are limits to add-ons in terms of personal equipment. Providers have to be very clear about the necessity to do things differently for some students, while also striving towards more inclusive practice generally." She cites anticipatory adjustments made by St Andrews University's department of geosciences as an example of imaginative thinking in this area. They decided to video field trips to the Cairngorms to collect specimens so that in future students who could not attend for any reason - disability, family bereavement, sickness - could have a record of the trip. Her advice to other institutions is clear: "Be self-conscious about what is actually helping disabled students in your teaching practice and build on that."
Gerard Conroy, disability adviser and learning support tutor at Umist, agrees that learning and teaching aspects of the act are hugely important and that across the sector "massive awareness raising" needs to be done. He reports one academic - not from Umist - saying: "Why should I bother with this? I've only ever taught one disabled student in my life." He was not aware, says Conroy, "that we've got to be ready to teach any student who can reasonably consider a course as an option". Conroy also thinks the act will throw the spotlight on teaching at older universities where academics, employed mainly for their research skills, are likely to be less geared to the widening access and teaching issues surrounding disability. At Umist, however, there are departmental disability coordinators, and the institution is finding a critical mass of disabled students is helping change attitudes - and boost student confidence. The computation department, where Conroy was admissions tutor, has 34 disabled students. Recently, two dyslexic students got first-class honours degrees - one completing all his exams by computer over his three-year course.
Hefce has pumped £6 million into a three-year programme for a raft of initiatives to improve provision for disabled students - from helping institutions reach base-line provision to disseminating good practice across the sector. The programme runs until December but another £6 million for a further three years has been announced. Funding for future projects is likely to include a stipulation about mainstreaming disability issues into core institutional activities.
Mike Adams, director of the Hefce-funded National Disability Team, says the forthcoming legislation is helping to focus minds. "Institutions are generally good at getting students around buildings and providing them with support in terms of accommodation and equipment. Where we have to crack the nut is what happens when the student enters the classroom or the laboratory. Learning rather than welfare is a key challenge."
According to Adams, British institutions would do well to learn from the Australian experience where disability discrimination legislation in higher education has been in force since 1993. Eighteen months ago, he went on a fact-finding trip there. Ninety per cent of court cases in Australia related to teaching and learning. There were many cases of students being discriminated against at the admission stage on the grounds of disability. The other key areas in which institutions had been found wanting included not going far enough in making reasonable adjustments to the curriculum or providing information in alternative formats in a timely manner. The courts did not look too kindly, for instance, on institutions that did not provide course material in Braille for blind students until way into their first term.
Clued-up institutions are embedding inclusive practice in their procedures or at least taking a risk-management approach - doing the minimum needed to comply with legislation such as framing action plans to be implemented over time and, if a student's grievance looks like ending up as case law, looking at the option of paying off the complainant. But pay-offs will not build case law, and the cases will come. Moreover, it is unlikely that the first university to be fined, named and shamed will be the sector's worst offender. In the coming months, expect much discussion of risk-management strategies when senior managers gather together.
THE ALREADY CLUED-UP
York St John
York St John College has secured £147,000 of Higher Education Funding Council for England money over three years to put baseline provision for disabled students in place. The project finishes at the end of the year.
It is viewed as a model that other institutions that have to make up ground could follow. The college took a whole-institution approach to addressing disabled students' needs as well as accommodating those who will choose to study there in future. This structural approach is one that Hefce would like to see replicated.
Finlay Coupar, executive student dean, says the college has always offered students support on an ad hoc basis, but wanted to "embed the disabilities dimension in all our activities and processes". That has now happened, as new systems have been brought in and across-the-board training given to all academic and support staff. Coupar says that students are more confident about declaring their disability - and more disabled students are enrolling.
Abililtynet, a national charity, now operates from the college site and helps assess students who need specialist equipment.
"We get positive feedback from students. The money arrived at just the right time for us as we were reviewing student services and trying to develop our agenda to widen participation," Coupar says.
The University of North London is ahead of the game in seeking to meet the needs of disabled students.
When Caroline Davies was appointed as one of the sector's first disability coordinators in 1993, her first job was to develop an admissions policy for disabled students.
A dyslexia support service has been in place for the past decade, and there is an information technology resource centre for disabled students.
The new eight-floor technology tower has been designed with access in mind, so wheelchair users and blind students can study there too.
This fits into the institution's widening participation strategy. Mature students and those who have entered via access courses are well represented in the student body.
Now manager of the university's disabilities and dyslexia service, Davies says support from senior managers in progressing policies for disabled students has been key.
The deputy vice-chancellor chairs the disability working group and is championing moves to develop curricula that are accessible to people with a range of disabilities.
After the Quality Assurance Agency's 1999 code of practice on disability was issued, UNL set up a working party - chaired by the deputy vice-chancellor - and conducted a large-scale audit to help the university improve its service to disabled students.
But despite the university's inclusive ethos, many students do not disclose their disability before courses start. Some dyslexic students are diagnosed only once they have started courses and sometimes in their final year "when their coping strategies start to crack". UNL has six full-time and five part-time dyslexia tutors. Other hidden disabilities include an increasing number of students with mental health problems.
MENTOR AID FOR AUTISM
The number of students with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) appears to be on the increase, possibly the result of more young people being successfully identified and supported at school. Students with communication difficulties, who are reliant on routines and find it hard to interact socially, have overcome many hurdles to make it to university. Studies show they frequently lack appropriate support when they arrive and are often prone to feeling isolated and depressed.
However, despite the increase, high-functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome sufferers are likely to be underdiagnosed in higher education. Additionally, students may attempt to mask their condition for fear of discrimination.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England funded Canterbury Christ Church College to increase awareness of the incidence of learners with this syndrome. A Social Communication and Understanding Project In Higher Education (Aspihe) had 18 months and £40,000 to ascertain the need for support for undergraduate and postgraduate students, identify appropriate guidance for institutions and begin to locate good practice.
Mike Blamires, who leads the project out of Canterbury Christ Church's faculty of education, had no problems identifying the need for support. "I think we are just scratching the surface of profound need. You make accommodations for a wheelchair because you can see it. But if somebody has difficulty in social understanding, people can make judgements right away that can lead to people being vulnerable or even bullied." He points out that, unlike dyslexia - which has been "positively modelled on celebrities" - people with ASD still face stigmatisation.
Aspihe found the buddy/mentor system had the most positive impact on supporting students with ASD. "Individual support staff are playing a key role in empowering the student in areas of student interaction and university procedures," the project report says. But training and guidance for these enablers is much needed. "The job really comes into play in unstructured time when the lecture has ended. Anything that makes the implicit explicit helps people with autism."
Aspihe emphasised the message that the project was aimed at finding out what enabled the academic careers of autistic students rather than serving the needs of developmental psychology. It is hoped that the experience gleaned will help make life at university better for these students and for those who follow. There are plans to develop an online interactive resource, Aspirations, to support training for buddies and mentors.
Blamires makes a comparison between bad practice in higher education institutions and the condition whose social implications he has steeped himself in. "The diagnosis of autism is communication difficulties, inflexibility, lack of imagination, which is just what some institutions are showing in responding to different disabilities. So you wonder - who's being autistic here?"