Universities have historically done little to make disabled students welcome, and still have no statutory duty to do so. Simon Midgley finds out how their lot has improved since the 1970s.
In some ways little has changed for disabled students in higher education in the past two decades, according to Sophie Corlett, assistant director of Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities. Universities continue to have no statutory duty to accept students with disabilities or to go out of their way to help them study for their degree or cope with undergraduate life.
"It's perfectly legal to say 'sorry you can't come in, you are blind or deaf'," she explains. "You can say that to any student except on the grounds of sex or race. And in the past institutions did turn people down on the grounds that they were disabled and indeed if they accepted them did not necessarily go out of their way to help them. It was fairly unusual for institutions to consider it an issue."
In the late 1980s Ms Corlett asked universities what special arrangements they made to help the deaf. "One or two wrote back saying 'we only take exceptionally bright students. We would not expect deaf students to be in that category and if they were we would expect them to manage perfectly well because they were exceptionally bright'."
One or two rogue institutions, and some rogue individuals within institutions, still have that attitude, she says, but the majority of universities and other institutions go out of their way to help disabled students.
In the past disabled students would tend to apply to universities they knew went out of their way to help them. The deaf would go to Durham, Bristol, Sheffield, the University of Central Lancashire (then Lancashire Polytechnic) and Reading. The blind would go to Loughborough. Today the choice is much broader. Several factors spurred institutions to mend their ways. The 1981 Education Act led to statements of individual pupils' needs being made, and to more disabled children achieving their full potential and going on to university. A substantial increase in the disabled students' allowance in 1990 meant more disabled people could afford to go to university and become more vocal about their needs. The Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which abolished the binary line and introduced funding councils, has also encouraged universities to become more accessible to disabled students.
The first comprehensive statistics (see pages iv-v) show that 4.3 per cent of full-time first-year students are disabled, some 11,500 people. A further 3,400 part-time students, 2.8 per cent, are disabled. More than half of all full-time disabled students suffer from diabetes, epilepsy or asthma and some 17.6 per cent from dyslexia.
Today many institutions have made considerable progress. Nottingham Trent has a proper admissions procedure for disabled students and university-wide disablement policies, Staffordshire University has a forward-looking policy on physical access and employs volunteers to support students, and universities such as Swansea, Lancaster and Leicester have made many improvements.
Although the oldest universities have historically been slow to make any special arrangements for the disabled, Oxford introduced a university-wide disabled policy two years ago. While Oxford and Cambridge have problems adapting their ancient colleges to the needs of the disabled, individual colleges have always gone out of their way to help the particular students they were keen to have.
Applications and admissions statistics would appear to indicate that there is no significant discrimination against the disabled. But Ms Corlett points out that many disabled students do their homework before applying to institutions and do not apply to those that are unwelcoming. She cites the medical school that will not accept dyslexic students. The lecturer who will not hang a radio microphone around his neck to allow a deaf student to follow his lecture, and his colleague who during slide presentations will not allow a spotlight on his face which would enable a deaf student to lip read. Departments also vary. One student may have a very good experience in chemistry for instance but another in art may have a very different experience. And, she says, "if you have cerebral palsy people may be very helpful, but may not have a clue about some other sort of disability."
Ms Corlett believes universities should be devising policies on their approach to the admission, teaching, accommodation and examination of disabled students. The Government's Disability Discrimination Bill, due to become law in the autumn, will require the Higher Education Funding Council to encourage universities to make proper provision for the disabled. She believes, however, that the ultimate solution is a proper antidiscrimination act that would prevent institutions from saying, for example, that blind students cannot study chemistry. This could lead to a code of good practice for universities.
"There are always going to be isolated instances of people discriminating or of institutions discriminating," she explains. "Except shaming people out of it, I don't see any other way (forward) apart from legislation."