The right to shake hands

October 19, 2007

Despite receiving proper support during his course, when it came to the degree ceremony, one young man found himself discriminated against. Martin Crick reports on a case with lessons for all universities. The education sector has done much to improve life for disabled people. More are gaining access to education and training, receiving improved support and having better educational outcomes than ever before. Yet a recent judgment makes clear the extent of the duties under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA), which many institutions have still not fully taken on board.

In March 2007, Craig Potter, a wheelchair user, was awarded £4,000 for injury to feelings after he was denied the chance to receive a symbolic handshake on stage at his graduation ceremony. The court recognised that, until the incident, Potter had been given "all the support that could be expected" during his time at Canterbury Christ Church University. Yet the university's failure to arrange access to the stage on a day of such importance left Potter feeling marginalised and was unlawful discrimination under the DDA.

Potter graduated in 2004 in a ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral. During the proceedings, most students walked across a raised dais, which was accessed by three steps, to shake hands with the chairman of the governing body. The university knew that Potter was a wheelchair user and would be unable to proceed on to the dais with the other students. Yet no ramp was provided, and Potter had to be content with a greeting at the bottom of the steps instead. He brought claims under the DDA that the university had failed in its duty to make "reasonable adjustments" and had treated him "less favourably" for a reason relating to his disability.

Canterbury County Court found that the incident caused Potter "to suffer distress, humiliation and injury to feelings". This was an important day that recognised his considerable achievement in obtaining a degree and it could never be replicated. Even though this was a single act of discrimination that was not a result of malice or anything of that nature, Potter was awarded a substantial sum for injury to his feelings.

A recent analysis by Levenes Solicitors of the casework dealt with between 2002 and 2005 by the Disability Rights Commission found that the most common allegations of discrimination concerned teaching practice, exams and assessment, learning support, equipment and materials, and outings and trips. Yet the Potter judgment makes explicit that the DDA is not just about access to teaching. You must also avoid discriminating in the provision of any other services you provide, or offer to provide, wholly or mainly for students. In Potter's case, the court held that the graduation ceremony was a "student service" covered by the DDA. Other student services might include catering, health, welfare, libraries, leisure, entertainment and sports facilities. The case also highlights the central importance of an institution's duty to make "reasonable adjustments". The DDA has many other aspects, but the reasonable adjustments duty is the cornerstone of the Act. It was also at the heart of the majority of issues reported by students calling the Disability Rights Commission's helpline in a sample two-month period to June 11, 2007.

The law says that you have a duty to make reasonable adjustments when disabled people are placed at a "substantial disadvantage" compared with other people. This goes beyond making sure you don't treat people less favourably; it requires you to take positive steps to ensure that disabled people can access education and related services.

Furthermore, the judge in the Potter case highlighted that this duty is "anticipatory" - you should be planning for the reasonable adjustments you need to make, whether or not you have any disabled students. If you fail to anticipate the need for an adjustment, it may be too late to comply with the duty when a disabled person needs it.

Many institutions have clearly done much to improve accessibility. But more remains to be done. Examples of adjustments that may help you to avoid some of the more common complaints include the following:

  • Course materials may need to be modified by, for example, offering them in Braille, large print, online or on audio tape.
  • Written examinations may need to be adjusted for some disabled students by, for example, providing a reader or sign language interpreter, or allowing extra time for students who are deaf or have dyslexia.
  • Reasonable adjustments to coursework may include the provision of study- skills support for essay-writing or dissertations, and providing comments on submitted work in alternative formats.
  • The central services that you provide may need to be adjusted to ensure that there is level access, that good lighting and colour contrasts aid orientation, that acoustics are appropriate for hearing-aid users, and that loop systems are installed at reception desks.
  • Reasonable adaptations to teaching delivery may include allowing students to tape lectures or classes, and ensuring that reading material presented visually is read out for those unable to see.

Further information

In August 2007, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) published a new guide to the Disability Discrimination Act for colleges, universities and adult community-learning providers in Britain, available free of charge from the website of the DRC's successor, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, at www.equalityhumanrights.com. The website also has a dedicated section for education providers.

Martin Crick was legal officer at the Disability Rights Commission and is now legal officer at the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

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