When it comes to accommodating students with disabilities, put yourself in their shoes and anticipate problems before they arise, says Harriet Swain
The new science building has finally been finished and it looks beautiful.
You can sense the quality in the heavy entrance doors, the cream on white signs, the echoing reception area. Surely no one would want to quibble about possible problems for wheelchair users, or for partially sighted or deaf people? Anyway, you don't have any.
Oh dear. Think again. You have under a year to comply with the requirements of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (Senda), which from next September will force institutions to make reasonable adjustments to the physical features of premises that put disabled students at a substantial disadvantage. And it's no good arguing that you have no such students. The Act states that institutions have an anticipatory duty to disabled people as a whole, not just to particular individuals. If a disabled student arrives at the institution and you haven't anticipated their needs, then there may not be time to make the adjustments necessary.
Ideally you should plan well ahead and think about the needs of disabled people at the earliest design stage, when organising anything from building work to developing a new module to setting timetables. This will involve talking to the experts and probably buying in the services of those experienced in disabled access issues. You are also likely to need close links with the university's information technology department, since new technology can offer many solutions. And you will need to speak to other staff and to liaise with any existing disabled students. Andrew Nightingale, past chairman of the Association of University Directors of Estates, says: "Too often institutions look at particular solutions to a problem and what they prioritise is not what people with disabilities prioritise."
Tinkering with a university estate can be expensive, so prioritising is essential. Most institutions should by now have conducted an audit of what needs to be done. Barbara Waters, chief executive of Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, says it is important to communicate the results of the audit to heads of departments and to get comments from students. "If you do an audit, act on it," she says. "That will reduce the chances of having a legal claim against you."
Tony Askham, head of the education team at law firm Bond Pearce, says that you need to prioritise in terms of cost and benefit to potential users, and to agree on a timescale, which must then be communicated across the institution. What constitutes a "reasonable" adjustment is likely to be the main focus of any legal debates once this section of the act comes into force, and will depend on cost, resources and benefits to students.
Nightingale warns that you should think about whether buildings are for public as well as student access. If they are, legal obligations of access are already in force, so the work should be done as soon as possible.
But don't panic. Many adjustments are simpler to make than you think. For example, David Jackson, head of service at the Disabilities and Additional Needs Service at Loughborough University, says you don't need to put everything into braille, but simply ensure that it can easily be transferred if necessary. This means putting as much as possible on the intranet, as blind and partially sighted people will often have screen readers set up. Rather than install a ramp to an inaccessible building, it may be easier to use a different building altogether.
Waters says that some buildings will be redundant for educational purposes, and that this must be recognised. But she stresses that making buildings physically accessible should be part of a general strategy of improving accessibility of all kinds, including in teaching and general communication. These are aspects of Senda with which institutions should already be compliant by law, but Waters stresses that they should be kept under review. She also warns institutions to be aware of day-to-day access issues. "A lot of things are about what people do to buildings once they get into them," she says. For example, hearing loops that have not been used for a while may no longer work, or perhaps no one knows how to use them; paper notices may have been put up that are indecipherable to a blind person. Askham stresses that the Act imposes an ongoing duty. "The fact that they have made adjustments this year doesn't mean they've cracked it," he says.
Meanwhile, you need to think not only about where students learn, but where they socialise and live, how the library is designed and whether the institution's conference facilities are accessible. Steve Haines, policy manager, education and skills, with the Disability Rights Commission, advises institutions to put themselves in the shoes of a disabled student.
"Building confidence and experiencing independence are very much part of the higher education experience and you need to ensure that disabled people have the opportunity to share every aspect of university life," he says.
"Institutions must think about the whole experience rather than just putting a ramp on a building."
But responding to the demands of the Act should be seen as an opportunity rather than an ongoing headache. Jackson says that thinking about the best ways to communicate with students and improve their university experience is never a bad thing. "Often making something accessible to someone with a disability is making it accessible to everyone."
www.skill.org.uk - the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, which has just brought out The Skill Guide to the Disability Discrimination Act Part 4
www.cae.org.uk - Centre for Accessible Environments
www.aude.ac.uk - Association of University Directors of Estates
www.drc-gb.org - Disability Rights Commission
www.natdisteam.ac.uk - National Disability Team
Think laterally about how to solve particular access problems
Continuously review access issues
Consider physical and teaching access issues together