Act now on access

October 1, 2004

Time is running out to comply with new disability legislation, writes Jennifer Dyer

The start of this academic year brings more changes to the Disability Discrimination Act. For the first time, "qualifications bodies and trade organisations" will be covered by the employment provisions of the DDA.

This will have a major impact on university courses that are part of a professional qualification. How much universities are aware of this change is unclear. What is clear, however, is that not all qualification bodies are geared up for what these changes mean.

The DDA changes, effective as of October 1, aim to ensure parity of access to any trade or profession for disabled people. Qualifications bodies will have a duty not to discriminate, and to make reasonable adjustments. They will also have to ensure that any "competency standards" they have governing the requirements of the profession are objectively justifiable - that is, they are not a "wish list" of desirables, but clearly defined academic, medical or other standards.

For example, standards such as "excellent written and spoken English" or "excellent handwriting" may be discriminatory. "Good communication skills" are not.

A recent study by the Institute of Employment Studies found that more than one-third of qualification bodies surveyed did not know whether new regulations applied to them. Only one-fifth had reviewed their competency standards to ensure they were not discriminatory. But, surely if standards have to be objectively justifiable, qualifications bodies should consider that it may be too late to justify a standard after a claim has been lodged.

The National Bureau for Students with Disabilities (Skill) is urging qualifications bodies to think through what the requirements of their profession really are. Do you really have to be able to handwrite to be a vet, doctor, nurse or teacher or can you use a computer? Surely having a disabled teacher would provide an excellent role model for disabled children in school?

Qualifications bodies also have a huge PR exercise to do to ensure that universities understand how to implement these standards. Information needs to be effectively disseminated down to admissions officers to dispel the myths surrounding competency standards. For example, a standard in medicine is that a person has to demonstrate competency in cardiopulmonary resuscitation to become a doctor. This is not the same as physically performing CPR, but some universities are still interpreting this standard as such and rejecting disabled candidates on these grounds, which goes against the DDA and the standard set by the General Medical Council.

Unless universities and professional bodies work together to implement the provisions of the Act, disabled people will continue to be discriminated against in education. Moreover, qualifications bodies will continue to blame the lack of disabled people in a particular profession on universities for failing to implement non-discriminatory admissions processes, while universities will continue to blame qualifications bodies for failing to have non-discriminatory standards.

Instead of passing the buck, why don't they take their lead from the Law Society, which last year reviewed its standards, in conjunction with Skill and its providers?

A recent report by the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services concluded that, although there is little significant difference in the overall employment rates of disabled and non-disabled graduates, the former are still not accessing all professions to the same extent as the latter, particularly in health and education. And, in the meantime, Skill is still taking calls from disabled students who are being discriminated against in admissions to university. Clearly, there is no room for complacency.

Jennifer Dyer is policy director, higher education, for Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities.

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