Bill demands extra support for disabled

March 23, 2001

Students who suffer discrimination on the grounds of disability will benefit from the disability bill passing through Parliament.

At present there is no legal protection for disabled students and according to Skill, the national bureau for students with disabilities, lecturers have no legal obligation to provide special support for students who are, for example, dyslexic or who suffer from a visual impairment.

Barbara Waters, Skill's chief executive, said the disability bill will introduce the right to non-discrimination, which means disabled people would be entitled to the same level of education that others take for granted. "Students need this legislation to ensure fair treatment," she said.

The legislation should prevent universities from turning away students with dyslexia. But the term "fair" is open to interpretation, according to Barbara Lloyd-Smith, director of the National Disability Team. "The legislation should be a wake-up call to universities to look at what they offer to disabled students and to look at their complaints procedures," she said.

"Hidden" disabilities often present the trickiest problems for students. Lecturers can legally refuse to provide notes in large print for students with visual impairment. Or they can bar personal assistants from field trips because the bus is provided for the use of students only. Such decisions may not be commonplace but, according to Ms Lloyd-Smith, the prejudices of some academics cannot be changed overnight.

"If we can persuade lecturers that more careful thinking about the delivery of programmes would help all learners, not just those with a disability, we'll have cracked it," Ms Lloyd-Smith said.

There are more students with learning difficulties in higher education than ever, but academics can find it difficult to engage with their problems without confusing them with debates over academic standards, Ms Lloyd-Smith added. "If people do not read or write or spell well, is it because they have been taught badly in the past or is it because they have a learning difficulty?" When Colin Revell enrolled on a diploma in community and youth work ten years ago, he did not know he suffered from a learning disability. Five years later he was diagnosed with dyslexia. He also suffers from dyspraxia, a learning and motor disorder, Asperger's syndrome and attention deficit disorder.

Mr Revell's case highlights the difficulty of interpreting what is reasonable educational support. He suffered two mental breakdowns while an undergraduate at the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside. "I have been fighting the system ever since," he said. Social services, the health authorities and now the university have let him down, he claims.

He has yet to complete his degree and has suspended his studies until the university provides him with the support he says he is entitled to. This includes videotapes of all his lectures plus audio transcripts of all books and other textual information. Some academics, he says, do not like him taping their lectures and this has led to conflict.

A ULH spokesman said the university positively welcomed applications from people with disabilities and these were considered strictly on academic merit. "We provide a range of services to support students with specific learning disabilities, including assessments of educational support needs, guidance on study skills and, where possible, adjustments in course delivery and academic assessment."

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