Blind student accuses OU of discrimination

February 21, 2008

The Open University has been accused of discrimination by a blind student who claims his teaching materials were inaccessible.

Douglas Hutchison, 56, has contacted the Equality and Human Rights Commission over what he believes is a breach of the Disability Discrimination Act by the OU.

The mature student, who gained a PhD in 1977, said his experiences in the fifth year of a BA in humanities had led him to believe that the OU expected blind students to drop out early and so did not bother to provide adequate support in the later stages of the course.

Dr Hutchison contracted meningitis, which left him blind and brain-damaged, in 2001. He said he started the OU course in 2004 "to get my brain working again" but added that he had struggled with the teaching materials.

A question on one exam paper asked him to "look at this picture", while another course required constant cross-referencing between source material that, he said, failed to take his disability into account.

He added that although he had computer software that can read out teaching material, technical glitches had made it "inaccessible".

"It's not been thought through at all," he said.

Dr Hutchison reported that, following a recent complaint, he was told he "had the faculty's sympathy". He said: "I can find sympathy in the dictionary between shit and syphilis."

The OU said it would look again at what it could do for Dr Hutchison, but added that its commitment to "educational opportunity and social justice" was demonstrated by the 10,000 disabled students currently taking courses. Last year, 1,085 - about 0.6 per cent of Open University students - were visually impaired.

Jennie Augustyniak, disability resources manager, said that there were fewer items of accessible material at the later levels of courses because "we have to prioritise the resources we have for the most popular courses". She said that a new project initiated last year would mean that more courses would soon be available in audio format.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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