Disabled rights to work set universities thinking

November 29, 1996

HIGHER education institutions can no longer legally discriminate against employees from next week, but they can still discriminate against students.

The employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act come into force on Monday, but the legislation fails to cover students because of the cost. Research from the United States will heighten cash-strapped institutions' fears about the legislation.

Employers must now make "reasonable adjustments" to working conditions to help a disabled person do a job and they must not treat a disabled person less favourably without "good reason". If an employee becomes disabled, employers can no longer pension them off or encourage resignation.

But the US research is unlikely to encourage the Government to alter the act to include education.

The report, A Foundation To Uphold - A Study of Facilities Conditions at US Colleges and Universities, published by the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers, found that the 338 institutions surveyed would need to spend $4 million on average to comply with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

The report estimates that the cost of all US higher education institutions complying with the act would be about $9 billion. In the 1993/94 academic year, US universities and colleges spent an estimated $300 million on construction and renovations.

In the United Kingdom the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, Skill, and All Clear Designs, a company advising on buildings for those with disabilities, say that planning change to coincide with routine refurbishment and maintenance can lower the cost considerably.

Skill is holding a conference today and tomorrow to discuss the Dearing inquiry and how best to improve access for students with disabilities.

The only obligation for higher education institutions is to submit disability statements, which are outlines of provision and accessibility and do not require changes to be made.

The deadline for England is January 10, spring 1997 for Scotland, and was September 30 for Wales.

All Clear Designs has conducted access audits for several universities. James Holmes-Siedle, one of the company's directors, said that one audit of a small, reasonably accessible campus with 1,000 students, found that the cost of making all buildings accessible would be about Pounds 1,000. But for a larger site with 2,500 students, the total would be Pounds 473,000. He said construction on many campuses has been haphazard, with buildings not related to each other. Installing lifts is the most costly modification and could cost up to Pounds 150,000. But he added that it was often the minor problems that were the most expensive to resolve.

In its submission to the 1996 Public Expenditure Survey, vice chancellors said that installing one automatic door would cost Pounds 6,000, an induction loop Pounds 3,500, a stair lift Pounds 1,700 to Pounds 5,000 and converting one lavatory Pounds 1,000. It called for Pounds 50 million for such projects.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is providing Pounds 6 million to fund some projects from 1996/97 to 1998/99.

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