Don't deny spice of life

March 15, 2002

Get off your high academic horses over the Disability Discrimination Act, says Peter Nicholson.

Higher education is under the starter's gun to put its house in order and to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act. The Special Education Needs and Disability Act, which incorporates the DDA, comes into force in September, but will the universities be ready or will most, as I suspect, stall on the starting grid?

Many universities have carried out their own research into educating the disabled. This has been funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to the tune of £6 million. "That's not a lot" I was told by the disability team that is employed by Hefce. Well, compared with the £5.7 billion budget the funding council controls it is not. But to the various charities involved on a day-to-day basis with the disabled it is a veritable fortune.

Moreover, it ignores the fact that the problem of being a disabled person requiring access to higher education, or any education, is fundamentally a logistical and practical one, not an academic one. The fact that Hefce should turn to the universities to find solutions presupposes that academics are the most likely to come up with the answers. But universities are not well equipped to research every new situation, much as some within them would like to believe it.

Industry and commerce have already lived with the DDA - and not without difficulty. The more responsible among them appreciated that its implications were outside their sphere of expertise and looked to charities and social services for guidance. Others turned to their health and safety officers and invested in training.

The DDA is not going to go away, and universities need to get off their sometimes high academic horses and follow the experience of others who have already had to grapple with it. They are fortunate that there are organisations with experience of teaching the disabled - in terms of expertise in particular disabilities and in the teaching methods needed to overcome them - that are willing to pass on their knowledge at a reasonable price.

When I was informed that I was going to go blind, I contacted the Royal National Institute for the Blind - not, you will note, my "local university". I wanted to know what questions I should ask and how I should go about re-training. I was admitted to the RNIB's rehabilitation centre in Torquay where I trained to use my computer again and learnt other coping skills.

When I entered higher education, however, I met with discrimination and had to withdraw prematurely from my course at the University of Central Lancashire.

I felt the university saw me as the problem and did not take my views on my problems or possible solutions seriously. As a result, the university admitted to not providing adequate support and paid me an out-of-court settlement of £8,000 and had to pay their own expenses.

Most disabled people know the kind of help they need when seeking higher education. Many have come from specialist schools or the mainstream where these problems were addressed and solved. It could be argued that not to involve a disabled person in addressing their teaching needs is in itself discriminating.

When the new act comes into force, cases will be heard in the county court in the full glare of the public eye. Potential loss of income could bump up settlements into the six-figure region. Uclan's £8,000 payout may seem a bargain by comparison.

Universities need to embrace the spirit of the act. They may learn something and find that the disabled contribute to the spice of university life. But they need to act now. Non-participation and ignorance of the law will not help them. The act talks about doing what is reasonable: doing nothing is not reasonable.

Peter Nicholson is founder of the Sound Sense and Vision Charitable Trust.

* Are universities doing enough to prepare for the DDA? Email soapbox@thes.co.uk

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