Small is beautiful for Scots

October 4, 1996

The Disability Discrimination Act aims to encourage institutions to provide a better service for students with disabilities. Scotland's compactness has allowed the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council to take a different approach from its English counterpart. While support for students with disabilities south of the border has tended to be based on competitive bidding, SHEFC has ensured that every one of its 21 colleges and universities is taking action, writes Olga Wojtas.

As well as producing reports on provision, and a guide for students, it has given Pounds 2 million for equipment and improved access to buildings. Institutions have formed regional consortia to share expensive equipment, and the universities of Abertay Dundee, Dundee, St Andrews and The Northern College have helped fund Scotland's first higher education access centre which allows students with disabilities to have their needs assessed.

SHEFC has also allocated Pounds 200,000 a year over three years to help provide coordinators for students with disabilities in every institution. National coordinator Paul Brown said: "The advisers are a catalyst for change, and the students feel it has legitimised any claims they make. It has changed their perception from thinking they are asking for some kind of special treatment to more of a right, because institutions themselves are recognising their needs."

The advisers have frequently discovered more students with disabilities during the academic year. Napier University, for example, knew of several dozen students with dyslexia, but by the start of last session, the numbers disclosing this had risen to 70, with over 30 more who were unaware of their condition being diagnosed as dyslexic during the year. These included a mature student about to sit his finals, who had struggled through his course but could not cope with the honours dissertation.

Deryck Collingwood, Napier's special needs coordinator, said: "People have been told at school that they're either stupid or lazy, and they're therefore reticent in coming forward in case they get told this again." Napier employs an educational psychologist part-time, and dyslexic students can be given extra writing time in exams, use a computer with special software or dictate their answers.

Some students are wary of disclosing disabilities in case they are rejected, but a SHEFC study revealed they would have been reassured by positive attitudes from institutions about their attendance. SHEFC's disability advisory group is helping institutions to draw up disability statements that reflect good- will as well as formal procedures.

neil turner Skill notes the government's expectation that colleges will give disabled students the "access and support necessary to pursue their studies".

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