Standards fears hinder disability law take-up

May 7, 2004

Universities are failing to comply with disability discrimination laws 18 months after they came into force, a leading law firm said this week after it found 23 problem areas during an audit at the London School of Economics.

Commercial law firm Bond Pearce told The Times Higher this week that it had made 23 recommendations for changes to ensure that the LSE complied with the legislation. These exclude any adjustments to the school's buildings required under a later implementation deadline of next year.

It said that academics in elite institutions appeared reluctant to make the adjustments to help students with disabilities during exams and assessments. This was due to an ill-conceived fear of compromising standards by giving such students an advantage.

"While most institutions are pretty geared up for making physical changes to ensure ease of access, it's the non-built environment that remains a problem," said Tony Askham, head of the Bond Pearce education team. "What we're seeing in many cases is a failure to grasp the full implications of the Disability Discrimination Act."

The 1995 act came into force in September 2002 for universities and colleges. It requires institutions to make "reasonable adjustments" to accommodate disabled students or applicants. This could include allowing disabled students more time to complete assessments and providing auxiliary aids and other services.

Lip-reading deaf students could make claims if a lecturer spoke while facing a blackboard, for example. Blind applicants could sue if a university did not have Braille or large-print prospectuses.

From September next year, changes to buildings will be mandatory.

The solicitor who carried out the LSE audit, Melissa Godfrey, said she found many aspects of best practice at the university and applauded the LSE for undertaking the audit. But she said that all elite institutions suffered from entrenched attitudes about exam and assessment standards that made cultural changes difficult.

"I wouldn't want to call it arrogance, but they do seem to think of themselves in a different league and that doesn't always fit with making adjustments for students," she said.

Her concerns were echoed by Jean Jameson, the LSE's disabled student adviser. "I find that some of the more modern universities are way ahead compared with the traditional academic universities that have never had to struggle to recruit students."

She said academics at the top institutions believed incorrectly that adjustments made for disabled students could compromise standards by giving them an unfair advantage in exams.

"We had one student with a spinal condition who had to lie flat on his back for ten minutes at regular intervals during exams," she said.

"One academic pointed out that he was still able to think during the breaks, so he had an unfair advantage that could be quantified. I asked if he could quantify the disadvantage the student would suffer by sitting the exam through constant pain."

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