Under the new Disability Discrimination Act, employers from all sectors will be legally obliged to treat disabled people on the same basis as the able-bodied.
However, concern from the Department for Education and Employment over the costs for educational establishments meant an exemption clause designed to cover them was written into the new Act.
Colleges and schools have been told they will not face the same obligations as other businesses to ensure all goods and services are offered to disabled people just as to the able-bodied.
But for colleges the exemption only covers part of the work they do. It applies to courses paid for by the Further Education Funding Council but not to those funded in other ways, such as through training and enterprise councils, employers and private individuals paying fees. That means they face operating under two different legal regimes at once.
The loophole caused alarm at the Association for Colleges, which fears members could be required to pay high sums on building adaptations. The association is consulting the DFEE on the Act, which it believes will hit colleges with old accommodation which is difficult to adapt.
John Brennan, AFC policy director, said there was no doubt colleges were committed to the principle behind the legislation. But he added: "I can't see how you can run an institution on the basis of meeting two sets of requirements.
"That means that in practice colleges have to regard the goods and services part of the legislation whether it was intended or not."
Many colleges will already have made many of the necessary changes, but under the new law they will have to make "reasonable adjustments to the work environment" to accommodate any disability experienced by staff.
The AFC fears the legislation could put considerable financial pressure on colleges at a time when funds are tighter than ever even though it does give some flexibility of interpretation.