An amendment to the Disability Discrimination Act became law in May, making it unlawful to discriminate against disabled students in education, training and other related services. The legislation will apply from September 2002 in England, Wales and Scotland.
It means that colleges and universities will have to anticipate the needs of disabled students. If a disabled person is put at a substantial disadvantage, colleges will have to make "reasonable adjustment", whether by making physical changes to a building or altering the way a course is delivered.
But while colleges have done a great deal to accommodate disabled students, community provision is still a "grey area", said Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges.
"Colleges are concerned about how community provision fits into the agenda," she said. "We would want to go on supporting the greatest number of students. And we would hope that 'reasonable adjustment' doesn't mean we have to stop supporting some of the students who find these venues valuable because we couldn't adapt the premises entirely. We would look for alternative solutions, such as supplying laptops or other kinds of support. It's a grey area and it does require some sorting out."
The adult education body NIACE is also concerned. "Colleges are large institutions that should be turned around as quickly as possible to make accessibility possible for people with disabilities," said a spokesman.
"But in small community centres, you're at the beck and call of other people's premises."
Hull College has made alterations to its main buildings and has been training staff for the changes. "I think we're ahead of the game," said assistant principal Russell Warren. "But the community issue is a much more tricky one in terms of partnership working and who does what. I could envisage a scenario where we'd have to say 'I'm sorry, we can't deliver that there.' I think that will happen."
For Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology (Gloscat), the new Act has been the main lever for building a pound;19 million campus in Cheltenham. The site it replaces has seven steps every 20 metres across four floors. The college calculated that if it installed 17 lifts, it would still take a disabled person 38 minutes to get across the old site.
But resolving disabled access issues on its main sites seems straightforward compared to its community provision. The college offers courses in a range of venues in rural Gloucestershire. This year the college is asking partners how venues comply with the Disability Discrimination Act as well as health and safety and fire regulations. "Out in the community venues the picture is more tricky," said vice-principal Di Dale. "We have courses in village halls, fire stations, women's institute premises, scout huts, youth and community provision. In the case of youth and community services, they have to address the provision because it's their building, but it leaves us with a problem if we have a student who can't access it."
The Disability Rights Commission has published a code of practice on the post-16 elements of the new Act for consultation. And the Association of Colleges is producing a tool kit to help colleges to prepare.