Disability success must be preserved for the future

Sally Faraday

Things really have been getting better and better for adults and young people with learning difficulties and disabilities.

There has been a fundamental review of services, with a clear vision for the future, a better legislative framework than ever and positive feedback from learners.

Why then am I apprehensive about the future? In the spirit of enquiry, I'll pose a few more questions, then see if I can find an answer.

Through Inclusion to Excellence is the recently published review of the Learning and Skills Council's plans for post-16 learners with learning difficulties andor disabilities.

It comes almost a decade after the landmark publication Inclusive Learning and shows that, while considerable progress has been made, the job is not yet done.

In 1996, students with learning difficulties said they wanted learning support as soon as possible after enrolment and specialist equipment to be available at the start of courses so that they did not fall behind. They wanted to get into and move around college with the same ease and freedom as other students.

Now their main message is that the high quality of learning support provided has been key to their success and they want to preserve it for future generations.

Students also wanted all staff to receive training in disability issues so they understand their needs better. These needs include better guidance and induction to courses and an all-agency approach to resolving transport failings.

On the plus side, we have been involved in several large-scale projects to ensure that staff in colleges, adult and community learning, work-based learning and other places are aware of the legislation and how to deal with it.

The review report is open for consultation. If its recommendations are to be translated into practice, then a "radical transformation" will be on the way. This is a potential big plus.

But does the current policy and financial climate plant the seeds of radical transformation? Reports do not automatically get put into practice.

The action required for systemic change - "mainstreaming" the needs of these students into every single decision - is an enormous challenge to both the LSC and those it funds.

At a policy level, the legislative framework has continued to build during the 21st century. The Learning and Skills Act of 2000 strengthened the previous duty to "have regard" to the needs of learners with learning difficulties and disabilities and conferred on the LSC a new duty to promote equality of opportunity for them.

The Disability Discrimination Act, from September 2002, gave disabled learners rights not to be discriminated against and to have "reasonable adjustments" made so they can study.

The latest, and perhaps most important, piece in the legislative jigsaw is the forthcoming Duty to Promote Disability Equality (DED) that will place a general duty on all public-sector organisations to eliminate unlawful discrimination, promote equality and take account of people's disabilities, even if this means treating them more favourably than others.

Remember, this is the law, not a whim, or new policy initiative or "flavour of the month". But how can we be sure that the impact of strategy and policy decisions on learners with learning difficulties and disabilities is considered as a matter of course, not just an afterthought? What will the impact be on people with learning difficulties and disabilities of cutting or "co-funding" adult learning? Will it be disproportionate?

Much of the provision that has been cut is precisely that which attracts some of the most marginalised people, such as those with mental health difficulties, back to learning. And since incapacity benefit is not means-tested, these students are also excluded from fee remission.

Transformation is not just about designing programmes, support and adjustments. It is much more about implementing general strategies that open up access for all. The new "measures of success", introduced by the LSC, are one example of how this could be achieved. The LSC has also committed itself to carry out an assessment of these new measures by involving disabled people in the process. A double plus.

So let me weigh up the pluses and minuses. On the one hand we have a review with an optimistic, yet realistic view of the future, a supportive legislative environment for disabled people, much progress and some excellent examples of practice On the other hand, times are tough, finances are getting tighter and priorities are shifting. To find where the balance lies and just how much progress we have made, I'll pose one final question.

Will every strategy, policy, funding and planning document coming out from now until the end of the year have considered the impact of its proposals on learners with learning difficulties and disabilities?

Sally Faraday, LSDA research manager, writes here in a personal capacity.

Copies of a recent LSDA guide on risk assessment "I don't want to sue - I just want to get a life" are available from Information Services at LSDA.

Tel: 020 7297 9144.

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Sally Faraday

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