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Disabled often left in the dark

The educational needs of the disabled can be summarised as "information, information, information", if evidence given to MSPs this week is any guide.

Representatives of disabled groups told the Scottish Parliament's equal opportunities committee, which is holding an inquiry on disability, that major barriers continue to prevent the disabled fulfilling their potential.

Skill Scotland, in its submission, reported that 39 per cent of enquiries last year to its information service on access to further and higher education were about funding issues and 24 per cent about support that would be available. A general theme was the need for more information.

The organisation also pointed to a lack of awareness of how specific disabilities will be supported. "Many students, especially during the transition from school, are concerned that the college or university will not provide a supportive enough environment," it states.

"This is a particular concern for students leaving home for the first time, or for those who are returning to education after a long break."

The need for information also applies to staff in education, employment and the careers service, Skill Scotland believes. They should receive disability equality training "to ensure their practice is inclusive".

The same point was made by students at a meeting with the equal opportunities committee, convened by Skill Scotland and NUS Scotland. "A number of students noted that many careers advisers had a limited knowledge of different types of disabilities or impairments, and the different impacts they can have," a report of the meeting states.

The Disability and Rehabilitation Education Foundation (Dare) suggested to the inquiry that disabled students ought to be given better preparation for college and university while they were in school, so they are steered in the right direction. This should include the early development of skills such as confidence-building, team-working and socialisation.

The charity cautions against providing "care packages". Many disabled students were put on courses that did not lead to qualifications or a recognised vocational skill. "The main barrier to young people who are academically able is that they are often not being given the support and guidance to access appropriate courses," Dare states.

A number of students underlined this point at the meeting with MSPs and stressed that "disabled people must not be steered away from pursuing academic qualifications, and vocational courses must not be used to disguise a lack of progression".

Despite these barriers, colleges are increasingly successful in attracting disabled students. According to the Association of Scotland's Colleges, numbers rose by 64 per cent from 2000 to 2004, when they totalled 24,429.

The figures only represent students with a "declared disability" - an estimated 20 per cent of students do not declare whether or not they have a disability.

The most common reported disability is dyslexia, followed by "unseen disabilities" such as epilepsy and diabetes.

The ASC suggests a "needs-based" approach to bursary support. Colleges are not automatically funded for extra costs if a disabled student has a place on a full-time non-advanced course.

The association comments: "The basic test should be that the individual deserves a place on the course, rather than the extra cost if the student is accepted for that course."

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