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Doors opened for the disabled

Further education colleges and universities will have to become even more "disabled friendly" as the final stage of the Disability Discrimination Act came into force yesterday (Thursday).

Under the Act, colleges and universities must make "reasonable" changes to ensure premises are more accessible to disabled students. Failure to do so may result in students taking court action.

Campuses will have to ensure that lecture halls, libraries, ICT suites and halls of residence comply with the legislation. This includes altering steps, providing lifts, dropping kerbs, better lighting and clear signs.

Adam Gaines, Scottish director of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), commented: "No matter how accessible the teaching is, it's not much use if you can't get in the door."

Mr Gaines said it was encouraging that numbers of disabled students have risen over recent years. The latest figures for 2003-04 show there were 24,429 officially disabled students in FE colleges (6.6 per cent of all students), with another 12,089 (5.3 per cent) on higher education courses.

The commission says these figures underestimate the position, since a significant proportion of students do not declare a disability.

Figures for 2004 show that 22,000 disabled students applied for FE or HE courses through the University and College Admissions System (Ucas). But research by the Disability Rights Commission in 2002 found that among disabled young people who had not gone on to college or university, 30 per cent felt they were prevented from doing so for a reason related to their impairment.

The terms of the Act are "the final piece of the jigsaw" for those providing post-16 education. Since September 2002, it has been unlawful to discriminate against disabled students by treating them less favourably than others. A year later, colleges and universities were placed under a statutory obligation to ensure that aids such as software for dyslexic students and notetakers for visually impaired students were available.

One institution that believes it is fully "inclusive and accessible" is Aberdeen College, which has been running "disability awareness" sessions for all staff for more than 15 years. In 1994, it was awarded "access centre" status in recognition of the physical accessibility of the campus buildings, the equipment in place and staff expertise.

Pat Geddes, the college's student development and access centre manager, said that keeping staff up to date and aware of the issues was crucial.

Among other measures the college has taken are the appointment of 16 classroom support assistants, four communicators for the deaf, enabling technology, automatic doors on all buildings, lifts to all floors, disabled toilets with evacuation alerts for the hard-of-hearing, adjustable seating in classrooms and handrails on all stairs.

The college also set up a disability forum seven years ago to act as a point of contact between disabled students and college management. Robert Warman, a member of the forum, commented: "Since the mid-1980s, considerable work to the physical environment has taken place at the college."

Mr Warman pays tribute to the college's senior management for taking the suggestions of students seriously. Aged 38, he has been a wheelchair user since being injured in an accident. He began at Aberdeen College as a part-time student in 2001 and is now studying computing full-time. He hopes to train as a teacher.

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