Under the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act it will be unlawful for colleges to treat disabled applicants less favourably than any other students. Education providers must also ensure that their premises accommodate the needs of disabled students.
"It's not been illegal to discriminate against disabled students until now," said Bert Massie, chair of the Disability Rights Commission. "All colleges had to do was have a policy on disabled students: there was nothing which forced that policy to be positive.
"Colleges will have to start thinking about what they do. Is admissions material available in Braille?"
By September 2003 colleges will be expected to have made reasonable adjustments to their premises to accommodate disabled students. In many cases, says Mr Massie, such changes are simple and inexpensive: painting doors a bright colour to assist visually impaired students, or having someone on hand in the library to retrieve books from high shelves.
The DRC has launched a confidential helpline for colleges. "Colleges have to make quite difficult, complex choices. You cannot have every single college in the land suited to the need of every single disability," said Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges.
DRC helpline: 08457 622 633; textphone: 08457 622 644