Access is more than just ramps
Colleges seeking to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act need to do much more than install ramps and lifts and improve their wheelchair access.
They may need to undertake a radical overall of their admissions policies and teaching methods to ensure that disabled students have full access to learning.
This was the message spelt out to delegates at a conference organised by the Royal National Institute for the Blind that focused on how the Act impinges upon post-16 education establishments, one year on from its implementation.
Dianne Keetch, of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), set up to monitor the implementation of the Act, said that, of 6,302 complaints made so far, more than 2,000 relate to the education of disabled people.
"It is not ramps or lifts that they are complaining about," she said, "it is the lack of reasonable adjustments to their teaching.
"It is about admissions programmes being led by people who do not understand disabilities.
"It is about not being permitted to go on trips and placements, with health and safety issues often being cited as the reason. It is about students not being given lecture notes in advance."
The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act, better known as the Disability Discrimination Act part four, came into force last September.
Under the Act, colleges have to take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled students are not disadvantaged in any way.
But evidence compiled by the commission suggests that many colleges still have much to do to meet the requirements. Ms Keetch told the conference that 172 cases concerning education are being investigated .
She cited the example of a student with cerebral palsy who wanted to do engineering, but a college refused to consider him because of his impairment. The commission asked the college about what risk-assessment procedures it had in place.
"A college cannot claim health and safety issues as a reason for refusing a student without undertaking a risk assessment and considering reasonable adjustments to the course to accommodate the student," she said.
Another case she highlighted related to a blind person on a distance-learning course, where the college did not supply accessible materials. When the DRC became involved the college decided to waive the student's fees.
"It is not about agreeing a plan but making sure it happens," she said.
"There needs to be more consultation with the students to discuss their requirements."
A third case involved a student with Downs Syndrome who had been refused admission to a number of colleges before she was eventually accepted by one.
"She wasn't being considered fairly for a place," Ms Keetch said. "She resolved the issue herself by finding a college, which raises concerns about why the others turned her away.
"There is the assumption that people with Downs Syndrome are not capable of taking academic courses. We want colleges to look at each case individually."
From September this year, under the second stage of the Act, colleges have been required to have "auxiliary aids and services" in place for disabled students' needs. Ms Keetch explained that colleges need to plan ahead and have systems in place.
"It is an issue of anticipation," she said. "They can't wait until a blind person turns up on their doorstep. They need to think about their core materials and which organisations they need to approach for materials," she said.
"It means being ready to use the services of sign language interpreters and personal support workers. They need to have lists of professional workers whose services can be called upon. It means having the funding set aside to finance this provision if needed."
She said that colleges should take urgent action to "disability proof" their admissions procedures to ensure they are fair to all.
They also need to train their staff to use different teaching methods so they can adapt to the needs of individuals with disabilities. Ms Keetch said: "Teachers need to be retrained to teach in a way that is accessible to disabled people. They need to be able to plan their classrooms so that all barriers to learning are removed.
"The didactic style, where a teacher stands at the front and imparts information, may not work with students who have visual and hearing impairments."
Many colleges, she added, have very good practices in place.
"But we have come across others that are slow to respond positively. There has been a lot of activity, but there are many institutions that aren't on board yet."