Craig Mill warns colleges of possible legal challenges ahead under new disability legislation
The Special Needs and Disability Act 2001 (SENDA) requires further and higher education institutions to make "reasonable adjustments" to comply with part of the legislation which came into force last September.
This is to ensure that students with disabilities or learning difficulties are not discriminated against or placed at a substantial disadvantage in all areas of college life and associated services to students, in particular teaching and teaching resources which include online or e-learning environments.
It is now unlawful for institutions to treat a disabled person "less favourably" than they treat or would treat a non-disabled person for a reason that relates to the person's disability. For example, it would be unlawful for an institution to turn a disabled person away from a course, or refuse to provide accessible teaching materials if that person had dyslexia or was deaf.
The question colleges and other "responsible bodies" must ask themselves is to what extent and to what degree they are in a position to make "reasonable adjustments" to ensure that they are not contravening the new legislation.
Moreover, the law requires adjustments to be made in anticipation of those who might need them. Colleges must, as part of their development plans, make strategic plans outlining how anticipatory adjustments are to be made and paid for in both the short and long term. One point to remember is that if adjustments are anticipated, the need for some students to disclose their disability may disappear.
Imagine the following. Sheila is studying for an HNC in an office administration-related discipline. Although she experienced some difficulties at school, she devised her own coping strategies and managed to get by. However, as her college course progresses, she is increasingly having difficulties with her coursework, in particular writing essays and reports.
Her handwriting is poor but she is able to use her computer at home to type her essays. But when she is at college she is unable to set the college computers to reflect her personal preferences, for example changing background colours and font size, and is worried she is falling behind.
Sheila has told her course tutor lecturer that she is becoming anxious about her predicament. While she hasn't been formerly tested or diagnosed as being dyslexic, she reflects many of the contributory signs. For example, there is a history of dyslexia within the family.
Moreover, there are also occasions when Sheila's receptive language skills (the way the brain processes spoken and written language) and her expressive language skills (writing and oral communication) somehow seem to let her down.
Additionally, because of an accident when she was young, Sheila also has difficulties with fine motor skills. While this doesn't affect her in any other aspects of her life, she encounters problems when using a standard keyboard and mouse. Despite Sheila's cognitive difficulties, she has above average intelligence for her age.
At a glance, Sheila's difficulties may appear to be complicated and problematic to solve. The reality is that any reasonable adjustments required to assist and empower her to complete her course are minimal and cost nothing to implement.
When Sheila uses her computer at home she is able to set her personal preferences in "accessibility options" which comes with all versions of Windows since Windows 95. For example, in order to overcome any dexterity problems, Sheila is able to modify the keyboard by using FilterKeys to slow down the keyboard response.
By changing her mouse settings she is able to have a large pointer on the desktop and can switch between the primary and secondary buttons to suit her needs for tasks such as selecting or dragging.
If she changes background colour to a light yellow with black text (as recommended by the Dyslexia Association), increases the size of the menu fonts and uses a "non-proportional" font, she is able to read her scanned handouts and write her essays with relative ease. When she uses the internet for research, she can increase the text size on the browser and change the background colours to suit her preferences.
The reason why Sheila is unable to use the college computers as effectively as she does at home is because Windows accessibility options have not been installed. Because of previous problems with computer settings being tampered with by "adventurous" students, the computer technicians have decided to "lock down" the computers providing limited access to all settings within Windows.
Therein lies a moral dilemma for many colleges, in particular for those concerned with support services in IT and networks. While Sheila's difficulties can be overcome by making "reasonable adjustments" to a computer, college policy may dictate that access to Windows settings be minimised as much as possible. This could well lead colleges to break the law. So they need to revise their guidelines covering their IT strategy.
Ways of securing computer workstations and their supporting networks to minimise damage or security while allowing students to make adjustments to reflect their needs, will need to be carefully thought through and implemented.
The fundamental issue at stake here is that students who have specific needs similar to those of Sheila are increasingly becoming commonplace.
Institutions will need to avoid possible prosecution involving students accusing them of not anticipating their needs, or of failing to meet their needs.
Craig Mill is a specialist with AbilityNet, a charitable organisation whose main aim is to promote the use of accessible technology for disabled people (www.abilitynet.co.uk). This article first appeared in the spring edition of the FE journal Broadcast.