Disabled students still face significant barriers, with gaps between institutions' policy and practice, an Economic and Social Research Council research project has found.
The two and a half year study, by Teresa Tinklin and Sheila Riddell of Edinburgh University and Alastair Wilson of Glasgow University, unveiled at an Edinburgh conference last week, found students critical of the lack of support they received for teaching and learning.
Colleges and universities across the UK had taken account of disabled students in policies ranging from admissions to estates and buildings, the researchers found. But case studies of 48 students showed that disability was tackled mainly by student support staff, with many academics unaware of what was needed.
The case studies found that most students with mobility difficulties had problems in getting around the campus, while those with mental health problems or dyslexia were often not assessed until they had experienced overwhelming difficulties. There were repeated failures to give students with visual impairments handouts in advance or in alternative formats, and a number of students said their choice of institution had been affected by the availability of support.
"Many disabled students were isolated and lacked the social networks in which much informal learning takes place," the report states. "They struggled to persuade often reluctant staff to make reasonable adjustments.
The culture of some institutions and subject areas was particularly hostile with staff expressing fears over the erosion of standards as a result of the requirement to accommodate disabled students."
The research also found that disabled students were more likely to be white, male and from the more advantaged social classes.
Universities and colleges face further pressures as a result of the Disability Discrimination Act. It imposes a duty of care on them with regard to students who have mental health problems.
But Mike Hobbs, chairman of the student mental health working party at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said last week: "There is a job to be done in ensuring that these efforts are matched by the NHS."
A report from the college last year on mental health said up to one in four students suffered from some kind of emotional problem during their time in higher education. Eight per cent sought support from counselling services.