Disabled students are being put through a "revolving door" of low- level courses that curb their ambition and harm their employment chances, a report by the National Union of Students (NUS) says.
The report, "Finding your way through FE", criticises the disproportionate numbers of disabled students on level 1 courses, their lack of progression and the high numbers who end up without either work or a further course.
More than half of all 16- to 24-year-olds with disabilities are out of education and out of work, double the rate of the rest of the population. And the numbers studying in further education have fallen, especially on higher level courses.
Adam Hyland, national disabled students' officer at the NUS, said: "There are tendencies for disabled students to get stuck in a revolving door in FE. The numbers do suggest that there is a big proportion of students who don't get any higher qualifications at all."
Mr Hyland, who has cerebral palsy and studied at college before taking a degree in computing, said colleges were too ready to put disabled students on courses that do not challenge them.
"I believe there is this attitude around disabled people that has capped their aspirations," he said. "Some disabled students aren't even aware of their own capabilities.
"Many look at a prospectus for a college and then, when they go there, the person who meets them has presumed that they will be going on a level 1 course. That happened to me personally. I wanted to study a national diploma, and I had the qualifications to do it. It's a kick in the teeth."
Of about 200 students who completed an NUS online survey - which the union concedes is not necessarily representative - nearly a third had their courses chosen for them by somebody else.
It is not the first time colleges have been placed under scrutiny for failing disabled people. The Disability Rights Commission named and shamed 10 colleges in 2008 for not meeting a deadline to publish plans of how they would meet the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).
And in the same year, the Government gave colleges a five-year deadline to end the "systemic failure" in the recruitment and treatment of disabled staff.
Participants in focus groups for the NUS report said problems persisted with access to colleges, which should have been guaranteed by the DDA. One listed the problems: "Fire doors too heavy to open; windows on doors too high to see through from wheelchair; automatic buttons for doors positioned at top of slope; inaccessible classrooms; accessible toilets not big enough; lifts too small."
Another respondent interviewed said too few colleges looked beyond physical access to the buildings, and some even failed on that count.
"Sadly, but predictably, what counts as `accessible' varies from college to college," he said. "Last year I worked as a disability support worker in an FE college. I tried extremely hard to get equipment allowances for several students. I was repeatedly told that this was not what the discretionary fund was for. If colleges have reasonable physical access, and in many cases even if they don't, they're rarely interested in doing more to make courses accessible to disabled students."
With the capital project cash having dried up, however, some colleges with older, hard-to-adapt buildings may struggle to address access problems.
"The biggest barriers for disabled students are attitude, financial support, and advice and guidance," said Mr Hyland.
To tackle the issue of financial support, the report proposes a similar model to the Disabled Students' Allowance in HE, putting control of the funds directly in the hands of the students so they can choose the support they need.
Instead, FE has Additional Learning Support (ALS), which is provided in a grant to colleges and can be spent on the needs of non-disabled students as well.
Figures in the NUS report suggest that many disabled students are not benefiting from the funds at all. In 200506, there were 4,384 students with disabilities on level 1 and entry-level qualifications in sixth-form colleges, for example, but only 2,749 received ALS - and not all of them were necessarily disabled students.
One focus group participant said: "I've had to fight for reasonable adjustments, handouts in large print on coloured paper and a large-screen monitor, and am considering quitting because of them generally acting as though they know more about my needs than my consultant or I."
The problems are not universal, however, and the report suggests that colleges that effectively direct ALS to disabled students transform their chances of success.
Research by the Learning and Skills Development Agency in 2006 found that without ALS, disabled students were more likely to fail than others. With it, they were more likely to succeed than non-disabled students.
By giving students control of their own education - in line with the Welfare Reform Bill's "right to control" for disabled people in all aspects of their care - the NUS argues that students will be more engaged and able to solve their own problems.
The union hopes it could end stories like that of the student who said: "FE didn't work out for me. They just wanted to shove me on a computer course because it was easier. I got bored and tired of having to fight for my right to do courses I wanted to do."