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11th November 2005 at 00:00
Colleges face being sued by students over breaches of the disability discrimination law. Shekhar Bhatia reports

More than 40 colleges are breaking the law by failing to provide adequate access to wheelchair users according to a leading adviser on access for the disabled.

The claim has come from Sasha Callaghan, equality officer of the lecturers'

union Natfhe who also advises the Trades Union Congress and individual colleges on implementing of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

The act obliges "public authorities", including colleges, to provide full access for people with disabilities - a rule which came into effect in September.

Ms Callaghan says colleges face being sued by students and risk tough sanctions from Government if their inadequacies are uncovered by inspections.

She said: "This is a very serious situation we have regarding access for people in wheelchairs and about 40 to 50 colleges would be found to be breaking the law.

"What is particularly galling is that this is not an entirely new piece of legislation. It has been on the statute book for 10 years, it hasn't just happened overnight."

"It is not always the main campuses which are inaccessible. Community centres and other annexes can cause problems.

"A woman I know who uses a wheelchair tried to enter an Arabic class recently at a college in London, but could not as there was no ramp.

"The caretaker told her she had to go around the back entrance and it took her half-an-hour to get round. This meant that she missed 30 minutes of her lesson and that is unacceptable."

The DDA Act 1995 forbids colleges to discriminate against any disabled person.

They must provide car park access, wide doors, lifts, ramps and adapted toilets.

Ms Callaghan added: "The majority of FE colleges have been really, really good about providing access for students in wheelchairs.

Next year, more aspects of the Act will come into force and Ms Callaghan said colleges should expect a "wake - up call".

Colleges will have to involve disabled students in consultations when making improvements and ensure they are satisfied.

"This is an aggressive piece of legislation from the Government and I know that the Government has put aside money for colleges to make these changes.

"Sometimes it has been ignorance and on other occasions it has been inertia, but the FE sector is in for a very big culture shock."

Staff at one college have told FE Focus that the main access to their building is a flight of steps A lecturer, who asked for the college not to be identified, said: "Access for wheelchair-users is through a side entrance which has to be opened from the inside. Wheelchair-users need to give advance warning of their visit to get in. Once inside, teaching rooms are on ground, first and second floors and the staffrooms are on the first and third floors.

"Originally we were told that the lift would be installed in November, but it was discovered last week that no one had ordered it, so it might be as late as April."

Ms Callaghan declined to name the colleges on her case files because they have been working with her to improve access.

Evan Williams, Association of Colleges' employment policy manager, said:

"The Association of Colleges does not directly monitor the progress of colleges in making adaptations in line with the Act.

"However, we do know from contact with individual colleges that there are many who have gone to great lengths to comply with the Act. If member colleges do feel that they need our assistance to meet the requirements we would ask them to contact us."

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