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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 September 2005, 03:39 GMT 04:39 UK
Disabled students get new rights
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News website disability affairs correspondent

Photo of a wheelchair user wearing a mortar board
Colleges must now provide step-free routes into buildings
New laws giving disabled students greater access to post-16 education come into effect on Thursday.

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) now obliges colleges and universities to make alterations to buildings to improve access.

Such changes include providing step-free routes into buildings, lifts, dropping kerbs and improving lighting.

The Disability Rights Commission says too many disabled students do not apply for places because access is poor.

Research conducted in 2002, among young disabled people, showed that almost a third of those who chose not to go into further or higher education felt they were prevented from doing so by their impairment.

Ambitions

"Going on to further and higher education is key for disabled people to get the skills they need to fulfil their ambitions," said commission chairman Bert Massie.

Mr Massie says physical access to campuses is a key part of this, because no matter how accessible the teaching, it is of little use if students are unable to get through the door.

This is the latest part of the process of applying disability legislation to further and higher education.

In 2002 a fairer admissions procedure was introduced, and in 2003 institutions had a duty to provide extra services and equipment like large print and sign language interpreters.

Photo of a group of adult learners
The new measures affect all adult learners

"I hope this will be a smooth transmission because providers have had plenty of warning that this was coming," said Barbra Waters, chief executive of Skill - the National Bureau of Students with Disabilities.

She says large sums of money have been made available specifically to improve disabled access - for example the Higher Education Funding Council for England has spent more that 170m over the last four years.

Ms Waters believes that in the long term establishments will have to look at their buildings and determine whether they are still "fit for purpose".

"It's not about the building, it's about the education," she said.

"If your building is unsuitable for delivering education you shouldn't be using it anyway."

Ancient buildings

Some of the most challenging institutions to make accessible are the older universities which own ancient buildings.

The University of Oxford has more than 200 buildings, 36 of which are listed.

But according to Oxford's diversity and equal opportunities officer, Judith Finch, considerable progress has already been made with a programme of further building works to be carried out.

Almost 3m has already been spent on improvements with a further 2.2m to come.

"We've done all the major lifts that we wanted to do, we've put hearing loops in the libraries and lecture theatres and we've carried out all the lighting works that had to be done," she said.

The university now has 1,000 disabled students - out of a total population of 20,000 - and now produces an access guide for prospective entrants.

Photo of a listed building with a ramped entrance
Making listed buildings accessible can involve large sums of money

Making Oxford more disabled-friendly is not something that the university can "get over and done with", according to Ms Finch.

"I think we see this as part of the programme of works that we always have in Oxford - disability access is now part and parcel of that," she said.

Cambridge University - which now boasts almost 800 disabled students - has also undertaken an extensive programme of access audits on its buildings and has completed half of the necessary works.

Cambridge also has a disabled students' resource centre on the ground floor of one of its buildings which is a showcase of inclusive design.

While disabled students will now be able to go to court to have their rights upheld, the sector is bracing itself for an even more profound change for next year.

From 2006 establishments covered by the current legislation will have a duty to eliminate discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people.

So the onus will shift from individuals having to prove that they have been discriminated against to providers having to show that they are treating people fairly.


SEE ALSO:
New rights for disabled students
24 Sep 03 |  Education


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