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Last Updated: Monday, 12 February 2007, 14:46 GMT
Disabled students' rights fight
By Shola Adenekan

student in wheelchair
When Catherine Hudson arrived at university, she faced the daunting task of explaining the issue surrounding her disability to many on campus.

"That myalgic encephalopathy (ME) has had a bad press in the past is to put it lightly," she says.

"Most people still do not understand the complexities of the illness. For me, that means that I'm not always in a wheelchair." Ms Hudson, now a mentor to other disabled students, says she feels that being in a wheelchair is the only badge qualifying her for support. "Why should I have to debate my conditions with strangers if I need help but I'm not using my wheelchair?" she says.

"Unfortunately, many people question others' disabilities if they are invisible." With determination to have good university life, Ms Hudson took action by working with her university's disability steering committee, which has been educating staff about how to react to students with such dilemmas. Ms Hudson is among a wave of disabled students who are demanding a normal university experience.

Legal obligations

Unable to navigate social and educational intricacies, many such students once decided to forego university; or, isolated and depressed, they leave before graduating. From 2002, British universities are legally required to ensure equal opportunity for academically qualified students.

Accepted adjustments include note-takers, extra time for tests (often in distraction-free settings), and single dorm rooms for students for whom normal noise or the flicker of a fluorescent light amounts to sensory overload.

While organisations working on behalf of disabled students acknowledge that the rights of these students have increased since the introduction of the legislation, they point out that acting on those rights remains as difficult as ever.

Exceptions

The introduction of tuition fees, they say, has also hit disabled students particularly hard. In addition to this, the funding system available to them has an upper limit, meaning students with complex access needs often reach their limit and are unable to receive the support they need.

"The vast majority of cases have been settled out of court, meaning that the case law on the Disability Discrimination Act is rare or non-existent," says Alex Kemp, the disabled students' officer for the National Union of Students (NUS).

"Funding a claim is difficult or impossible for disabled students. Reliance on the legal aid system and Disability Rights Commission funding is unsatisfactory for those wanting to enter a claim on a civil matter." Besides, Mr Kemp says, there are wide variations between institutions and how they have responded to the legislation. He says there are lots of "get-out" clauses in the legislation.

Examples, he says, include Cambridge University, where the majority of libraries remain inaccessible to wheelchair users, or Bradford University which has spent millions of pounds on a new atrium which is inaccessible to many.

But Cambridge University's disability adviser, Judith Jesky, says the institution set up a resource centre for disabled students in 2000.

Cambridge is also working with various partners to develop new strategies and policies, and working on how best to support disabled staff and to have an overview of disability.

"A major area of working has been improving access to built estate," she says. "A full access audit was undertaken of the estate out of which a programme of work was developed which is ongoing."

Bradford University said the criticism by the NUS was unfair. Early problems with access had been dealt with.

Jemma Flanagan, disabled students officer for the University of Bradford's Student's Union, who is also a wheelchair user, said: "There isn't any part of our atrium facility that is inaccessible to mobility-impaired people.

"The university takes access for disabled people very seriously and listened to concerns raised during the development of the atrium.

"These concerns have now been fully remedied with a mixture of ramps, push button doors and a lift providing full access to all parts of this facility."

New equipment

Many experts believe our universities have experience of accommodating students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder.

They say teaching students with cognitive delays or mental retardation is the next challenge.

Such students are far more challenging: universities must struggle with not just how these young people learn but with the limits on what they can take in at any one time.

At the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol, the libraries have been equipped with a range of assertive technology and officials say they are making every effort to make online learning material accessible to disabled students.

"These students sometimes require alternative assessment arrangements," says UWE's head of student advice and welfare services, Christine Huggins.

"We have a flexible examinations policy that allows us to make reasonable adjustments and ensure that all disabled students have the opportunity to demonstrate their achievements."

Deaf jokes

While prejudice and stigma still persist, especially for those with mental ill health and learning differences, an increasing number of disabled st udents say they are enjoying campus life.

"I told everyone about my deafness, what I can or can't hear," says Josef Baines, an MSc sport psychology student at London 's Brunel University .

"I made deaf jokes, teased about my own deafness, laughed at others for forgetting that I'm deaf when they tried to call me or shouted my name behind me." Mr Baines says he had some difficulties during the first three months. "But then I learned about group dynamics, how people interact, how and what they talk about so that I could fit in effectively.

"I went to numerous parties and social outings in the past five years, had a brilliant time and can't remember what I did. Ha!"




SEE ALSO
New institute for disabled issues
08 Dec 06 |  Tayside and Central
More help for disabled students
22 Sep 06 |  Leicestershire

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