Dave McCarthy, Technology for Disabilities Information Service
So what does the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act mean for the UK Higher Education community? Firstly, it begins to bring education into line with the rest of society by removing the educational exemption from the DDA. In practical terms there are several key areas that should be highlighted from the Act:
From 1 September 2002 it will be unlawful to discriminate against disabled students by treating them less favourably than others. Institutions must make reasonable adjustments to provision where students with disabilities would otherwise be at a substantial disadvantage. This will include discrimination:
in the arrangements an institution makes for determining admissions or enrolment
in the terms on which an institution offers to admit or enrol a student
in the services that an institution offers to its students
These 'student services' are any services that an institution provides for students, and may include:
- lectures, seminars and laboratory work;
- examination and assessment;
- out of classroom work;
- financial advice;
- physical environment;
- graduation ceremonies;
- leisure, recreation, entertainment and sports facilities;
- work placements;
- information and communication technologies
Some of the adjustments that institutions may have to make will be to:
- Allow disabled students more than the usual 'one hour at a time' access to college computers
- Allow disabled students to use computers for examinations.
- Waive the usual charge for access to the college intranet from students' home computers can be waived for disabled students who need it.
- Make disabled students wait no longer than other users to get their computers fixed by technical support staff
- Introduce a policy of checking all new electronic courseware to ensure it is accessible to disabled students
From 1 September 2003 institutions will have to make adjustments to any auxiliary aids and services to avoid discrimination. This might include the installation of induction loops in classrooms, the provision of a sign-language interpreter, the provision of lecture notes or course materials in an alternative format (on disc, on-line, Braille), or providing training for IT support staff on working with disabled people and their equipment
From 1 September 2005 institutions will be required to make adjustments to physical features of premises, where these put disabled students at a substantial disadvantage. This might include installing ramps at entrances, widening doors or installing lifts.
It is important to note that that this Act applies to those who are recognised as disabled under the terms of the SENDA, which is that a person has a disability if he or she has a mental or physical impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse affect on his or her ability to carry out normal day to day activities. An enjoinder to this, though, is the realisation that there is an anticipatory aspect to the legislation, which means that institutions have an anticipatory duty to people with disabilities as a whole, not merely specific individuals. This means that an institution should not wait until a disabled person is accepted on to a course before making any adjustments, but should anticipate those requirements. Failure to anticipate a requirement may mean that an adjustment cannot be made when it is required. Lack of notice would probably not provide a defence to the allegation that an adjustment should have been made.
It is clear from much of what is written above that a certain amount of judgement will be required in the implementation of this legislation; terms such as 'reasonable adjustment', 'substantial disadvantage' and 'normal day to day activities' are used throughout. The draft Code of Practice (www.drc-gb.org/drc/InformationAndLegislation/Page34A.asp) on this legislation is seeking to clarify what is meant by these phrases. For instance, 'normal day to day activities' are classed as those which are carried out by most people on a fairly regular and frequent basis, thereby potentially excluding a large range of activities which are normal for students, but not for most other people (such as sitting long exams, or having to concentrate through a whole day of lectures). The best way of ensuring that an institution does not stray on to the wrong side of these statements is to ensure that best practice is adhered to all at times.
The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) launched a new service, the Technology for Disabilities Information Service (TechDis) on 9 May 2001. TechDis has a stated aim to enhance access to all activities across Further and Higher Education for those with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. This will be done by providing strategic and operational support, practical advice, and brokerage of good and innovative practice. The impact of the legislation on the services an institution may provide through technology will be significant. For instance, many institutions provide information to staff and students through an intranet, or through a publicly available website, and these will have to be made accessible in order to comply with the legislation. Issues such as these will force the realisation upon institutions that accessibility is about more than merely putting ramps in buildings and widening doors, and that compliance with the SENDA will require work in all areas of policy and practice, from staff development to admissions, estates and IT policy.
Advice and information on supporting students with disabilities can also be sought from other sources, such as the HEFCE/DELNI's National Disability Team (www.natdisteam.ac.uk), or Skill: the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities (www.skill.org.uk). Further information on these can be provided by TechDis.