A case for change

A new law means that children with special needs have a weapon in their fight for equal treatment. Caroline Haydon reports on one girl's legal victory
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The Independent Online

When Sophie Needham found a secondary school that would welcome her as a pupil, her mother, Claire, breathed a sigh of relief. Sophie has cerebral palsy and Claire had battled since Sophie's early schooldays to keep her in a mainstream school, following the same educational path as her peers.

The respite didn't last long, though. At first, the school adapted accommodation and made the premises easier for Sophie's wheelchair, but a difficulty quickly arose over her two full-time teaching assistants. Both left, and Sophie had to try and continue school life with a series of temporary appointments. "She had a total of 14 different staff," says Claire. "I couldn't train any of them. Sophie went very quiet, which is her way of reacting to difficulties. She couldn't get to lessons. I had to leave my part-time job and go in nearly every day to look after her. The school even suggested she stayed at home at one point."

But Sophie has now won a case at a special educational needs and disability tribunal, which ruled that she had been discriminated against. The school, the tribunal says, failed to provide continuity in the recruitment of support staff.

With more than one million young people under 24 with a disability (as defined under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995), there are many like Sophie who are finding it difficult to get an education. They include not only wheelchair users, but also many with hearing or visual impairments, dyslexia, and severe forms of epilepsy, diabetes or eczema. A boy with severe eczema has, in another successful case, been allowed to wear cotton trousers to school rather than the regulation flannel trousers that inflamed his skin to such an extent he could barely walk.

Since September 2002, schools have had to ensure that all pupils with disabilities are treated no less favourably than others, and are not disadvantaged in any aspect of school life, from teaching and learning, to access to after-school clubs or the lunch queue.

A series of tribunal cases taken by the new kid on the equal opportunities block, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) is gradually ensuring not only that, individually, disabled children have a reasonable education, but also that schools, colleges and universities understand the message that they have to gear up for the sea-change expected by 2006, when disabilities legislation catches up with race laws. By then, institutions will be legally obliged to promote equal opportunities, and will have a duty to anticipate the needs of the disabled, rather than adapt to them on a case-by-case basis.

Beth Coxon, a DRC legal officer, says that schools have been working for many years through special-needs departments to include more pupils, but many people may be unaware that the DRC can now offer advice on disability-related claims. Many more could benefit, she feels. "People can get initial advice from the helpline and, if necessary, will be referred to our casework department," she says. The only reason more claims have not reached tribunal stage is that the DRC casework team has had considerable success in negotiating settlements, a better result all round if children need to stay in the schools concerned rather than move on.

Tribunals do not order financial compensation for school pupils, but can order appropriate provision or training, and, crucially, an apology. That can be very important to the complainant, says Coxon. And there is scope for innovative remedies - if a disabled pupil has missed a school trip, for example, another could be ordered.

As the rolling legislation moves on, FE colleges and universities will be expected to make premises accessible to the disabled by 2005 (schools won't be given a deadline). Only one in 20 disabled people is at an FE college or university compared with one in 10 of the rest of the population.

Claire's relief at the result of her daughter's case will be recognised by other parents who have borne the burden of fighting for their child's education as well as actually caring for them. "The help we have received has been a lifeline. It is just so important to us that Sophie is able to receive an education," she says.

Some names have been changed