It was enough to make a complacent college boss spill his morning coffee. A 16-year-old wheelchair user had won a landmark legal ruling to force his local sixth-form college to admit him as a student. Anthony Ford-Shubrook, who suffers from cerebral palsy, has seven GCSEs and applied to study geography and double IT A-levels at St Dominic's sixth-form college in Middlesex from this autumn. The geography classroom, canteen, library and disabled toilet are on the ground floor of the college, but the IT room is on the first floor and is not accessible to wheelchair users. The college said that Anthony would present a health-and-safety risk, and refused to give him an interview.
This put the college on the wrong side of the law. New anti-discrimination legislation in force from September last year makes it unlawful for disabled students and pupils to be treated "less favourably" without "justification" by schools, colleges or universities. St Dominic's has had to accommodate Anthony, and he started there last month.
Disability-rights campaigners have welcomed the ruling, and expect more cases to follow. Provision for disabled students in further education is patchy, they say. "Cases like this will begin to make provision more even," says Liz Maudslay, policy director at Skill, the national charity for students with disabilities. "Those colleges who are not doing enough will be made to pull their socks up."
Kate Heasman, equality official at lecturers' union Natfhe, agrees. "I'm sure there will be more cases and a rolling effect. I know the college is appealing but I don't think they'll win."
The new legal position was set down in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, known as Senda, which extended the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to cover the education system. It states not only that disabled people must not be treated less favourably without justification, but also that institutions should make "reasonable adjustments" to ensure that a disabled student is not placed at a "substantial disadvantage".
What might constitute justification for less favourable treatment remains to be seen, but in failing to consider Anthony Ford-Shubrook's application, St Dominic's fell foul of the law. The sorts of reasonable adjustments that institutions are required to consider making include providing additional teaching and materials. The law makes it clear that these duties are towards disabled people generally rather than towards individuals. This places an onus on institutions to anticipate the needs of disabled people. "As far as I could tell, the college in Middlesex had not taken the time to develop its risk-assessment procedures," says Liz Maudslay. People's attitudes are the main problem, writes Natasha Hirst, president of the National Union of Students in Wales, who is profoundly deaf. "Colleges need to be aware of and anticipate students' needs, rather than simply reacting to individual cases."
Millions of pounds are being spent by the Learning and Skills Council - the further-education funding body - in an effort to stop colleges breaking the law. Last year £15m was put in, and £40m is being spent both this year and next. The money is going on disability-awareness training and support services for disabled students, including hearing loops and large-print materials (colleges have been obliged to provide these items from this September under the new legislation). Additional cash is being made available for capital projects such as new buildings and lifts - there is a September 2005 deadline for buildings to be made accessible (again, where it is "reasonable" to do so). "There are specific sums earmarked by the LSC for capital improvement, and it's been given three years to get up to scratch, so there shouldn't be any excuse by 2005," says Kate Heasman.
The council knows that non-compliance with the new legislation could be hugely expensive, says Neil Crowther of the Disability Rights Commission. The commission has helped the council to produce guidelines for colleges on how to implement change, but it also supported Anthony Ford-Shubrook's case. "The LSC has done well in bringing about change but I can't speak for individual colleges," says Crowther, who describes the commission's relationship to the council as that of a "critical friend".
Campaigners are happy to acknowledge that the further-education sector deserves credit for the strides it has taken so far. "It's about trying to reach out to otherwise excluded learners, so it's built around a philosophy that's more amenable to disabled learning," says Neil Crowther. "In many ways FE is ahead of the game in responding to the Disability Discrimination Act."
Liz Maudslay agrees. She points out that the funding body that proceeded the Learning and Skills Council set up an inclusive learning committee chaired by Professor John Tomlinson. "They produced a publication [in 1996] that did a lot to alter the perspectives and practices in colleges for the full range of disabilities," she says. "There was a time when provision was limited. You had the annexe out the back with people with a range of difficulties and one dedicated teacher." The best colleges do not see provision for disabled people as an add-on, says Maudslay. "They make themselves inclusive, so learners can attend any course, and continually review their policies and practices."
Judith Norrington, the director of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges, says there is a huge willingness within the sector to be as inclusive as possible, but colleges are restrained by limited funds and the needs of all their students. There are grey areas in the new laws, she says, such as what constitute reasonable adjustments. "There could be a problem with, say, taking somebody who has Tourette's syndrome, who shouts abuse in the middle of a lecture. There has to be a careful balance to make sure we are supporting all learners." Norrington worries that the notion of every college being able to take anyone is unrealistic. "Blind people, those with hearing difficulties, those with learning difficulties - they have very different needs. Should we be saying every college must provide for everyone, or let's look at sensible, area-wide planning?"
Advice and information about disabled provision in further education is available at www.skill.org.ukReuse content