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    Universities struggle with disabled students

    by Rumbold on 18th August, 2009 at 9:05 PM    

    A recent survey has revealed that many universities aren’t meeting the needs of some disabled students:

    “A report by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign suggests one in 10 disabled students were not be able to live or eat on university sites. About 40% of the 78 institutions surveyed did not have rooms for carers, resulting in students living at home. Universities UK says disabled students benefit from a wide range of support.

    The report, by the charity’s Trailblazers nationwide network of 16-30 year olds, questioned universities across the UK. Almost all said they could provide support in lectures or seminars for students with mobility difficulties. But only four universities said that every one of their buildings had a fully accessible toilet for disabled students.”

    Now, there are obviously limits to how much universities can do, given the cost and time needed to convert certain buildings, but there is clearly room for improvement.

    This highlights a wider problem for me though. I think that one of the problems that some organisations have when dealing with disability is that they (unintentionally) tend of think of it mainly in terms of purely physical disability, with the focus on things like wheelchair ramps. While this is admirable and necessary, often too little thought is spared for those with mental difficulties (though again, there is only so much an organisation can do).

    The routemaster/bendy bus was a good example of this. The debate was focused on how the new buses would provide a better service for disabled people. This was true in the case of wheelchairs, but I know people with learning difficulties who have struggled with transportation in the past, and they benefited from the services of the conductor (who could spend more time on them than a driver could). Again, it is good that buses now are more equipped to deal with wheelchairs, but people must always remember that just because someone doesn’t ‘look’ disabled it doesn’t mean that they don’t need help.

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    Filed in: Disability

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    1. Shatterface — on 19th August, 2009 at 1:11 AM  

      When you refer to ‘learning difficulties’ are you refering to conditions with perceptual or social defecits, such as dyslexia or autism, or do you also include people with low cognitive intelligence, for whom higher education isn’t suitable by definition, and who would be better off studying journalism or something at the local technical college?

    2. Halima — on 19th August, 2009 at 5:45 AM  

      Are universities not covered by the disability care of duty which is obligatory for public sector organisations? Universities raise their funds through a variety of sources - but government contributes significantly and should be able to encourage third-party voluntary compliance as part of its own work on disability awareness.

    3. Sofia — on 19th August, 2009 at 11:29 AM  

      I think it doesn’t have to do with just changing physical environments, but about attitude..how many of these universities leave it up to the disability officer to deal with cases?? It’s not just one person’s job..it’s employer and employee responsibility to actively promote disability equality in all areas…legislation is often the first step. I find students with disabilities are often made to feel ’separate’ and not included into mainstream student life….

    4. Rumbold — on 19th August, 2009 at 12:17 PM  

      Agreed Sofia. We can’t just leave it to ‘designated’ persons.


      I think that universities are covered by the legislation. I think that we need a sea change in attitude.


      In the context of unviersity life I was thinking of those who are suited to university. With the bus debate I was thinking of a broader range. Apologies for the confusion.

    5. chimurenga — on 19th August, 2009 at 7:44 PM  

      Shatterface ->you beauty.

    6. Tom — on 23rd August, 2009 at 10:30 AM  

      Good article.

      I have slight autism with, I am told, high intelligence.

      I have just been turned down for a job with a well known advice agency which claims to oppose discrimination. I told them about my disability in advance.

      The job was for a *telephone* adviser, and I was turned down on the grounds (without apparent irony) that I did not make enough eye contact at the interview. I am qualified for the job and have worked in a similar position for two years before being made redundant. Due to the difficulty getting employed that was the only proper job I have ever had.

      I could have been a good engineer or computer programmer, but could not get through university courses which included lots of (to me) unintelligeble stuff on management theory etc. even though this has nothing to do with any of my intended careers. I achieved oustanding grades in the technical areas but failed the overall courses.

      Most people do not see this as discrimantion because they justify it by saying these things are ‘useful skills’ or ‘important’. They are useful and important in life, but so is walking. I doubt however they would fail to make adjustments for a person who could not walk.

    7. Charlieman — on 23rd August, 2009 at 9:30 PM  

      I’ve worked in the IT Services department at a popular university (as rated by students) for more than 15 years. When I joined the department, the university welfare department was the first port of call for students with special requirements because the team that now addresses accessibility was in formation. One of the first things that the accessibility team achieved was to get local authorities to stump up for laptops and appropriate software. Today they do a lot more and are much more integrated within university decision making.

      All departments now have an equality representative to monitor possible discrimination, intentional or otherwise. In spite of external pressures, universities are still staffed by liberal minded people with good intentions. My own department shares the role of equality representative because people wanted to do it.

      The building in which I work is not wheel chair accessible; everyone knows that and we work to provide student facilities in more appropriate locations. But the reality is that we would find it difficult to accommodate a worker who required a wheel chair.

      In my own field, awareness of accessibility is simply “just there”. Web pages and e-Learning resources have to work for everyone. We aren’t perfect but we are getting better. IT provision for examinations and course work improves annually. Don’t limit your conception of software accessibility to screen readers or braille printers; there are outliners, for example, that help those with cognitive problems to develop their ideas. Those tools work well for “normal” students too.

      Building accessibility is going to be a long term problem. Most universities have a thirty year programme of building rework. A lot of universities started on minor improvements three or so years ago — better dropped pavements, better ramps, automatic doors — but don’t expect universal toilets anytime soon. Owing to the economic imperative, expect universal accommodation much more quickly — residence and conference departments demand that provision.

      Rumbold’s final paragraphs are pretty good. Technology is not a complete solution for accessibility and we need to demonstrate more appreciation of the human contribution.

      My experience is my experience. Other universities may vary.

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