University Challenges

Mature student Linda Ring believed that she had little option
but to abandon her health studies degree. Her depression meant that
she was struggling to cope with some aspects of the course, and
despite asking her university for help, she did not receive the
support she needed to continue.

A particular problem was her phobia of oral presentations. She
was having panic attacks during lectures and was worried that she
might have one while she was doing a presentation. But when she
asked whether the course could accommodate her fear of
presentations – she didn’t have a problem with the
coursework and exams – she was refused.

“I was made to feel it was just me trying to make up excuses for
not wanting to take part in delivering oral presentations,” she

Ring was under immense stress at home – both her husband
and her daughter had been unwell – and she was suffering from
health problems herself. But when she spoke to her tutor (who was,
ironically, an experienced clinical psychologist) about the impact
of her home life on her ability to cope with the course, she was
simply told: “Don’t make it a problem.”

“I left my course because I felt no help, understanding, or
allowances were made to assist me to stay. I could have continued
with the course if I had been provided with proper support,” says

“Universities need to take on board the fact that, like myself,
there are many people who feel excluded because they cannot tailor
their illness to jump all the hurdles some of the courses set.”

Ring had been saving for 20 years to go to university and is
upset that she was unable to finish her degree.

“I would love to return but this experience has put me off as I
still suffer from depression. But living and coping with depression
is not a yardstick to measure intelligence.”

In theory, stories such as this should now be in the past.
Ring’s negative experience dates to the 1997-8 academic year
and since then a lot has changed, primarily because of legislation
requiring universities to offer more support. The Disability
Discrimination Act 1995 was amended by the Special Educational
Needs and Disability Act 2001, and now, under part four of the
Disability Discrimination Act, it is unlawful for education and
training providers, including universities, to discriminate against
disabled people. The act covers admission and enrolment; the
provision of student services, which includes education, leisure
facilities and accommodation; and exclusions. (1)

As a result of this legislation, institutions are obliged to
make reasonable adjustments for disabled students. These can
include changing course content, including work placements;
adapting examination procedures such as allowing extra time or rest
breaks; and providing information in different formats. For
example, a visually impaired student who submits essays
electronically could reasonably expect the lecturer to return them
electronically, without handwritten comments that they find
impossible to read.

Yvonne Dickinson, acting director of the National Disability
Team, which supports higher education institutions as they improve
provision for disabled students, says the legislation has forced
institutions to face up to their responsibilities.

She says: “Ten years ago a disabled student at university would
have been a welfare issue. The individual would probably have had
to go to the welfare or disability office in a Portakabin in a car
park. The support would have been very isolated and wouldn’t
have reflected any part of the student’s learning and
teaching experience. Within an institution there would have been
one or two people who dealt with everything to do with disability,
and no one else would have had ownership of it.”

By contrast, universities now receive money from the Higher
Education Funding Council for England to support disabled students,
and many have a team to help with disability issues. More
importantly, disability awareness has begun to permeate throughout
the range of university services and staff, including those
involved in teaching students. But changing the attitudes of
academics has not always been easy.

Dickinson says: “Good practice is for lecturers to make their
notes and handouts available before their lecture. But there are
still lecturers who say ‘I have been teaching my way for 20
years, I don’t use handouts and I’m not
changing’. There is the accusation of making it easy, but
it’s actually a very constructive and positive way to
encourage students to do research and preparatory work. It also
helps lecturers themselves to be more organised.”

Over recent years, universities have become more proactive about
explaining the support they can offer. Whereas in the past disabled
students would have needed to visit an institution to assess its
suitability, relevant information now tends to be detailed in the
prospectus. Disabled students are clearly becoming more encouraged
to apply – in 1994-5 just 2 per cent of higher education
students were known to be disabled compared with 5.39 per cent in

Of course, this increase may be due to more disabled students
choosing to disclose their disability, perhaps because of changes
in social attitudes or because doing so means that their university
is then required by law to address their needs – an
institution is unlikely to be found to be discriminatory if there
was no way it could have identified a need. However, under the
legislation, institutions also have a duty to anticipate disabled
people’s needs and to make general adjustments, such as
posting lecture notes on the intranet.

This is an area where many universities are failing, says Jenni
Dyer, policy director at Skill: National Bureau for Students with

“Not enough resources are being put into general adjustments,”
she says. “Universities are good when an individual needs
adjustments but they are not doing enough to anticipate disabled
students’ needs.”

Needless to say, if enough general adjustments are in place,
fewer disabled students will need to disclose their disabilities to
gain extra support.

While universities are expected to encourage students to
disclose, there is no duty on the student to do so – and some
are afraid of the potential consequences, particularly if they
mention their disability on their application form.

Alongside direct support from their university, many disabled
students are also entitled to additional funding from the disabled
students’ allowances (DSA), which are intended to cover extra
costs or expenses that arise because of their disability. The four
allowances cover specialist equipment, such as a radio microphone
system or a tape recorder; non-medical help, such as a sign
language interpreter or a note-taker; general expenditure, such as
extra books for students unable to study in the library or for
higher heating costs if more time is spent studying at home; and
additional travel costs.

The allowances, which are awarded by local education authorities
in England and Wales and by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland,
are not means-tested, and different amounts are awarded according
to need. That there is a cap on the amounts available can cause
problems. Students with complex needs, such as those who are deaf
and blind, can easily exceed the £11,840 that is available
each year for non-medical help.

Dyer says: “Universities are not good at plugging the gap when
the DSA runs out. They rely on DSA to fund students and when that
runs out they don’t know what to do.”

She recalls a blind student whose DSA ran out in April, just
before his final exams. He needed a note-taker but the university
told him there was nothing it could do.

Overall, however, Dyer does believe that the situation is
improving. “It would be unfair to say that universities are not
trying hard but there is still a long way to go to ensure they meet
the legislation,” she says. “For most universities it is about the
bottom line and the minimum they have to do. They say they are
cash-strapped but universities are multi-million pound businesses.
We find it hard when they haggle over £100 worth of support
for disabled students.”

And even though more than 5 per cent of students are disabled,
she finds that attitudes can be difficult to transform.

“I train a lot of universities and talk to members of staff,”
says Dyer. “But the people at the training sessions are the people
who are interested in disability. It’s the people who
don’t come who are the ones who need to be trained.”

  1. Disability Discrimination Act (1995), A Guide for Disabled
    People, Skill: National Bureau for Students with Disabilities,

‘Attitudes of others are main

Sarah-Jane Rhead, 22, has ankylosing spondylitis, a rheumatic
condition that causes pain in her joints and makes her tired. She
finished university this summer and has just started work as a
secondary school teacher.

In 2001 Rhead started her degree at a university in south west
England. She chose her particular university because it had a good
reputation for her chosen subject and had a compact campus, with
everything on site and a direct bus into town every few

Before she went she got in touch with the university to make
sure it was suitable for her. With the learning support
department’s help she was assured that she would be able to
live on site for the duration of her course. This was an unusual
concession but her condition would have made it exhausting for her
to travel, particularly if she was carrying books.

During her course she received disabled students’
allowances and was able to buy textbooks that she would otherwise
have had to carry from the library. She also received a computer as
part of the allowance and had internet access in her room.

However, her need for a note-taker for lectures caused
difficulties. “The main problem was the attitude of the director of
studies. I was not allowed a professional note-taker because he
didn’t want a stranger in his lectures. In a lecture hall of
200 students you wouldn’t think that one more would make a
difference but apparently it does,” she says.

In the end, she shared a student note-taker with others who
needed similar help, but this wasn’t ideal as she had to wait
several days for photocopied, handwritten notes that weren’t
always up to scratch.

Rhead was also awarded enough money to use an amanuensis –
a scribe – in her exams. She dictated all her first-year
exams, but the amanuensis proved unreliable and so in the second
and third years she wrote the answers herself, but was given double
the time allowance in which to do so.

Rhead, who gained a first-class degree, says other
people’s attitudes are the biggest barrier that disabled
people face, as her note-taker discovered when Rhead went on to
teacher training after her degree.

“She was asked how someone who needs a note-taker could be a
teacher. But I don’t need to write essays to be a teacher,”
says Rhead.


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