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Students with physical disabilities

Options:     Print Version - Students with physical disabilities, part 1 Print view

Article Sections

  1. General support issues – the infrastructure
  2. Academic study
  3. Whole student experience
  4. Reference and further reading

By Margaret Adolphus

Accessibility … means that success in higher education does not depend on physical and sensory abilities of a person but on his/her academic merit (ESIB, 2003; p. 21).

General support issues – the infrastructure

The broader environment – the country in which you live or propose to study, your chosen institution, student support groups, the finances you are able to get together – will have a significant impact on the extent to which you are able to mobilize the resources and services discussed in this study guide.

Every country differs and this article can cover only a selection. For those wishing to access information regarding countries not covered here, the Swedish organization, The Independent Living Institute, provides information on a worldwide basis for particular universities and countries.

Legislative situation

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to education, but this is not legally binding. Article 14 and Article 2 of the first protocol of the European Convention of Human Rights makes a similar declaration, and is binding on European member countries.

While the basic premise that every person is entitled to full participation in social and economic opportunities is gradually gaining acceptance throughout the world, the position as far as education is concerned varies from country to country. Many countries have some sort of anti-disability legislation, but you will need to check with your own government offices or department of education whether such legislation covers educational institutions.

Australia has had anti-discrimination legislation in force since 1992, and students with disabilities currently have the same rights with regard to access, services and facilities as do students who do not have a disability, while inclusive teaching is positively promoted.

In the UK, the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act came into force for schools and colleges in September 2002, requiring that institutions make "reasonable adjustments" to accommodate students with disabilities, which could include longer time to complete assignments, provision of auxiliary aids and other services, and ensuring that their websites comply with accessibility guidelines. In 2005, under the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act the requirement was extended to adapt physical features, such as buildings, to ensure that students with disabilities were not put at a physical disadvantage.

In the US, disability legislation is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 covers all recipients of federal grants (which is most public and private colleges and universities), while Title II covers all public institutions. Section 504 stipulates that:

  • All buildings designed after 1977 must be accessible, whereas those designed before 1977 must offer accessible programmes.
  • Appropriate aids and adjustments must be offered such as taped texts, note takers, interpreters and readers. Colleges and universities are not, however, obliged to provide such devices as wheelchairs, attendants, etc.

You can read more about this on the US Department for Education website.

Institutional support

You should check whether your university has a policy on disability issues. If it does, get hold of a copy of the document, and check how it relates to national legislation, how it enforces its policy, and what steps it takes to remove any barriers that may impede students with disabilities.

Many universities have a member of staff whose specific role is to look after the needs of students with disabilities, with a title such as disability support officer or disability coordinator, and some universities may actually have a specific programme for their students.

Examples

The University of New South Wales, Australia, provides a range of services for students with disabilities including note takers, sign interpreters, readers, library assistance, special parking and assistive technology.

Sheffield Hallam University in the UK provides a whole range of services that start off with an assessment of need.

Wisconsin Madison, USA, through its McBurney Disability Resource Centre provides direct support services to students with disabilities and states its vision as "a universally accessible educational community that fosters the full participation and contribution of every member ... ".

The University of Cambridge, UK, is committed to supporting students with disabilities and college staff, and its Disability Resource Centre assesses and caters for their needs.

Collective action – working with other students

Students often work together in groups to campaign for better rights. Groups cannot only give individual members support; they can work out their requirements together, highlight problems and fight for improved access through greater strength in numbers.

Contact your students' union, either at your institution or at a national level, to see what groups there are. In the UK, the National Union of Students has a special campaign for students with disabilities.

Financial issues

Some students are able to get grants to help their study: you should check your country's regulations on this. If you have a disability you may need particular financial help to accommodate your needs. The website http://www.disability.gov provides useful information for students with disabilities in the US; see http://www.skill.org.uk for information for students with disabilities in the UK, where you may be eligible for a Disabled Student Allowance (DSA).

There are also particular grants to help students with disabilities, for example Erasmus grants can be higher for students with severe disabilities.