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Students with physical disabilities

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.


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 provides useful information for students with disabilities in the US; see 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.

Academic study

This section explores some of the facilities and services which may make study easier for you.

In some countries it may be the law to provide these, however, even if it is not the law where you live, you can still suggest them to your university.

Admissions and induction

Will the institution provide you with particular support and information on provision for people with disabilities during the application process, such as a Braille or large-print prospectus? Will it allow you to arrive earlier than other students for the induction?

You may be hesitant about disclosing your disability, but doing so will make it easier for the institution to provide what you need, such as reading matter in the appropriate format and adaptations to buildings.

Built environment

These days it is good practice when designing new buildings to consider the needs of people with disabilities. In earlier times sensibilities were not so advanced. However, older buildings can be adapted to meet the needs of students with disabilities through:

  • enabling wheelchair users to move between floors, down outdoor pathways, into lecture halls and auditoriums (do these have space for wheelchairs?), cafes, gyms, toilets, etc.;
  • provision of way-finding aids which do not depend on sight, for example Braille notices and tactile paving, and good colour contrasts on signs and buildings;
  • lighting and acoustic conditions which are suitable for the needs of those with sight or hearing impairments;
  • considering the transport needs of those with walking difficulties if there are distances between buildings;
  • ensuring that hearing loops are functioning, and providing optical equivalents (e.g. flashing lights) of sound-based signals, e.g. sirens or fire alarms;
  • ensuring that classes do not take place in rooms which have unsuitable air quality for asthma or allergy sufferers;
  • ensuring that parking is accessible;
  • providing exercise areas for guide dogs.

Examinations and assessments

Everyone finds these stressful, but you need to make sure that your disability or problem does not add too much to the stress. For example, can alternative examination and assessment arrangements be made, and can you have longer to complete the assessments if you need to use assistive technology? Can you be given extra help with planning assessments and with revision? In actual examinations, are the officers and invigilators aware of possible problems, so that plans can be made? For example, if you are deaf you won't be able to hear the time warnings, if you have a spinal problem you may need to lie flat on your back for 10 minutes, if you are blind you will need the paper in an alternative format.


Should treat you with respect and lead other students in so doing. It is important that you explain your problem to the lecturer concerned so that you can get their cooperation.

IT support

In many ways, the revolution in information and communications technology has made life easier for those with a disability – for example, printed material in electronic form can be read with a screen reader, and there is a wide range of specialist equipment which can help.

The Web is a good enabler for people with disabilities, providing the website is accessible according to guidelines specified by the World Wide Web consortium – the Web Accessibility Initiative. Your university website and intranet should comply to these guidelines as a matter of good practice at least – or even of law in some countries.

Computers should be adapted so that they can be operated by switch or voice input. If you have photosensitive epilepsy, adjustments may need to be made to the monitor to avoid flickering. Scanners should be provided so that you can scan material into electronic format.


Classes need to be held in places which are accessible.

If you are deaf or hearing disabled, can you have a sign language interpreter? Or can you get someone to record the lecturer and then get a copy typist to type it? (This may also help those who get tired easily or find sitting for long periods painful.) Can the lecturer make his or her lecture notes available? Can you arrange to sit in the front row and lip-read? (If so, make sure that the lecturer is aware of your problem and does not talk with back to class when he/she turns to the whiteboard!)

If you are blind or visually disabled, the lecturer should explain visual aids.

Reading material

Most universities produce a wide range of reading material around courses: book lists, handouts, etc. If you have a visual disability these should be supplied in a different format: Braille, large print, tape, or in electronic form on a disc or on the intranet.

Is it possible to get handouts and booklists in advance, to give you more time to prepare?


On postgraduate courses such as MBAs, much work will be done in seminars so the "teacher" will not just be one individual but several – i.e. the other students! Relying on a tape recording after the event means that you miss the chance to participate. Sign language interpreters are an obvious bonus here, but if you have to rely on lip-reading, make sure that everybody understands this and that they face you when they talk. For both signing and lip-reading, turn taking, and avoidance of people talking on top of one another, is vital.

Study skills

Can you get special help with areas of need, for example, research technique, reading, writing, time management, revision for exams?

If you are deaf or hard of hearing, can you have a qualified support teacher or tutor, e.g. for language tuition and concept support?

The whole area of study skills can prove particularly problematic for disabled PhD students, who might be thought to have "mastered" these by the time they pursue advanced study, but who may experience particular problems because of the uniqueness of the issues and because of having to use research techniques at a much more advanced level. They may need to use alternative approaches to research, for example semi-structured interviews by telephone is not a method that can easily be used (at least without assistive technology) if you are deaf or have a speech disability. Students' supervisors should be sensitive enough to discuss adaptation of common research techniques to particular situations.

Timetables and the curriculum

This refers both to the content of the curriculum of a particular course, and the way that it is put together in a sequence of activities.

Can the curriculum be adapted to meet particular requirements, for example if it requires discussion and you have a communication problem with speech or hearing?

Can the duration of seminars and tutorials be suited to the needs of your assistive technology, for example if you are using a speech synthesizer?

Are all areas where classes are timetabled accessible? Do students have to travel long distances between classes, which may be difficult for those with mobility problems?

Many courses depend explicitly or implicitly on informal learning opportunities, for example, groups of students on MBA courses may get together in the cafeteria to discuss a group assignment: such areas should be accessible.

Whole student experience

Important though academic issues are, the experience of being a student is about more than attending lectures and passing exams.


Does the university provide accommodation which is on campus and accessible, for example is there specially adapted furniture, is it easy to move around with a wheelchair? If not, can the university help you find such accommodation?

Does the accommodation have a textphone for the benefit of hearing students with disabilities, or is such available in the students' union?

Assistive technology

Assistive technology is a general term for technological aids which can help you live independently, and covers a range of areas including mobility, the home, as well as all forms of communication. Examples include powered wheelchairs, clothing aids, textphones and personal alarm systems, speech synthesizers and other communication tools, stairlifts, tactile watches, and specially adapted mobile phones, etc. There are also a number of ways of adapting computers.

Some educational establishments use assistive technology as part of their core curricula activities.

At the Open University (the UK-based, world-famous distance learning university), the OU Access Centre offers up-to-date information on the types of assistive technology available as well as training.

In Bhavnagar, India, the AT&T Technology Park (run by a disability society) provides courses in technology for students with disabilities, for example in database management and web design.


If you are a research student, attending conferences can be an excellent way of networking, not to mention the possibility of presenting papers. Is it possible to get help attending them?

Field trips

On some courses, learning takes place away from the comfort zone of the campus, for example, some MBA schemes have leadership development courses which involve, say, mountain climbing, Antarctic exploration or spending time with the Marine Corps as a way of gaining leadership experience. Should you want to sample such opportunities, you need to check that there will be facilities that meet your needs.


Libraries can do much to help students with disabilities, perhaps even with a dedicated member of staff who looks after special needs. Practical ways of helping include having private study areas, longer book loans, special arrangements for photocopying, and arranging where possible to put course material into alternative formats.

Personal assistants and guides

Some universities provide students with disabilities with a guide or personal assistant to help them with their personal, social and academic needs while they are on campus. These assistants are available on a 24 hour basis and help them attend lectures, take notes (possibly offering sign interpretation) as well as with personal and social needs such as washing and dressing and visiting pubs and clubs.


Exploring sexuality is an important part of campus life for many students. If you suffer from a severe physical disability, you may need someone to help you undress, or to take you to clubs of your preference.


Remember that you are in higher education because of your ability and not your disability. Recognizing your own worth can help you take charge of your life, and not just rely on what other people may or may not do for you. It's important to remember, too, that asking for things which will help you overcome your disability can also improve other's lives. For example, everyone will benefit from: having course material in electronic as well as printed format; talking turn in seminars; having clearly marked walkways; not having lectures in places where the air is dirty.

So, if life is made easier for you as a disabled student, it will also be better for your colleagues.

Reference and further reading


ESIB – The National Union of Students in Europe (2003), European Student Handbook on Equality and Equal Access, ESIB, available at: [accessed October 12 2009].

Further reading

Checklist for university disability information and self-assessment questions, available from the Independent Living Institute, [accessed November 17 2009].

The needs of students with disabilities in further and higher education, information booklet from Skill: National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, [accessed November 17 2009].