We would love to be able to say that reporting issues and making complaints to education institutions was easy and risk free but in all honesty we cannot say this. We hope this guide will help equip you to navigate these processes as constructively as possible to get the outcomes you need to study effectively as a disabled student.
It can be helpful to see the process of reporting issues and making formal complaints like a game which has rules, players with different motivations and indeed levels of power within the institution. This can help reduce how hurtful and painful unhelpful or negative reactions to you can feel. Power is hard to define and ableism is one such set of structures. If you like academic reading, we can highly recommend Dr Sara Ahmed’s work on Complaint. While Ahmed’s main focus is sexual harassment, she does cover other types of discrimination and the general issues and responses are remarkably similar.
Whatever happens, we recommend all your engagement and correspondence with your education institution needs to be aimed for an ultimate complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) or the courts all along. Whatever happens, you have to remain reasonable, polite and engaged with all your support even if the Education Institution behaves terribly towards you. A good rule of thumb is to imagine everything you write is read aloud in open court and in front of people you like and respect.
Stage 0: Preparation
Disclose your disability to the education institution
We recommend that where possible, all disabled students (who are eligible under the Equality Act or DDA definition of disability) tell (disclose) their disability status and provide evidence to the education provider. This is so the institution knows they have a duty to the student and has an opportunity to discuss your access needs and get things put in place..
Discuss and plan your support with the institution
If you know you will have certain access needs to manage Higher Education, after disclosure is the time to discuss this with your provider. You do not need to know what you need, especially if you have never studied at Higher Education level before. Your institution’s disability support services should be able to help you work out what you might need. You should be given clear information about what the institution will do to support you, preferably in writing. If you don’t get this, do ask for it (in writing). You may find your needs change throughout your course, or you discover unexpected barriers. You should always be able to go back to your institution and request a review of your support needs.
Disability Rights UK have a ‘Common adjustments you may need while studying‘ page.
Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA)
It is usually worth applying for Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) because your university does not have to provide support that DSA would otherwise provide or fund (more information is in our evidence leaflet). DSA provides you a “needs assessment” of your personal needs in the form of an informal 1:1 structured interview by a third party assessment centre. You can request a draft of your DSA report before it is sent to your funding body to make sure the assessor has described your disability and barriers correctly. DSA can fund equipment, limited types of human support (since 2016ish many support roles have become the education provider’s responsibility), travel support and a few other things.
If you want details about how to apply for DSA, search for your funding body name + DSA + guidance to find the relevant details as things do vary by funding body and indeed over time.
Disability Rights UK have a good UK-wide DSA page.
Stage 1: Requesting/getting access
Record your access request
Make sure that there is proof that you have requested a specific type of access and that the institution has received this request. This could be in the form of a student support plan or correspondence. Do not assume because it is in a DSA or other report that the institution will act on it without a specific request from you (even if they should do that). Always make your requests in plenty of time as services can be busy and allowing time for things to be put in place helps your institution get things in place before you need them.
Report early, report often
If you experience access issues or any kind of discrimination we recommend reporting them to someone at the institution as soon as possible. Reporting doesn’t have to be complaining, it can be about letting the institution know and giving them a chance to resolve things quickly so you can access your education. Reporting issues early and keeping records of those reports is also useful in case issues become persistent and you need to start escalating complaints.
Who to report to
Deciding where to report issues can be tricky so as a loose guide we suggest:
- If the issue is very serious such as harassment or immediately dangerous to your safety – consider going to Stage 3 of this guidance.
- If it is an academic issue, talk to the relevant tutor or your personal tutor in the first instance but if they are unable to help, speak to student services.
- If it is any other department e.g. library, talk to frontline staff in that area first.
- If you are unsure, then ask your personal tutor or someone in disability or student services.
If you decide to make an informal face to face or phone report, consider recording the call or interaction and following up by email. Making the report by email all along has the advantage of being more easily recordable, but can be seen to be excessively formal. If your issue is initially resolved quickly, one trick can be to thank the person or department who sorted it out in an email so you have evidence of the minor issue having happened and been resolved very informally.
If one or more issues happen a lot, you probably need to make one or two more Stage 1 style reports and or be willing to quickly escalate to ‘Stage 2‘ complaints. This is because issues can just continue to occur and the institution can claim that if you did not persistently make reports or complain that you could not have really cared or been affected. Also, escalation may get the attention of staff with more effective power who can resolve them where other staff cannot.
Institutions often claim their records of issues are less frequent than yours unless you can prove that your evidence of issues and reports are more accurate. Any evidence that you can collect will help your case. This can mean you have to make a lot of tedious repetitive reports, so think about quick and easy ways you can do that (create a template email, log things in a spreadsheet, take photos or video on your phone). An example of this can happen around unreliable lifts. You need to be prepared to report every single failing you encounter in a recordable way so you can show a series of emails.
If there are a minority of staff who are ignoring your access needs or discriminating against you in some way, they can technically be held personally liable (Technical Guidance paragraph 3.22-3.39); especially if the university has provided them with training and recommendations to follow that they are ignoring. Naming individual staff can be both powerful and risky – so we recommend doing it with extreme care.
You may wish to (calmly!) tell staff who refuse to make adjustments or who behave badly that you intend to complain and will be mentioning them by name and role. If this does not get the issue resolved, then follow your threat and name people. When you name people in a complaint, make sure you are naming the correct people, keep your words as factual and ‘un-emotive’ as possible, do not make accusations about motives, just report the facts – behaviours and words and if relevant, the impact upon you.
Be wary of ‘nice’ people
Often when issues are reported, staff do seem to take them seriously and can seem very eager to help you sort them out. Sometimes staff can ask or encourage you not to report very serious or repeated issues in formal complaints processes as they say they will sort things out instead. Many staff at education institutions don’t realise how difficult it can be to get changes (especially accessibility ones) actually made as the same delaying, disorganised, unaccountable tactics that are used on students can be used on staff working for students as well. In the same ways a disabled student can acquire what we call complainant-stigma, someone trying to help students can acquire complainant-stigma too. Some staff react to this stigma or difficulties by just quietly giving up and forget or avoid thinking about the fact that you are relying on them – especially if they haven’t expected to become stigmatised. So consider your timescales, maybe allow helpful staff a short period of time, but be clear that no matter how well meaning anyone is, if issues are not resolved quickly, you will escalate your complaint.
If asked to complain – take the hint!
Sometimes staff are genuinely trying to help but are being blocked by the institution being obstructive, in some way. If staff tell you or hint (they may not be allowed to tell you outright to complain) that you should complain, that is a very strong message. A constructive complaint about the relevant issues can suddenly mean the staff trying to help have some leverage. Often institutions won’t do anything until there is a formal complaint they cannot avoid.
You may wish to read Chapter 7 of the Technical Guidance for Further and Higher Education Providers about reasonable adjustments, the different types, how they apply to education and case studies.
Stage 2: Dealing with initial refusals or first formal complaint stages
Repeating and reframing requests
Sometimes if you ask for types of access or adjustments you can get a refusal which is what we call an “automatic no”, a ‘no’ which has been said without proper thought. This can sometimes be overturned by a polite repeat of your request and explanation about why you are put at a disadvantage and why your access request is necessary and reasonable. You may wish to ask the education institution staff why they are refusing and if they can suggest an alternative adjustment which still meets your needs as the duty to make adjustments belongs to the education provider.
We can recommend the letter templates by Disabled At Uni.
Another useful tactic can be to put your request in writing. Always keep your correspondence polite, brief and factual. Avoid bad or rude language, or being derogatory or abusive about people. Avoid making claims about anyone’s intentions and stick to facts and impact on your ability to access your education. Another thing is to think carefully about the difference between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’, you are entitled to support for your needs but if it is perceived as a preference rather than a disadvantage this can be used against you.
Outline what the issue is, why it puts you at a disadvantage and why your suggested outcome will resolve the issue. Make sure disability services are copied into this complaint. If you have an individual support plan, DSA report or other document that disability services have access to, which supports your request, make reference to it.
Set a reasonable timeframe of 1-2 weeks for a reply. Be clear about any access needs you have around communication or correspondence. Say what you want as an outcome. Ask for any refusals to be justified and for the responder to make alternative suggestions that would meet your needs.
Be prepared to escalate further
Education providers are notorious for claiming your complaint wasn’t made to the right people, or in the right way. These are blatant lies, if you complained in a recordable way to reasonable members of staff (such as your Personal Tutor and Disability services) then the institution clearly knew you were complaining and trying to get things changed, which makes them liable for their staff actions (or inactions). It is university employees’ responsibility to escalate up their appropriate chain of management if they can’t sort things out on their own.
Disputing your disability
Sometimes Education Providers will try the tactic of claiming that you are not genuinely disabled despite implementing their own processes for disabled students and you getting DSA (which requires Equality Act or DDA standard proof of disability status).
You may find DSUK’s evidence page and Reasonable Access’s Proving Disability pages useful.
Stage 3: Dealing with serious, or persistent refusals or issues
If an issue is very serious, or you are experiencing ongoing issues, or multiple earlier complaints have not resolved things, then you should make an explicitly formal complaint and write “Formal Complaint” on every page (in the header for example). Higher Education providers can sometimes claim that previous complaints were “not complaints” because they were not processed as formal enough.
Most institutions have a formal complaints process. It is up to you if you wish to engage with that, or escalate your complaint higher. If you engage with the institution’s complaint system, be aware they can be poor at sticking to their own processes or timescales. Sometimes it can be easier to think of complaints processes as a game you have to play to get what you want rather than something you invest significant emotional energy into.
Think about what outcomes you want from formal complaints such as:
- Resolution of access issue(s).
- Provision of certain adjustments.
- Written apology/apologies.
- Mitigation of any disadvantage you experienced due to complaint-issues.
- Financial compensation.
You may have to repeat information from your previous complaint letters which is tedious. Again, keep all complaints calm, factual and as brief as you can. Be clear that if you do not receive a satisfactory response you will escalate to a Letter Before Action or go to the relevant ombudsman.
Right to Participate have a range of Education Complaint Template Letters
Stage 4: External complaints routes.
Legally you have 6 calendar months from the date of a ‘discriminatory act’ such as direct discrimination or harassment, or when ‘a reasonable adjustment should reasonably have been provided’ to be able to submit a formal complaint to a court. Even if ‘going legal’ is not your plan, after this time you have less ‘pressure power’ against your education provider. The judgement about the timing of when a reasonable adjustment ‘should reasonably have been provided’ is ultimately made by a court judge with variable knowledge or confidence with the Equality Act or disability issues.
You can try and seek legal advice which we know isn’t always easy to find or write a Letter Before Action which does take a bit of effort but may scare your institution into behaving themselves. You also have the option of using ombudsman style services.
England & Wales (Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA))
If you have exhausted complaints, are still unhappy and you don’t feel legal action is viable, you can go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) up to one year after your issue occurred. The OIA usually requires you to have exhausted your institution’s complaints procedure and have been given a “letter of completion”. If your institution is refusing to provide the letter of completion and you have engaged with their complaints process or are getting no outcomes, contact the OIA for advice. When complaining to the OIA follow their guidance carefully, they are more interested in evidence that the Education Institution has not followed its own procedures, or the procedures and policies are not reasonable than legal iss ues around discrimination.
Submitting a complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator extends the usual 6 calendar months legal timescale from 6 to 9 months (Technical guidance para 15.10). However, most Education Institution complaints processes plus the OIA investigation time take much longer than this, so it doesn’t leave you with a backup option of going to courts. The OIA will not investigate a claim which has been issued in the courts.
It is hard to know how useful the OIA are in practice. Negatives are that the OIA cannot declare that disability discrimination has happened (see case law OIA v Maxwell) and solicitors like Sinclairs Law recommend not using the OIA. Positives are that using the OIA has zero financial costs risks to applicants, universities can be scared of them and they are less formal and complex than the courts. The OIA should make adjustments for your disability needs.
Students can also ‘raise a concern’ with the Quality Assurance Agency Scotland (QAAS) around regularly occurring or systemic malpractices in Scottish further and higher education institutions. One off complaints are not suitable for this route.
Northern Irish students can complain to their university’s respective “visitor” or raise a complaint with the Northern Ireland Public Sector Ombudsman (NIPSO) within 6 months of receiving the university’s final decision.
Face to Face Meetings
Higher Education institutions can insist on having face to face meetings at various stages to discuss the complaint issues. Sometimes these can be useful and constructive, issues can be discussed, outcomes agreed and discrimination can be resolved. Other times meetings can themselves be toxic and used to intimidate and distress complainants or stall for time. You need to be seen to engage constructively at all times, which may involve things which seem pointless or frustrating. Turning up, attempting to engage in good faith and having to complain afterwards that the engagement was a waste of your time and energy can be more useful than being seen to refuse to even try which can be held against you and used to support a claim that you escalated unreasonably and too quickly.
Useful things to ask before meetings
It can be useful to ask for information about who will attend the meeting and clearly request any adjustments you will need in advance. If staff do not suggest agreeing a brief agenda in advance, or start of the meeting, it can be useful to ask for this to be done.
Items on the agenda should include:
- Agreeing the purpose of the meeting.
- Arranging any companions or adjustments (see below).
- Reviewing the agenda at the start and adding any new items if needed.
- Estimating how long the meeting will last.
- Agreeing when and how the meeting discussion and outcomes will be documented (and who will see the meeting notes as it is your special category data!).
- Agreeing what outcomes will happen, when they will be provided and how this will be documented.
Take a companion
We recommend taking a companion with you who can help you prepare, take notes and or prompt you around agreed distress or needing-break indicators. While Higher Education Institution rules often require companions to be a fellow student or a students’ union officer; you can request a reasonable adjustment to that rule to have a different companion. If a reasonable companion is refused, that in itself may be something you can complain about as disability discrimination.
Taking notes or recordings
If possible, find a way to visibly take your own notes, ask your companion to take notes, or ask permission to record the meeting as a reasonable adjustment if notetaking is a barrier for you. Making secret recordings of meetings about you and your disability is lawful for your own private use but can be risky if you are caught as it can be used against you.
During any meeting, it is reasonable to ask for information to be repeated, clarified and for you to be given time to consider your responses. You can also ask for breaks and if you realise you are experiencing barriers, try and say something about that as soon as possible.
If you realise after the meeting that you were distressed or could not engage fully, it is worth letting the meeting staff know as quickly as possible. Keep this information brief and factual and avoid blaming anyone unless they were actively bullying you. Try and identify how this affected your participation and what you would like to happen as a result.
Meetings can be framed as ‘mediation’ despite this being known to work poorly where there are large power differentials involved between the complainant and other people involved. Institutions often try to use their own mediation teams, who can sometimes be biased. While it can be a bad idea to refuse mediation entirely, consider asking for an independent mediation service which should be less biased.
If no record of the meeting discussion and outcomes are sent to you within the agreed timescale, send your own summary of what you think was discussed and agreed by email to relevant staff. This is useful evidence of the meeting’s discussion. Also escalate your complaint to the next stage and be clear that the meeting was not effective at achieving the desired outcomes.