The Equality Act and Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) (Northern Ireland only) both contain a requirement for Further and Higher Education Providers to make anticipatory “Reasonable Adjustments”. Barriers to access for disabled people should be considered and mitigated in advance and all aspects of the institution’s practices should be as accessible as possible by design. In practice, there can be a lack of consistency between and even within institutions in recognising barriers, nevermind mitigating against them through accessible design or inclusive practices.
While there is an anticipatory duty to make adjustments, education providers can sometimes claim they didn’t know you were disabled. The law says it’s about if they could “reasonably have known” if you were disabled or not. While some impairments are visible, many are not, and it is best to avoid giving any chance for plausible deniability.
Higher Education Providers are required to encourage students to disclose so opportunities will be provided:
- On application via UCAS and other application forms.
- At the start of your course.
- At any time during your course.
You should not be subjected to any detriment if you disclose before starting your course.
We recommend reading our evidence leaflet for advice on what is needed to disclose. You should also make sure any face-to-face or phonecalls are followed up by an email documenting your understanding. It is lawful to record phonecalls for your own purposes.
Some universities generate a support plan for each registered disabled student which is usually a summary of “reasonable adjustments” that disability services believe will reduce or remove the substantial disadvantages you would otherwise experience.
There is a lot of variation in how much universities collaborate with students about the content of their support plan. The adjustments chosen should legally be tailored for your individual access needs and be appropriate. We recommend taking an active part in drafting your support plan, or asking for a review of an existing support plan if you realise your plan is not sufficient to meet your needs.
The support plan can be vital if you need to complain about its recommendations not being met. It can also be useful to have even a basic support plan if you don’t feel you do need much support in case things change later (it is often easier/quicker to get a plan updated than created from scratch).
Who is entitled to reasonable adjustments?
In basic legal terms someone is entitled to reasonable adjustments (support) if all of the below:
- They are disabled under the DDA or Equality Act (see our evidence guide).
- They are put at a substantial disadvantage (or ‘unreasonably difficult‘ under the DDA) by:
- Policies and practices – “how things are done”.
- The built environment.
- The lack of an auxiliary aid or service (e.g. specialist software, or a sign language interpreter).
- There are “reasonable steps” that the Education Provider can take to reduce or remove the disadvantage.
Substantial disadvantage or unreasonably difficult does not have to mean impossible. They could include:
- Takes a lot more time.
- Is a lot more difficult.
- Leaves you unable to achieve as well as you should do.
- Causes pain, indignity or anxiety about the barrier.
- Creates financial hardship.
Professional and Competence standards
Exceptions to the reasonable adjustments duty are Competence Standards which are things like proving your capabilities or knowledge. They apply to exams, where you can’t ask for the exam standard to be changed for disability.
While competence standards can’t be changed, how they are assessed may be something that can be adjusted e.g. format of exam, or extra time provided where time is not part of the competency.
For further info we recommend: Equality Challenge Unit  “Understanding the interaction of competence standards and reasonable adjustments” [Online as PDF and Word] https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/understanding-interaction-competence-standards-and-reasonable-adjustments]
The Health & Care Professions Council has Becoming a Health and Care Professionals Guide which is worth reading.
Adjustments not provided
Often Higher Education Institutions don’t provide adjustments properly. There can be several reasons for this including:
- Sheer disorganisation so information is not passed on.
- Forgetting to consider disabled students’ needs generally, or specifically.
- Deciding it is reasonable to ignore disabled students’ needs.
All of these could be legally inexcusable and mean you can make a complaint or legal challenge.
Excuses for not making adjustments
Sometimes education institutions can be naughty and tell students that they are not entitled to support saying things like:
- “We can’t afford it”.
- “You’re only doing a certain course and part time”.
- “You’re not disabled enough”.
- “You’ll have to pay for it yourself”.
- “It’s not our responsibility to fund this”.
These are often not entirely true or misleading.
Sometimes adjustments just don’t get made. Institutions can be very good at just stalling, forgetting or being obstructive. You may also find some of the Disabled Access Bingo responses by Reasonable Access to help you think of ways to respond to excuses that you may get.
We can recommend the excellent HelpSheets by Disabled At Uni which cover initial requests and access complaints.