It was enough to make a complacent college boss spill his morning coffee. A 16-year-old wheelchair user had won a landmark legal ruling to force his local sixth-form college to admit him as a student. Anthony Ford-Shubrook, who suffers from cerebral palsy, has seven GCSEs and applied to study geography and double IT A-levels at St Dominic's sixth-form college in Middlesex from this autumn. The geography classroom, canteen, library and disabled toilet are on the ground floor of the college, but the IT room is on the first floor and is not accessible to wheelchair users. The college said that Anthony would present a health-and-safety risk, and refused to give him an interview.
This put the college on the wrong side of the law. New anti- discrimination legislation in force from September last year makes it unlawful for disabled students and pupils to be treated "less favourably" without "justification" by schools, colleges or universities. St Dominic's has had to accommodate Anthony, and he started there last month.
Disability-rights campaigners have welcomed the ruling, and expect more cases to follow. Provision for disabled students in further education is patchy, they say. "Cases like this will begin to make provision more even," says Liz Maudslay, policy director at Skill, the national charity for students with disabilities. "Those colleges who are not doing enough will be made to pull their socks up."
Kate Heasman, equality official at lecturers' union Natfhe, agrees. "I'm sure there will be more cases and a rolling effect. I know the college is appealing but I don't think they'll win."
The new legal position was set down in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, known as Senda, which extended the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to cover the education system. It states not only that disabled people must not be treated less favourably without justification, but also that institutions should make "reasonable adjustments" to ensure that a disabled student is not placed at a "substantial disadvantage".
What might constitute justification for less favourable treatment remains to be seen, but in failing to consider Anthony Ford- Shubrook's application, St Dominic's fell foul of the law. The sorts of reasonable adjustments that institutions are required to consider making include providing additional teaching and materials. The law makes it clear that these duties are towards disabled people generally rather than towards individuals. This places an onus on institutions to anticipate the needs of disabled people. "As far as I could tell, the college in Middlesex had not taken the time to develop its risk-assessment procedures," says Liz Maudslay. People's attitudes are the main problem, writes Natasha Hirst, president of the National Union of Students in Wales, who is profoundly deaf. "Colleges need to be aware of and anticipate students' needs, rather than simply reacting to individual cases."
Millions of pounds are being spent by the Learning and Skills Council - the further-education funding body - in an effort to stop colleges breaking the law. Last year pounds 15m was put in, and pounds 40m is being spent both this year and next. …