10 April 2024

Making Reasonable Adjustments for Disabled Students in Further Education

Under the Equality Act 2010, all students with disabilities have the right to request for reasonable adjustments to be made, such as providing specialist equipment, and education providers have a duty to make such adjustments. Reasonable adjustments are paramount to ensuring an enjoyable and enriching learning experience and ultimately, providing fair treatment to all students.

It is unlawful for education providers to discriminate against disabled students.  Failure to make reasonable adjustments where necessary to reduce disadvantage can amount to discrimination.

Despite legal protections, many students continue to face significant challenges. Particularly from the second year of higher education when workload is increased and pressures are intensified, students increasingly face difficulties which impact not only their studies, but also their well-being.

The legal protections enshrined in legislation can only be exercised if students ensure to request reasonable adjustments. A lack of accessible information regarding students’ rights and the duties of education providers means many students are unaware of the support to which they are entitled.

Reasonable Adjustments

The duty to make reasonable adjustments requires the anticipation of barriers which can exist for disabled students, and taking the necessary action to reduce any substantial disadvantage.  Making reasonable adjustments can include providing auxiliary aids, making changes to the built environment, or altering processes.  It also includes taking steps to ensure that information surrounding the benefits, services and facilities provided by the institution is available in an accessible format.  An education provider cannot justify a failure to make reasonable adjustments, however, there may be exceptions, such as adherence to a competence standard.

A lack of clarity amongst students regarding what they are able to request in terms of reasonable adjustments can leave them feeling excluded and anxious.  In some cases, the consequences of failure to make reasonable adjustments can be devastating, such as in the case of The University of Bristol v Dr Robert Abrahart.

The University of Bristol v Dr Robert Abrahart

A student suffering from social anxiety died by suicide the day before he had to deliver a presentation.  The University staff were aware of the student’s condition and despite engaging in discussions regarding alternative assessment methods, they had failed to undertake any reasonable steps.  The University argued that the student had failed to engage with its disability service, and that an oral assessment was a competence standard and therefore fell outside of the University’s duty to make reasonable adjustments.

The European Human Rights Commission intervened under section 30 of the Equality Act 2010 to provide clear, authoritative guidance which ultimately found that the University had breached its duties under the 2010 Act. This amounted to indirect discrimination as the failure to adjust the assessment method meant that the university treated the student unfavourably because of her disability.

This case undoubtedly has significant implications for universities and disabled students. It is hoped that by highlighting the importance of providing adequate support to students, and the requirement to accommodate those who experience disadvantage by making reasonable adjustments, fewer students will experience discrimination at their university.

Raising Awareness

Importantly, there is no current requirement for higher education staff to undertake training on disability-inclusive education.  This has been reflected in a recent report on Disabled Students at University which highlighted various concerns surrounding the deteriorating retention rates and reduced degree outcomes of disabled students.

These issues include a vast range of struggles faced by many disabled students, including drastically long waiting lists for access to specialist equipment and educational support workers, which can be discouraging for those trying to keep up with students who do not have a disability.¬† Additionally, an undeniable stigma attached to asking for additional support ‚Äď heightened by the suggestion that at such a level of education students are expected to attend university without vital reasonable adjustments ‚Äď leaves students discouraged from reaching out for support when they need it.

While University websites often make clear the availability of reasonable adjustments for students who live with disabilities, they neglect to highlight the fact that this is a duty owed to them. This perhaps downplays the impact that these adjustments can have on a student’s university experience.  Additionally, specific details of these adjustments can only be discovered following the completion of a form or registering with the University’s disability service.  These processes can be daunting for students who experience disadvantage.

Exercising your Rights

Universities and other higher education institutions have a legal duty not to discriminate against people who possess a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.  However, the further education sector is failing to provide disabled students with adequate information surrounding their rights and how to protect them, and significant work is required to minimise the disadvantage suffered. Students must have clearer information on what exactly they can request and steps must be taken to ensure that no student is struggling due to a lack of reasonable adjustments.

Education providers must ensure to accommodate the diverse needs of students in order to create an inclusive and equitable learning environment by adhering to their duties under the Equality Act 2010.

At Legal Service Agency, we provide legal advice and representation to the most vulnerable in society.  If you feel that as a disabled student, you have been subject to disadvantage because of a practice that is the same for all students, or that there has been a failure to make reasonable adjustments which are necessary for you to fully participate in education, you may have been discriminated against and can contact us on 0141 353 3354.

Erin Sweeney