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Return to SENDA? Implementing accessibility for disabled students in virtual learning environments in UK further and higher education

4. Disability and UK further and higher education

4.1 Disabled students: facts and figures

The latest published figures for numbers of disabled students in higher education, for the academic year 2001/2, show 4.6% of the student population had a declared disability (HESA 2003a). In further education, the figure for the academic year 2000/1 was just over 6% (LSC 2003).

According to the Disability Rights Commission, ‘one in twenty disabled people are in further or higher education, compared to one in ten of the rest of the population’ (DRC 2003c). The National Bureau for Students with Disabilities (Skill) has commented on the rate of increase of the numbers of disabled students year on year, saying ‘only half as many disabled people as would be expected according to general population trends are entering higher education’ (Skill 2003a).

A Disability Rights Commission survey found that 17% of disabled respondents who went to further or higher education felt they were discriminated against because of their disability. Of those respondents who did not enter post-16 education, 30% felt they were prevented from doing so for a reason related to their disability; over half of these did not feel they would be given support by the education institution to complete their course (DRC 2002).

Further education and higher education institutions do not collect exactly comparable figures for disability, but some general trends are discernable across both sectors, and are set out in Table 2.

Table 2. Percentages of students with five common disabilities in UK FE and HE

Student's declared disability (15)

Percentage in further education

Percentage in higher education

Approximate percentage across FE and HE

Dyslexia (16)




Deaf/hearing impairment




Mobility difficulties




Multiple disabilities




Blind/partially sighted




Many of the students with the disabilities listed in Table 2 may require adjustments to the provision of information, including that provided through a VLE. In addition, students in other categories termed ‘unseen disabilities’ (HE) and ‘other physical disability’ or ‘other medical condition’ (FE) – which will include, for example, epilepsy – may also have specific requirements concerning the provision of digital information. For the full categories and percentages for disabled students in FE and HE, see Appendix 5.

Students in higher education are eligible for the disabled students allowance (DSA). This is a non-means-tested grant, payable to both full-time and part-time students, from the student’s local education authority (usually after a needs assessment has been undertaken). The DSA covers three areas:

  • general allowance – to cover, for example, insurance, Braille paper
  • non-medical helper allowance – for example note-takers, interpreters
  • equipment allowance – including for assistive technologies such as speech output systems, speech recognition systems, alternative input devices.
    (Ferl/TechDis 2003, 1, p.1)

In a 2001 study, Hall and Tinklin analysed the experiences of twelve disabled students in higher education in Scotland, including their use of ICTs:

Most of the students in the sample have their own computers bought with money from the DSA. All the students who have their own computers have found them very useful, and they appreciate having access to their own machines… [Two students with dyslexia] found that using computers to produce their assignments has improved their grades… [Two students with visual impairments] have computers with a voice synthesiser…to produce files in Braille or ink print…. [A student with a motor impairment] which affects [their] ability to hand-write and to type…. uses a voice-operated computer. (Hall and Tinklin 1998)

As Hall and Tinklin show, ‘the use of information technology can be one very helpful way in which students with disabilities can be supported in their studies’. However, they also point out that institutions might begin to see information technology alone as a sufficient means of supporting students with disabilities, when in fact disabled students need a range of support services, which may or may not include information technologies or assistive technologies (Hall and Tinklin 1998). As Rainger (2003b) points out ‘study skills and strategies need to be developed, along with assistive technologies, to allow disabled students to make the best use of e-learning materials’.

4.2 The legislative background

The most important piece of legislation affecting disabled students in UK FE and HE is the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA). This legislation is an extension of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), so a little background to the DDA is given here in order to contextualise the scope and intentions of SENDA. The Human Rights Act and a piece of relevant US legislation are also briefly considered.

4.2a. Disability Discrimination Act 1995

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was passed in 1995 to introduce measures aimed at ending the discrimination which many disabled people face. Part 1 of the Act says a person has a disability if they have ‘a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’.

The DDA protects disabled people in the areas of:

  • employment – employers have a duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled employees where they are placed at a substantial disadvantage
  • access to goods, facilities and services – providers are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure their goods/facilities/services, including those for which no charge is made, are accessible
  • transport – minimum standards to assist disabled people to use public transport.
    (HMSO 1995)

When the Act was first passed, education was excluded.

The provisions of the DDA are understood by many to cover the requirement for accessible web sites, which could be defined as a ‘service’ under the Act. Despite the fact that many web sites fail accessibility tests (RNIB 2003), as yet, no provider of a web site has faced an action under the DDA. (17) The Disability Rights Commission has commissioned a survey of the current state of accessibility of UK web sites (HMSO in press).

4.2b. Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001

In 2001 the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) was passed, and the provisions of the DDA were thereby extended to include education. Part 2 of SENDA requires higher and further education institutions to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure:

  • ‘in relation to the arrangements….for determining admissions to the institution, disabled persons are not placed at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with persons who are not disabled’
  • ‘in relation to student services provided for, or offered to, students…, disabled students are not placed at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with students who are not disabled’.
    (HMSO 2001, 28, 1(a), 1(b))

The duty of responsibility is to disabled people in general, not to individual students who may enrol on a course; institutions therefore have a duty to make ‘anticipatory’ adjustments. Those adjustments that are regarded to be a matter of good practice, for example providing electronic versions of paper handouts, are expected to be implemented whether or not a disabled student is in attendance (Ferl/TechDis 2003, 2, p.2).

SENDA has a number of exemptions; adjustments may be considered not ‘reasonable’ if they:

  • would undermine or lessen academic standards
  • would place the institution in financial difficulty
  • contravene health and safety legislation
  • substantially adversely affect other students.
    (HMSO 2001)

Governing bodies of institutions rather than individual practitioners are accountable under the law, but all staff are expected to assist their institutions in complying with the law. In the case of teaching staff, this means being required ‘to make reasonable adjustments to their teaching practice and teaching materials to ensure disabled students can participate in the learning environment’ (Ferl/TechDis 2003, 2, p.3).

SENDA is being introduced in phases. Since September 2002 all institutions have been expected ‘to change policies and practices’ and from September 2003 institutions will need to provide ‘auxiliary aids and services’. Specific ICT issues include:

  • provision of assistive technology such as magnification software or screen readers; additional training and support for assistive technology
  • provision of accessible institutional services, including departmental, faculty and institutional websites
  • provision of accessible educational services, such as intranets, virtual and managed learning environments and other digital resources.
    (JISC 2001a)

Sloan (2002) expands on this last point:

It is clear that the many instances of online learning, including virtual learning environments, will come under the scope of ‘student services’ under the Act….In relation to a VLE, reasonable adjustments would mean that accessibility should be incorporated into the project’s design. (Sloan 2002)

As Wilder highlights, everyone in the ‘critical path’ of learning technologies such as VLEs is covered by SENDA:

The Act and responsibilities under it affect the whole spectrum of those involved… those providing the information, those providing the media for the information, and those involved in IT services and strategy all have equal responsibility. (Wilder 2002)

Referring to the implications of the anticipatory nature of SENDA, Sloan comments that ‘institutions need to be making the necessary adjustments by issuing guidelines and training staff for the provision of online resources and VLEs’ (Sloan 2002).

4.2c. Human Rights Act 1998

In 1998 the Human Rights Act enshrined some of the rights under the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. Of particular relevance to education are:

  • Article 2 of the First Protocol: ‘No person shall be denied the right to education’
  • Article 14 of Schedule 1: ‘The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground’.
    (HMSO 1998)

These rights are binding on all public bodies in the UK.

4.2d. Americans with Disabilities Act/US Rehabilitation Act (Section 508)

While not directly influencing UK education institutions, two pieces of American legislation have nonetheless had an impact on e-learning in the area of accessibility, because they have influenced the development of the US products that dominate the commercial e-learning market.

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gave federal civil rights protections to Americans with disabilities, guaranteeing equal opportunity in public accommodations, employment, transport, state and local government services, and telecommunications. In 1994 the Department of Justice produced ADA Standards for Accessible Design (USDoJ 1994), which commercial e-learning companies began to incorporate in their products.

In 1998 the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was strengthened in line with the ADA, with provisions covering access to information in the federal sector for people with disabilities. As amended, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires access to the federal government's electronic and information technology. The law applies to all federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Federal agencies must ensure that this technology is accessible to employees and the public, including persons with disabilities. The law directs a Federal Access Board to develop access standards that will become part of the federal procurement regulations (FAB 2003). To compete in the US market, e-learning products need to be ‘Section 508 conformant’.

The Section 508 standards are broadly consonant with the W3C WAI guidelines previously discussed (see section 3.3), but not completely. Each set of guidelines contains components not in the other, so developers need to address both separately (see Appendix 4).

4.3 Educational policy and regulatory frameworks

4.3a. Educational policy

A number of reports in recent years have influenced educational policy in the area of disability.

In 1996, the Tomlinson Report was the first national inquiry in England into FE provision for students with disabilities and/or learning difficulties. It reported the overall quality of learning for students with disabilities was poorer than for other students, and many disabled people were not receiving any further education at all. It identified the need for a more inclusive further education sector (Tomlinson 1996).

In 1997 the Dearing Report argued that access to higher education should be widened in order to include students previously excluded – whether because of socio-economic status, gender, ability, location, ethnicity or special needs. Dearing looked at higher education specifically in the context of the ‘learning society’, and emphasised the ‘scope for the innovative use of new communications and information technologies to improve the quality and flexibility of higher education and its management’ (Dearing 1997).

In 1998 the Kennedy report on widening participation in further education condemned the inadequacy of the policies which had achieved significant growth in learning post-16 but failed to include those who experience social and economic disadvantage. The report pointed to the part ICTs had to play in widening participation (Kennedy 1998).

More recently, the DfES published a white paper on the future of higher education which emphasises issues of ‘fair access’. A follow-up proposal on widening participation proposed the creation of an Office of Fair Access in education (DfES 2003a, DfES 2003b). These DfES reports have focused on socio-economic status, and have not addressed the broader inclusion agenda raised by Dearing and Kennedy. Some disability organisations consider this to be an omission:

The great emphasis and awareness of the Government's current push to widen access for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds could be harnessed to improve opportunities for other groups also currently under-represented in higher education such as disabled people. (Skill 2003a)

Specific e-learning initiatives are examined in section 5, but it is worth noting in passing here that the DfES e-learning strategy proposal (DfES 2003c) incorporates ‘universal access and accessibility’ and ‘removing barriers to e-learning’ within its seven proposed ‘action areas’.

4.3b. Regulatory frameworks and disability

Standards in FE and HE are principally overseen by the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI) and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) respectively.

The ALI’s Common Inspection Framework, which is used to assess all publicly funded work-based training for people over 16 and learning for post-19s, includes as one of its criteria:

the extent to which provision is educationally and socially inclusive, and promotes equality of access to education and training, including provision for learners with learning difficulties or disabilities. (ALI 2001)

JISC identifies four underlying principles to ensuring quality in FE as exemplified in the Common Inspection Framework:

  • equality of opportunity through better access to learning
  • a socially inclusive curriculum
  • accurate diagnosis of individual learning needs
  • understanding of the concept of inclusive learning.
    (JISC 2001a)

In 1999 the Quality Assurance Agency produced a code of practice for students with disabilities in higher education (QAA 1999). The code has 24 ‘precepts’ which the QAA auditors use as benchmarks when assessing HEIs. The precepts cover all aspects of teaching and learning for disabled students, and of most relevance are:

  • ensuring disabled students have access to appropriate computer facilities (precept 3)
  • accessible web site and intranet sites, and alternative formats (precept 4)
  • adaptation of course material (including electronic material) and course delivery to ensure access (precept 10)
  • allowing disabled students to use ICT for assessment (precept 13)
  • training staff to use relevant technology and to produce accessible electronic courseware; ensuring IT staff have time and skills to support assistive technology used by disabled students (precepts 15, 17).
    (QAA 1999)

(Click the footnote number to return to the text)
(15) The terminology is taken from HESA (2003a)
(16) FE statistics subsume dyslexia into a more general category of 'learning difficulties', which has no direct equivalent in the HE statistics. The apparent difference in percentages of students with dyslexia across HE and FE may be an artefact of the varying categorisations. See Appendix 5
(17) At the time of writing [August 2003] it was reported that RNIB were planning an action against an unnamed web site provider ('The costs of failing the accessibility test' Marketing Week 28 August 2003).


All pages and content copyright © Sara Dunn 2003, unless otherwise stated.