Creating accessible seminars and tutorials for disabled students

3. Reflecting from the legal angle

I am responsible for organising the small group teaching in my department. What are the legal issues about disabled students that I should be aware of?

The DDA Part IV Code of Practice (revised 2007) includes all educational provision as services in the delivery of which discrimination must be avoided. (The amendments to Part IV of the DDA re-defined discrimination, and listed 4 kinds: Direct, Failure to make reasonable adjustments, Disability related and Victimisation.) There is no defence for the failure to make reasonable adjustments needed by disabled students, but various factors can be taken into account when determining what is reasonable. These will include what is practicable, the interests of other students, the need to maintain competence and other academic standards and health and safety. It might be difficult to defend a failure to make an adjustment considered to be reasonable by many of your academic colleagues, unless there are material differences in your own teaching context.

If a disabled student has already disclosed to the University that they are disabled, then the University may not be able to say that it did not know and any reasonable adjustments that the student needs should be made. The DDA Part IV Code of Practice (revised 2007) (para 9.9) recommends that staff should receive training in making teaching and learning more accessible to disabled students. You should therefore consider the training needs of all staff, including post-graduate teaching assistants, who might be teaching disabled students in seminars and tutorials.

A disabled person has the right to request that the existence or nature of his or her disability be treated as confidential. But the duty to make adjustments is anticipatory, lessening the need for disclosure and communication of individual students' requirements.

Some of the group teaching takes place in hospitals and clinics, off campus. Who's responsible, legally, for that?

Where the staff carrying out the teaching are employed by the institution, then the responsibility lies with the institution. If they are employed by someone else, both the institution of higher education and the host body have responsibilities towards disabled students under different sections of the Act. Part II of the DDA (Employment and Occupation) gives placement providers duties towards disabled students that are parallel to those towards employees. Even if an initial discriminatory act (e.g. the failure to put in place reasonable adjustments) is not carried out by the institution, it is expected to intervene in order to prevent the discrimination continuing or recurring, or to find alternative ways in which the students can achieve the learning outcome. It is also responsible for informing those involved in teaching its disabled students of known disclosed needs, with students' consent.

What information can/must I pass on to tutors about the disabled students they will be tutoring? And what should they be passing on to the student group?

A disabled person has the right to request that the existence or nature of his or her disability be treated as confidential. But, subject to the consent of the student, relevant members of staff should be made aware of the needs of any disabled students in a group. This includes any external staff working with the group. Given that responsibility for learning through working in groups remains with the institution, even if they are not staff led, it would be advisable to ensure that the members of the group understand how they can appropriately involve a disabled person in the group's activities, and to discuss with them what adjustments might be appropriate.

You get to know students in smaller teaching groups better than students you only meet in lectures. What if one of them tells me that they are disabled? Does the law direct what I should or should not do with that information?

The information that someone is disabled is sensitive, personal data. Sensitive disclosures should be treated as confidential in the sense that they should not be discussed or disclosed to anyone without good reason, and normally with the student's consent. The Disability Discrimination Act Part IV Code of Practice (revised 2007) envisages that a less satisfactory adjustment, or no adjustment, may be a consequence of maintaining strict confidentiality, where the institution has acceded to that request. Serious considerations associated with health and safety might exceptionally lead to the institution deciding that it cannot accede to such a request.

However, when a disabled student has disclosed to you that they are disabled, the University has the knowledge which is relevant to their implementation of appropriate adjustments. Thereafter there is a risk that you or others might be acting unlawfully if you failed to make reasonable adjustments or treated the student less favourably. Often adjustments can be made without identifying any particular disabled student who might require them, thus avoiding potential breaches of confidentiality.

Most of our tutors are part time, and usually only as long as they are doing their research degrees in the department. Does the law expect us to train them all in working well with disabled students?

Institutions are expected to ensure that all staff, and any visiting lecturers, are aware of their responsibilities under the DDA Part IV Code of Practice (revised 2007). Training for staff on how to work with disabled people is likely to be central to any defence that the institution might have to show that it took such steps as were reasonably practicable to prevent discrimination against disabled students.

What if a disabled student holds back other students in the group, say because they are using an interpreter, and communication is that bit slower? Are there any relevant legal points which cover that scenario?

The institution has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to avoid placing a disabled student at substantial disadvantage. The failure to take a reasonable step, such as the provision of an interpreter, might be justified if it can be shown that it is not practicable, results in significant disadvantage for other students, or materially affects the need to maintain academic or other prescribed standards. The DDA Part IV Code of Practice (revised 2007) (para 5.57) says that there are instances where there is a duty to make an adjustment despite some inconvenience to others.

Any student might not pull their weight in a group. What do I as the tutor need to do if things get unpleasant here? Surely we are not responsible for the treatment of one student by another?

You are required, as far as possible, to ensure that, in the arrangements you make for the design and delivery of education, there is no discrimination against disabled students, and, if it occurs, to act to prevent any recurrence. The DDA Part IV Code of Practice (revised 2007) (para 5.66) makes it clear that the cooperation of other students should be sought where it is needed for the support of a disabled student and that it would not be likely to be a defence against a claim that a reasonable adjustment was not made to say that other students were obstructive or unhelpful.

Where can I go for further information?

Disability Discrimination Act 1995 Part 4 Code of Practice for providers of post 16 education and related services, revised 2007

Next page

Top of Page

Teachability Home Page