The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 (SENDA) established legal rights for disabled students in pre- and post-16 education.
The Act introduced the right for disabled students not to be discriminated against in education, training and any services provided wholly or mainly for students, and for those enrolled on courses provided by ‘responsible bodies’, including further and higher education institutions and sixth form colleges.
Student services covered by the Act included a wide range of educational and non-educational services, such as field trips, examinations and assessments, short courses, arrangements for work placements and libraries and learning resources.
This podcast is presented by Lawrence Green and Mark Pimm from Birkbeck University. It was Mark's original idea to celebrate the 20th anniversary of SENDA and this podcast gives a great introduction to the Act. NADP are following this with a panel webinar on 15th September 2021 for more in-depth discussions with the people involved at the time.
Lawrence: I’m Lawrence Green, and I'm a disability adviser at Birkbeck College, University of London. With me is Mark Pimm Disability Services Manager at Birkbeck to celebrate the 20th anniversary of SENDA, the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Act. We're going to be discussing the story of SENDA, and how it has changed disabled people's lives. Mark has been working in disability services for over 25 years. He was a disability adviser before SENDA. He also had the added experience of being a disabled student himself before SENDA. As such, Mark has a unique insight into the impact of SENDA for disabled students in higher education.
So, Mark, thank you for joining me today. Could you tell me a little bit about SENDA?
Mark: The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act was passed in May 2001. Most people will have heard of the Disability Discrimination Act, 1995, but they might not realise that that act exempted education. All education providers were required to do was report on what they did for disabled people and as long as you put a statement up on your website saying that you did nothing for disabled people, that was fine. SENDA, however, extended disabled people's rights in all areas of education. And for the first time, opened the door to education for disabled people.
The most important thing it did was to place a duty on education providers. And that meant they were no longer able to say, “We've never had a student who's disabled on this particular course”. They had to plan out what they would do should a disabled student apply to do that course. This in turn meant that as a disabled person when you applied for a course, you could be reasonably sure that all the support you might need, will be put in place. And that meant, instead of having to choose a course which you thought would be accessible. you were able to choose the course that you thought was best for your career development.
Lawrence: Mark, you were at university in the 90s as a disabled student yourself before SENDA was passed so can you tell me, what was that like for you and what support did you get?
Mark: So I'm blind with little useful vision, but at that time I was blind with a little peripheral vision, but no central vision. When I applied for university, you could apply for the Disabled Students’ Allowance, but it didn't provide enough funding to pay for a computer. All I could afford was a small writing machine with 32 megabytes of RAM, which I connected to a speech synthesiser so I could listen to what was on the machine. If you typed on the machine for about a week, it would get to the point where it's completely full. And sometimes it would crash, and you'd lose everything you've done. So what I had to do was record from the little Brighton machine through the speech synthesiser to a tape recorder, all my notes, and then listen to my notes on tape. When I wrote my essays on the writing machine. I then had to give them to a volunteer to take them to the university computer laboratories; download the machine; tidy up the notes; and print out my essay. I couldn't do this myself. Firstly because I didn't have a computer. And secondly, because there were no computers with assistive technology in the university.
When it came to lectures, there were no note takers to take notes, so I had to rely on asking other students to read their notes onto tape for me.
In the library, there were no electronic books. So I had to recruit my own team to read books onto tape for me. I had over 500 tapes and quite often I would maybe spend half an hour or even an hour searching to find the right tape, in order that could listen to some notes that were needed for an essay.
Lawrence: So, how did you get through your degree? Given the difficulties that you had there, and the lack of support, how were you able to finish and graduate with a degree?
Mark: Well, the only reason why I survived on the course was because I had a sympathetic academic who helped me. But interestingly, I wanted to do a degree in management studies, so I could go into business, but the academic that was helping me, was in psychology. So in the end, I ended up doing a degree in psychology. And of course my entire career direction was shaped by the fact that I had to do a course that was determined by who would help me, rather than what would help me in the future.
Lawrence: Clearly, a lot of challenges and a big, big impact on, not just yours, but I'm sure every disabled student who managed to get through a university degree. Can you tell me Mark, if you were to study at university now, after SENDA, what would be different?
Mark: Well, now of course, there'll be a team of disability advisers to support me. I could get a computer with JAWS software from the Disabled Students Allowance and funding to pay for electronic notetakers. I'd get my teaching materials in advance of the lecture. So I could preview them and work out what the structure of the lecture was. And of course, all my books would be available to me in an electronic, accessible form
Lawrence: A big, big change, would you say, between now and the pre-SENDA world?
Mark: Yes. And I would say, as well, that it will still be challenging now, to study, but the world before SENDA, there's just no comparison.
Lawrence: In that context, because as I mentioned at the start, you were also a disability adviser before SENDA. So you've made the transition; you've completed your degree and you're working in Disability Services. From that perspective, what was it like being a disability adviser before SENDA?
Mark: I was working three days a week, often seeing 10 students a day, and there was usually a four week wait for an appointment to see me. I could help full time undergraduate apply for the Disabled Students’ allowance. I could do nothing for postgraduates and part time students. There was no funding, no resources, and no support.
You were completely dependent upon whether people willing to help you. To give you an example, we had a computer science department in an accessible building. All we needed to do was to adapt the toilet, but the Pro Vice Chancellor refused, stating, “Well, we've never had a wheelchair-user study in computer science.”
If you went back then, Lawrence, you would be shocked. And I was at a university that had a disability adviser. Most universities didn't.
Lawrence: Yes, I can certainly see that things are extremely different to how we work now. What is it like now, Mark, working as a disability adviser after SENDA in a university?
Mark: Nowadays, every university has a disability team. Disability Support is a profession with CPD and qualifications. Those disability services are integrally involved in both developing the provision at the university and developing their policies and procedures.
The academics have a high level of awareness the needs of disabled students and are experienced in making reasonable adjustments for those students. And again, it's a completely different world. We're in a position where many of the people working in the disability services are people with disabilities themselves. This has the amazing benefit that it means that disabled students studying at the university can see a job that disabled people are doing, that they can aspire to do too. And so, the developments coming from SENDA does not just help people get through education, but it's given them a whole potential career that they can pursue for the rest of their lives.
Lawrence: Clearly SENDA has made a huge difference, and has had a huge impact on disabled students studying in higher education. What was it…or what do you think it was, that made SENDA such a success?
Mark: SENDA was a success, because the government ensured that it was surrounded by all the necessary support. So before the Act was passed, the government did a big special initiative where they provided funding to many universities, so they could set up Disability Services. That meant as a disabled student, wherever you went to study, there was almost certainly going to be a disability adviser to support you.
The second thing they did was they extended the Disabled Students Allowance to part time and postgraduate students. That meant that if you were a UK student, you could get the Disabled Students’ Allowance, irrespective of what course you were studying. Every single UK disabled student could now get government support.
The third thing they did was provided capital funding to help universities pay for access improvements to their buildings. All over the country universities that had buildings that couldn't be accessed by wheelchair-users, were able to adapt those to make them accessible, and they could build in a range of features that would help students with other conditions, like sensory impairments as well.
The fourth thing they did was to set up the Disability Rights Commission who would act as the umbrella organisation that would monitor how well the legislation was being implemented. This meant education providers knew the legislation had teeth and needed to be listened to.
At the same time, the Disability Rights Commission provided the wide range of codes of practice, and good practice guidance, that helped the university sector understand what they needed to do to make themselves meet that anticipated duty,
Lawrence: And whom do we have to thank for the success of SENDA? For all the work that went into getting it passed and everything has come since?
Mark: Well, there's an awful lot of people you need to thank because there's an awful lot that's been achieved. But I would particularly, identify the importance of an organisation called SKILL, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities.
It was SKILL that drew the government's attention to the fact that education had been missed out from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and who helped the government to understand that the best way to change the lives of disabled people, was to open up education as a skill by persuading the government to legislate, are probably the most important people within it.
If it was just SKILL, and not the university sector embracing this, and moving with it; and if it was not for the professionals at all levels within universities, committing to making this a success; then all we would have done, was have a piece of legislation, but no change to people's lives.
There's an awful lot of thanking to be done. When we realise just how many disabled people at school, further education colleges and university have had their lives changed by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act, we realise why it's so important for us as disabled people to come together to celebrate it.
Lawrence: I couldn't agree more and thank you very much Mark for sharing your experience with me today.