The Disability Discrimination Act – what’s changed?

This November we celebrate 25 years since the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act. In this blog, Mark Pimm, Birkbeck’s Disability Service Manager who is blind, shares his experiences as a university student and how the world has changed since the passing of the Act.

Mark Pimm with his guide dog, Sonny

Twenty-five years ago, on 8 November 1995, the Disability Discrimination Act was passed and it got me thinking about how student life has changed in a quarter of a century.  There were no tuition fee loans and a pint of beer in the Student Union bar cost a pound, but life was a lot more challenging for disabled students.  There were no disability officers, universities weren’t required to make provision for disabled students – in fact, before the Act, we had no legal rights.

There was a Disabled Students’ Allowance, but at that time it was so small I couldn’t afford a computer; all I had was a writing machine with 32 megabytes of ram.

Because I did not have a computer and could not read Braille, I did everything on tape.  I recruited a team of volunteers to read my textbooks onto tape. I drafted my notes for essays onto cassette tapes and listened back to the notes when I came to write the essay.  All my exam notes were put onto tape, and I listened to these to revise. To give an idea of the scale, I had over 500 tapes containing over 2,000 hours of recording. Even though I was organised, it often took me an hour to find the right point on the right tape.

In those days, being blind I knew I would never get a non-graduate job. If I wanted to work, I had to get a degree. I had no choice but to carry on despite extraordinary odds because if I didn’t, I would never work.

What would be the difference today? If I was coming to Birkbeck now, the Disabled Students’ Allowance would pay for a computer with specialist software and training to ensure I could use it to access our online learning. It would fund an electronic notetaker, who would provide me with notes from all my lectures by email.

The university’s virtual learning environment would be accessible to me and I’d have access to the teaching materials in advance of our lectures, enabling me to read, as well as understand the structure of the lectures, prior to attending them. I could use the platform SensusAccess to make the electronic documents accessible to me and access the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s audible book service.

The number of additional things I’d need to do for myself would be reduced. I’d have the time to think about my future career and with support like the Ability Programme would be able to develop the transferrable skills that might mean that I could progress straight from graduation to employment, as my non-disabled peers can do.

It’s truly remarkable and inspiring to see how far we’ve come, thanks to those campaigners in the 90s.

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