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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Bringing our ‘whole selves to work’

Last year we spoke to Richard Morely, an MSc Computer Science student who took part in Birkbeck Future’s Ability Programme, a scheme that helps students and alumni with a disability, neurodiverse or long-term health condition connect with a disability-confident employer. Richard undertook a placement at, the insurance company, Azur where he was tasked with improving the company’s interface.

Richard Morley, a Birkbeck student who took part in the Ability Programme

Richard Morely

Richard Morley, an MSc Computer Science student with a hearing disability, applied to the Ability Programme and was given a place at digital insurance company Azur. Richard had been in contact with Birkbeck Futures before joining the scheme and applied to take part in the programme because he had been out of the job market for a while and doubted his ability after a few unsuccessful interviews. He wanted the opportunity to improve his existing skill-set and boost his wavering confidence in the job market.

At Azur, Richard was given the role of Software Development Intern and tasked with improving the interface of the company’s application called Magic. This entailed improving the colour scheme using the brand guidelines and working on developing animated features for the app. In a previous company, Richard had felt very pressured which he did not find conducive to progression. The positive atmosphere at Azur, by contrast, allowed him to develop his skills and confidence. He developed a good relationship with his team and said that: “I found the work challenging because I was doing things that I hadn’t done in previous positions, such as programming and creating animation on the app.”

One of Richard’s biggest challenges at Azur was delivering a presentation about his project. He noted that in previous roles, “I never did presentations. Even if I was given the opportunity, I would be reluctant to do it.” But after receiving support from a colleague in the preparation and delivery, he found it contributed to improved confidence around his skill-set and employability prospects.

Reflecting on the importance of the work placements for people with disabilities, Richard said: “It’s good because lots of employers think that people with disabilities might not be able to get things done because they have certain problems that get in the way of work.” Being given placements such as these “demonstrates that people with disabilities are hardworking and for me personally, that I can adapt to any situation despite my hearing disability.”

Richard’s placement culminated in a job offer which he will take up after he graduates. “It made me feel like there are more opportunities out there for me. It’s created more connections and made me feel more confident in my abilities. I have a bright future ahead of me.”

Many of the employers that took part said that the scheme was important in opening their eyes to the way they could attract and accommodate employees with disabilities or neurodiverse conditions, and encourage an open dialogue about the individual needs of the employees. Tom Armitage, Head of Talent and Performance at the Telegraph commented; “we were able to craft work experience placements that were really meaningful” and said that it challenged his team’s way of thinking.

It is the experience of Richard and students like him that show why schemes like the Ability Programme are necessary to break down stigmas attached to people with disabilities and in turn allow people to bring their “whole selves to work.”

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