Disability Discrimination and Schools

The UK Disability Discrimination Act and how it applies to children with learning disabilities and schools.

From September 2002, it is unlawful for schools in England and Wales to discriminate against pupils with a learning disability.

The Disability Discrimination Act now applies to all schools and covers all aspects of school life. This covers mainstream schools, special schools and independent schools. There are new duties for all these schools to avoid discriminating against disabled pupils.

What does this mean for children with a learning disability?

It means protection from discrimination and new ways to challenge discrimination on the grounds of disability. Alongside other changes that came into force with the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act, it means that attending a mainstream school will become possible for many more pupils in the coming years.

The changes do not affect your child's rights to have support to meet their special educational needs. For children who need a lot of support at school Statements of Special Educational Needs are still available.

My child has special educational needs does this mean she is disabled?

Most children with a learning disability will be seen as disabled under this new Act. Pupils are disabled if their impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their day to day life. There will be some pupils with special educational needs who do not fit this definition of disability and are notcovered by the new Act.

My child needs his own communication aid, is this covered?

The new Act does not cover aids that are provided especially for your child, for example a specially adapted computer keyboard. These aids are covered by the special educational needs framework and should be stated on your child's Statement. The use of aids is covered under the new Act, so that if a teacher refused to let your child use their special keyboard this could be unlawful.

Are school trips and school clubs covered by the new Act?

Yes, they are when the school arranges these activities. It is now unlawful to discriminate against disabled pupils when schools arrange trips and clubs. This does not mean that everyone will go on exactly the same trip or attend the same club. It does mean when organising these activities schools have to make sure that they are not overall putting disabled pupils at a disadvantage.

What does the Act mean for schools?

It becomes unlawful to discriminate against disabled pupils when the school is aware that the child has a disability. Schools will need to make sure that all their polices, (eg admission policy) practices (eg timetabling) and procedures (eg medication) do not discriminate against disabled pupils.

Schools are now not able to refuse a place to a child with a learning disability unless they can prove that the education of other children would be adversely affected or that they are not able to take reasonable steps to educate the disabled pupil.

Who at the school is responsible for these new disability discrimination duties?

It is the Governing Body of the school that is responsible for making sure that the school is not acting in a discriminatory way. You can find out from the headteacher or the LEA, the name of the Chair of Governors and the name of the Special Educational Needs Governor. They will be able to give more detailed information about the school is working to avoid discriminating against disabled pupils. The will have a written policy on inclusion and by April 2003 have to publish plans on how they will extend access to all pupils in the coming years.

In the case of independent schools it is the proprietor or the management group of the school and they have the same duties to avoid discrimination as all other schools.

The school I really want for my child says that they are not able to meet their needs. Isn't this discrimination?

The new law makes it clear to schools that they have to take reasonable steps to admit and educate your child. They may not be able to do this within time for your child. If, for example, all the school staff needed to learn sign language it would take time for the school to manage this.

I think the school could take reasonable steps to help my child what can I do about this?

In the first instance it would be best to discuss this with the headteacher and consider writing to the Chair of Governors. The school Governors will need to check that the school has taken all reasonable steps and that disabled children are not at a substantial disadvantage. The school is allowed to take into account:-

  • The need to maintain academic standards
  • The costs of taking reasonable steps
  • Whether it is practical to make changes
  • The health and safety of all the pupils
  • The interests of other pupils

You may want to use the school's complaints procedure and you can do this at the same time as making a claim to the Tribunal or using the conciliation service.

What help outside the school is there for me and my child?

All Local Education Authorities have to provide information and advice to parents of children with special educational needs. This information and advice is available through the Parent Partnership Service and your local council office would be able to give you contact details.

There are also independent disagreement resolution (mediation) services available to parents in every local area and these may be able to help resolve a dispute about discrimination. The Parent Partnership Service or the independent mediation service may also be able to help you use the school complaints procedure and give you information about conciliation and about the Tribunal.

Parents can make a claim that their child has experienced unlawful discrimination through the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal. This Tribunal can order any remedy except financial compensation. Parents must make a claim to the Tribunal within 6 months of the alleged discrimination.

The Disability Rights Commission runs an independent conciliation service to promote settlement of claims without going to the Tribunal. Both you and the Governing Body (or proprietors of an independent school) have to agree if the conciliation service is to be used. Agreeing to use either mediation or conciliation does not affect your right to take your claim of discrimination to the Tribunal. If you use the conciliation service this means that you have 8 months from the decision or discriminatory incident to take your claim the Tribunal.

How can I find out more?

The Disability Rights Commission can be contacted on 08457-622-633. On their website there is a leaflet for parents and further information.

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal can be contacted on 0207-925-6902. They have a useful booklet and video that explain about making a claim.


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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 9). Disability Discrimination and Schools, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: February 12, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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