Deaf student wins important discrimination victory against university


A deaf student who accused a university of failing to ensure her degree course was accessible to her has secured an important legal victory.

Durham University has agreed to pay £25,000 in compensation to Rosie Watson, who quit her anthropology degree last year after claiming the university repeatedly failed to comply with an assessment of her access needs.

Watson, a mature student from Darlington, said: “I just wanted to be treated as a normal student but I didn’t get the support.

“Every day there was another attitudinal barrier against me. They just made it impossible for me to continue.”

Watson said she hoped her case would draw attention to the problems faced by other deaf students. She knew two deaf students who quit Durham University because of a lack of support. 

In her witness statement, Watson described a string of examples in which tutorials, lectures and assignments were not made accessible even though she kept asking her tutor for help.

Lecturers were not told about her access needs, and frequently failed to supply lesson plans in advance to allow her to plan any assistance she might need.

Videos were shown without subtitles – again without any warning – and one tutor refused to arrange a tutorial group in a circle, which would have been more accessible.

On one occasion, Watson missed the second half of a session because the lecturer had moved the students to another class without checking she had heard where they were going.

Watson also described in her witness statement how she had been exposed to “ridicule and humiliation” in front of fellow students, and that her experiences in the second year of her course had been “completely devastating”.

Her case was taken under the education section (part four) of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), and was settled out of court, although the university did not accept liability.

She had sought compensation for tuition fees, the cost of student loans, injury to feelings, loss of career opportunities and damage to her mental health. 

Solicitor Chris Fry, of Wake Smith & Tofields, who represented Watson, said it was the first case he knew of in which a student had successfully taken such a case against a university.

Many disabled people were put off by the legal costs they would have to pay if they lost their DDA case, he said.

His firm took on Watson’s case on a “no win, no fee” basis, and arranged insurance to cover the university’s costs in case she lost.

Fry said: “It’s an important case: a disabled person taking on a large establishment for the benefit of others.

“While there has been no formal court judgement, we think there will be a wide response to it across other educational establishments.”

Watson was supported throughout her case by Darlington Association on Disability (DAD).

Gordon Pybus, chair of DAD, said the case showed the need for disabled people to seek support if they were facing discrimination, and the importance of access to qualifications for disabled people to allow them a better chance to find work.

Michael Gilmore, Durham University’s academic registrar, said: “The university has agreed a settlement with Mrs Watson without admission of liability and it would not be appropriate to make any further comment.”

19 May 2010


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