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Queen's University
 

College refuses to admit a student in a wheelchair

Facts

In 2003, a student with cerebral palsy, and in a wheelchair, applied to study geography and information technology at St Dominic's Sixth Form College. The College was a small two-story building with a large student population, frequent class changes, one narrow stairwell and no lift. Its computer lab, where the applicant would attend about half of his classes, was located on the second floor and was therefore inaccessible to him. The college rejected his application because they claimed they could not safely accommodate him. The student's father offered to acquire a stair-climbing wheelchair that could go from one floor to another in about four to six minutes. The College conducted a health and safety assessment which showed that the device would cause congestion, disrupt classes and incur undue risk to all students, including the applicant, in the event of a fire. The applicant argued that he would be willing to use the stairs early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when traffic was light, and that his wheelchair was a model approved by the fire department. When the College still refused to accommodate him, he brought his case to the Disability Rights Commission, who agreed to bring it to court.

The student was worried that he would lose a year of education while waiting for his hearing. On his behalf, the DRC applied for a temporary injunction that would oblige the college to provide the teenager with educational services pending his trial. Before deciding to grant the injunction, the judge asked himself four questions, which were set forth as principles in Nottingham Building Society v Eurodynamics Systems (See Issues below).  (Fort-Shubrook v St. Dominics Sixth Form College. MA 315 699 Courts of Justice, Crown Square Manchester 27th August 2003. district Judge McGrath.)

Issues

  1. If the student is allowed to start college (as the result of a positive injunction) and then has to withdraw (as the result of an unsuccessful trial), would this represent any real injustice to the student?
  2. If the student is allowed to start college (as the result of a positive injunction) and then has to withdraw (as the result of an unsuccessful trial), would this represent a greater injustice than not allowing him to start college?
  3. Does the student have good prospects of success at trial?
  4. If not, would denying him the opportunity to start college carry a greater risk of injustice than allowing him to start?

Answers

  1. No
  2. No
  3. Yes
  4. Yes

Reasoning

  1. The student knows ahead of time that there is a risk. If he starts college and then has to withdraw, he will experience a temporary inconvenience but not any great injustice.
  2. The judge ruled that "in terms of the positive step, it does not seem to me that there is any greater risk of injustice if the order is made now, and it turns out to have been made wrongly"
  3. The judge ruled that the claimant had a "good prospect of success at trial".
  4. The judge reasoned that even if the claimant did not have great prospects of success at trial, denying him this injunction would be more unjust than granting it. "The claimant has reached a certain stage in his education and in my judgment, particularly bearing in mind the disabilities which he has fought to overcome and which will face him for the rest of his life, it is important for him, he has a real need to continue the education in his chosen field and to have that education delivered at the right time."

Outcome

The College settled the case before it went to trial, when an independent body, the Learning and Skills Council, agreed to fund the cost of a temporary accessible classroom with computer facilities on the first floor to be used by the claimant until a lift was installed in 2004.

Kingston, Ontario, Canada. K7L 3N6. 613.533.2000