Disabled PhD Students – Your Legal Rights
Written by Mark Bennett
Lots of support exists to help you study for a doctorate while managing an existing illness, learning difficulty or disability. But it’s important that you understand your legal rights as a disabled PhD student.
This page provides a summary of the legislation that protects the rights of disabled PhD students in the UK. It focusses on the Equality Act 2010.
If you plan to study a PhD abroad you should contact your prospective university or the ministry of education in the country where you wish to study. Students in the EU can also access information on policies and strategies for protecting people with disabilities at the European Commission website.
Introduction: disabled PhD students and the UK Equality Act
The legal rights of disabled PhD students in the UK are protected by the Equality Act 2010. This stops a higher education institution from discriminating against you on the basis of a disability. It also prevents you from being disadvantaged because of your disability (for example, by being unable to access buildings and facilities).
The full Equality Act covers a wide range of personal circumstances. We’ve summarised the material that applies to the legal rights of disabled PhD students on this page.
Please note that, whilst FindAPhD lists many law degrees, we aren’t lawyers ourselves. The following legal information is provided for guidance only.
What the Equality Act means for disabled PhD students
The Equality Act protects you against discrimination or disadvantage arising from an existing disability while you complete your PhD at a university in the UK. You should be admitted to your course based solely on your academic merit and the strength of your application. Your university should also take measures to help you overcome the effects of your disability or chronic illness.
There are limitations to the extent of the Equality Act, however, and you should be aware of these.
Your university cannot be held to have disadvantaged or discriminated against you if it isn’t aware of your disability. You aren't legally obliged to inform a university of an existing disability when applying for a PhD. But choosing not to do so may make it harder to access the support you are entitled to.
Curriculum design and academic requirements
A disability will not exempt you from fulfilling the core requirements of your PhD. (These include the research, submission and defence of an original doctoral thesis).
Where a university is aware of a disability, it will usually do its best to help provide extra support to you as a research student. This may involve general help with accessibility and support. Or it could mean allowing you an extended period in which to complete and submit your thesis. Universities will also attempt to arrange your viva voce exam or ‘thesis defence’ in a way that minimises the effect of any issues arising from your condition.
Defining disability, chronic illness and learning difficulties under the Equality Act
It's important that you understand how the Equality Act defines different conditions. This will help you to know how a university should view your situation. And the measures it should take to support you.
Defining disability under the UK Equality Act
The Equality Act defines disability as any physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal activities.
A condition is held to be ‘long-term’ if has lasted, or is likely to last, for at least 12 months. This can include recurring conditions. They will be classed as a disability if they have an intermittent adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal activities.
Defining chronic illnesses and learning difficulties under the Equality Act
Chronic illnesses and learning difficulties can also be classed as disabilities under the Equality Act. To do so, they must cause substantial impairment over a 12-month period or greater, as described above. This applies regardless of ongoing treatment, unless it substantially alleviates your condition.
You may also qualify as disabled if you have a progressive condition that is likely to lead to significant impairment in future. This will automatically be the case if you are diagnosed with HIV, cancer or multiple sclerosis. Each of these conditions will immediately qualify you as disabled under the Equality Act.
Developing an illness during your degree
If you are diagnosed with a progressive condition during your degree, you should discuss it with your institution. This also applies if an existing minor condition substantially worsens.
Universities in the UK (and many other countries) will maintain a student support office. This will have staff trained to assist and advise disabled students, including postgraduates. You will not be obliged to inform your supervisor, but can do if you feel this would be helpful.
Seeking further advice about chronic illness and disability
If you are unsure whether a chronic illness counts as a disability you should discuss the matter with your doctor. They will be able to provide you with advice, along with any necessary medical evidence for your condition.
Admission to university – your legal rights as a disabled PhD student
The Equality Act protects disabled PhD students from discrimination during the university admissions process.
This means that a university cannot refuse to admit you as a PhD student purely on the basis of a disability. Its decision must be based entirely on the same criteria that apply to other students. (These include your academic merit and suitability for a project or position).
You are also protected from being discriminated against with respect to the award of your degree qualification. This means that a university cannot withhold a qualification from you based on a disability, provided you meet all other requirements for that qualification.
What counts as ‘discrimination’?
In this legal context, ‘discrimination’ refers to any decision to treat you less favourably purely on the basis of your having a disability. All decisions made regarding your admission, treatment and assessment must be based solely on the same criteria as apply to other students.
Am I legally required to disclose a disability or illness when applying for a PhD in the UK?
You are not obliged to disclose an existing disability when applying to a UK university as a PhD student. However, your institution cannot be held to have discriminated against or disadvantaged you on the basis of a condition it is unaware of.
Exceptions may apply if your enrolment defines you as an employee of the university (for example, as part of a funding arrangement). In such circumstances your institution is entitled to inquire about your health, but only to establish your ability to carry out essential duties or tasks as part of your employment.
Receiving support at university – your legal rights as a disabled PhD student
The Equality Act requires institutions to make reasonable adjustments for their disabled students. These oblige your university to avoid putting you at a substantial disadvantage due to the effects of your condition. The three specific scenarios in which the Act holds a university responsible for disadvantaging disabled students relate to:
- The university’s actions
- The physical design of university buildings and facilities
- A failure to provide reasonable additional support for your condition
In all the above cases your university should take reasonable steps to prevent you being disadvantaged. These could include providing information or materials in a more accessible format. Or providing altered or alternative means of access to buildings and infrastructure. You may also be offered specific support services. Where any of these take place, it is the responsibility of the university to cover their cost.
What counts as ‘disadvantage’?
You count as being disadvantaged if you are substantially less able to use facilities or carry out tasks relating to your PhD. Your university has a responsibility for this if it could have taken reasonable action to mitigate it.
Most universities in the UK will have dedicated disabled student services to ensure that this doesn’t happen.
Disabled Students’ Allowance
If you are studying a PhD with a disability in the UK, you may be entitled to Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). This a supplementary grant from Student Finance bodies, UK Research Councils or the NHS. It helps cover additional costs related to studying with a disability. You can learn more in our guide to Disabled Students' Allowance.