My sister is an undergraduate at a university in England, and emailed its Disability Office (let me abbreviate this to DO) a letter from her physician stating that disability thwarts her from carrying books (like her many heavy textbooks), because a publisher suggested PDF Accessible Formats of books that she must request through her university's DO.

But the Head of DO informed my sister that he doesn't consider her to have 'print disability' or to qualify for PDFs, probably (we are guessing) because he doesn't want to spend time obtaining the PDFs for her. He has offered nothing else useful for her.

We think that he's wrong, but how can she acquire the PDFs?

  • 1
    Has the student asked the disability services office what kind of documentation would be required to qualify for PDFs?
    – ff524
    Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 21:37
  • @ff524 The Head didn't say anything about the letter and we haven't asked because the letter makes the disability obvious, but thanks! We'll ask tomorrow.
    – user13306
    Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 21:39
  • 1
    There are typically different channels people can use to raise issues or make complaints, such as tutors, ombudsmen, student support office, student mentors / representatives, even a friendly lecturer. Commented Jul 9, 2017 at 22:27
  • 2
    Even if the disability is obvious, the necessities needed to accommodate for it might not be obvious to everyone, even a disability office. There are many types of disabilities and they come in different severities (and different humans anyway need different things to help them).
    – skymningen
    Commented Jul 10, 2017 at 9:00
  • 'He has offered nothing else useful for her.' Note that a letter from your GP is not usually sufficient to get disability support. Typically the DO can only provide specific accommodation to students following an assessment from one of a small list of providers. The accommodation offered is then directly linked to that assessment, in pre-defined categories.
    – Jessica B
    Commented Mar 29, 2018 at 17:34

3 Answers 3


I have an alternative take on the circumstances.

From Wikipedia, a Print disability refers to an impediment that prevents the reading of printed material. Presumably, the PDFs the disability office has are intended for students that need to use some other method, for example: 1) a text-to-speech program, which can't operate on the printed books, or 2) a digital display for a student with a disability that prevents them from turning pages.

It sounds like your sister has trouble carrying physically demanding loads, like a heavy textbook, but that doesn't mean she can't read a textbook that is sitting in front of her on a table. If this is correct, indeed your sister may not meet the definition of "print disability" that the DO is using.

Although the publisher sent your sister to the DO to obtain PDFs, they probably want no part in assessing whether the accommodations are necessary, they are punting it to the DO. The DO, on the other hand, might have a specific licensing agreement with the publisher that only allows them to provide digital copies if certain criteria are met under their definition of "print disability." It is possible that difficulty with the weight of a textbook doesn't fall under their terms.

I would suggest meeting again with the DO before escalating this to other offices, explain the nature of the disability, and see what accommodations can be made. Personally, when I was an undergraduate student carrying around heavy textbooks just wasn't a good idea for anybody. They were rarely actually needed in a course, they were used at home. It might be that the DO would rather provide a physical textbook copy in courses where a physical copy is needed in-class on a course-by-course basis, rather than providing PDFs (which they may not have a legal right to distribute).

Alternatively, as others have suggested, your sister could obtain digital copies on her own if possible.

(just to add: I think it's unfortunate, to say the least, that the DO didn't directly suggest other accommodations. You have a right to be frustrated by that, but I would try to be polite in the short term and try to assume that the DO head is simply busy rather than negligent. DO's could very easily be understaffed. Maybe they truly are just a jerk, but if they aren't and you assume they are, it will make the situation more difficult for everyone. Assume the best, try to be proactive, try to be assertive without being demanding, etc.)


Disclaimer: I have some experience with a similar office in my university but this is based on just one university. I'm also not from the UK so i do not know the legal situation and I do not know the policies of your university. This also just my opinion, not legal advice.

However there seem to be three scenarios:

  1. The university does not recognize your disability as a disability or does not acknowledge its effects. In this case you should first try to get the university to accept your disability. Without this acceptance getting the university to do anything will be hard. You might ask specific teachers to do this for you or other nice people but in general this will be difficult,except for suing the university which I think is probably not a great solution ( unless it is obvious the university should recognize your disability. ).

  2. The university does recognize your disability but does not provide books for any students. In this case it becomes complicated because you usually only get help with services that the university normally provides, That is you do get help (at least in my university) if because of a disability you cannot read your exam because the font is too small (you'll get larger fonts and usually the size of the paper is also bigger). However if you want something the university does not provide it is much harder to get, for example you cannot use the standard calculator because of the exact same reason. However since the calculators are never provided by the university it is hard to get a larger calculator. However you can still try to get it if it is truly unreasonable if you don't get it but your position is much weaker.

  3. Finally if the university does recognize your disability and normally does provide the books, then it is likely that they are required to provide it for you. If there is an ombudsman than you should probably try to contact him/her to address this.

In general if the bureaucracy does not cooperate or is very slow, you might just want to contact the teachers directly. Most teachers are quite understanding and if they can do so easily will provide you with what you need. You can also try to buy the books as e-books. or contact the author and ask him for a digital version.


There are several routes to resolving this:

  1. Your sister should contact her lecturers or her tutor, and tell them how unhelpful the disability office has been. They may be able to escalate this issue. Alternatively, they might be able to procure the PDF versions of the textbooks.

  2. Your sister should contact her student union. Most student unions have a disability officer who has been elected to represent students with disabilities. They will be able to intervene on your sister's behalf.

  3. Your sister can make an complaint about her treatment by the disability office. She would first need to make an internal complaint. Her tutor or disability officer would likely be able to help with this. If this doesn't resolve the issue, she can complain to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. Disability Rights UK has further information about making a complaint.

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