Working through disability

Higher education institutions do their best to help and encourage students with disabilities, as Richard Sypula discovered

Higher education is keen to seek out students who are academically capable and help them realise their potential. Where disability problems exist there are ways to manage them. Richard Sypula, from Stevenage, has just entered his third year at Nottingham University studying mechanical design, materials and manufacture. He is progressing on his course in the face of Usher syndrome – a genetic condition. People who have Usher syndrome are born with a hearing loss, later also developing visual loss – usually in their late teens. Richard’s experiences show how all concerned co-operate to ensure that people with disabilities manage their course and university life with the maximum possible degree of independence.

Richard declared his disability on his UCAS form. He attended informal interviews at Brunel, Birmingham and Nottingham universities before selecting Brunel as his main offer and Nottingham as his insurance. He chose on academic grounds but used the opportunity to discuss facilities for disabled people at each establishment. In the event, he did not make his offer at Brunel but was accepted by Nottingham.

Immediately after his acceptance he contacted Mary Foley, the university’s officer for disability issues. She arranged for him to have a room in a new hall of residence, near his department and instead of the normal aural fire alarm, he has a visual one. Nottingham campus is hilly and spread around a parkland site but these arrangements give Richard a compact area in which to operate. The university also provides a vehicle for disabled students as a further help towards mobility.

The department lecture rooms are fitted with induction loops so listening is no problem. Richard is also proficient at lip reading and finds that the seating and lighting arrangements help him with that. He could have the services of a note taker but prefers to take his own. Library equipment includes a word processor with voice synthesiser, a closed circuit enlarger and library carrels for blind students should they be needed. All these facilities are free.

Coursework has been OK but Richard has had some problems with exams. His need to take time to adjust to lighting conditions in the exam room has been met by an award of 15 minutes per hour added time. Dyslexic students could have even more time. However, an unexpected problem arose when he found, just before some exams, that he needed an urgent cataract operation. It was therefore arranged with the department for him to be set vacation work, which allowed him to demonstrate his competence to continue with his course.

Richard belongs to a university staff/student group bringing together students with disabilities and helping to focus university support. He can also call upon support from Sense – the National Deafblind and Rubella Association. Their value has, in Richard’s view, been felt by his parents, his own role being to support the organisation rather than be supported by it.

He has advised at a Sense Usher Syndrome education fair helping others to feel positive towards continuing education and supplementing Sense’s free guide on how to apply for courses if you suffer from Usher. He also raised funds for Sense through sponsored treks in Nepal and Alaska.

Mary Foley’s role at Nottingham is repeated at most higher education institutions in the country. All have policy statements showing their strategy for accommodating the needs of students with disabilities and refer to named contacts for further information. These statements are freely available from the universities and colleges. Institutions often describe their policy in general terms but like to respond specifically to each individual enquiry, welcoming visits from anyone interested in exploring potential facilities

Many types of disability have voluntary support organisations, like Sense, with expert knowledge of the type of support appropriate for their members.

For instance, volunteers may need advance training, accommodation may take time to arrange, liaison arrangements may need to be established with other organisations such as Social Services, the university or college health centre, or with tutors for those with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia.

All this can be discussed provisionally at the stage of interviews and open days. So even if you have only just started year 12, you could now already be starting to search for the course and the university or college which meets your needs.

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