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Equal opportunities keep their sparkle

Visually-impaired students can do almost everything their sighted classmates at Jewel and Esk Valley College in Edinburgh can do, thanks to a sensory impairment resource unit.

The unit - the only one of its kind in Scotland - provides the technology to ensure that the goal of equal opportunities gets beyond pious intentions.

At one time students had to travel to Ceres in Fife where the Royal National Institute for the Blind has a centre. But that was inconvenient for many students, especially older ones with family ties. So the Jewel and Esk Valley unit met a perceived need in a way different from south of the border, where specialist colleges continue to be the locus for courses tailored to the needs of the hearing impaired.

The Edinburgh unit currently serves more than 40 visually-impaired students and five with hearing problems. The students take mainstream courses ranging from basic maths and communications to Higher National units in computing and accounting.

Students are assessed for their particular needs when they start at the college. They then follow a specially-tailored intensive course - called access technology for the visually impaired.

They get study skills training, plus support in ensuring that they can get around the college independently. Thorough links with outside agencies and training on how to get to the college is also provided.

The students are given careers guidance and counselling. If visual impairment dates from childhood, they may have lost touch with education for many years after leaving a special school. Students who become blind as adults maybe coping with losing their sight and their job.

One student, Margaret Brown, 59, has been losing her sight since she was 21. She is now taking arts, languages, communications and maths courses. "It's made a big difference to my life," she says.

She regrets she didn't get the chance earlier. "If the unit had been here 20 years ago I'd have had a job."

Paul, 30, has every hope of a full working life ahead of him. He has been going blind since he was 12 and had many years out of education before coming to the college. Now he feels he can fulfil his ambition to become a history lecturer or teacher.

But while many of the visually-impaired students have achieved academic success this is not the sole goal of the unit, says lecturer Mary Dallas. "It's just as important that they begin to value themselves as independent people who can go out and have some life and be a part of society. Some of our students have in fact gone on to do voluntary work," she adds.

Ms Dallas is a qualified and experienced teacher of blind people. She and a similarly qualified college are joined in the unit by Jim McKenzie who is visually-impaired himself and a former mature student of Jewel and Esk Valley. He says: "The purpose of the unit is to make sure there is nothing a student cannot do just because he is visually impaired."

The team includes a full-time support technician, Kevin Tait. He was student union president at the college and he is well versed in the special requirements of visually-impaired students. He ensures that course materials are in an accessible form for students, scanned on to a computer disc on CD-Rom, or in braille.

Students are also given advice on using computer technology in their own homes and using specially-converted material for use on open learning courses.

"Everyone has the right to have a chance to do the best they can in education," Mr Tait says.

The unit's resource centre has eight computers which have sound systems.

The technology does not come cheap, particularly with the ever-present pressures to update systems. But the college has sought cash from other sources, such as the European Social Fund.

The efforts have put the college on the national and international map. Consultancy work on goes apace for colleges in the UK, and last year, the unit ran a two-day conference of lectures throughout Scotland on technology for the visually handicapped.

The college's reputation has now spread so far that a visually-handicapped student has come from Hungary to use the facilities.

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