The gift which released Adam from his silence

Stephen Hoare

Disabled people may not be able to benefit from key equipment, Stephen Hoare reports.

Since Adam received his communication computer and voice synthesiser last November his teachers have noticed a big difference. He is outgoing, confident, keen to learn and, at times, bubbling over with happiness.

Severe cerebral palsy has trapped him inside a body he can only control with difficulty. Mute and wheelchair-bound, it took Pounds 7,000 worth of hi-tech equipment to give Adam the chance to communicate with the outside world.

The equipment was paid for by a grant from the Further Education Funding Council and his local social services and was specially- adapted to fit on his wheelchair by his college's in-house rehabilitation engineering department.

Adam, 20, is on a pre-vocational course at Lord Mayor Treloar College, Alton, Hants - one of only a handful of national specialist colleges for the disabled.

Now Government cutbacks could spoil the chances for others like Adam. It is cheaper to keep a disabled student in mainstream education but they may not get an adequate education.

Local authorities and funding bodies are starting to count costs and other students may not share Adam's luck.

It is an issue that worries college director Hartley Heard: "Our problems begin and end with funding. When we're looking at a student who might come to us and calculate how much it would cost to give that student the education he or she needs. Then local authorities have to decide whether they can afford it. "

Funding has been more secure since Lord Mayor Treloar converted its upper school into an FE college last term. Now, Treloar can take students from 16 through to their mid-twenties. It gives students like Adam who previously would have had to leave at 19 the chance to stay and complete their studies, and some gain recognised vocational qualifications.

But the cost is high - anything from Pounds 19,000 to Pounds 39,000 to offer full residential care for a year. The variations reflect students' unique needs.

Mr Heard hopes that the Tomlinson Committee will recognise the importance of continuing to fund specialist colleges. The committee is carrying out an inquiry into who is responsible for and who pays for FE provision for students with learning difficulties and disabilities.The college sent a delegation, including Adam to give evidence to the committee.

Mr Heard believes funding should not be linked to academic results but should take into account the massive benefits his students gain by learning ways of coping with their disabilities that will reduce their dependence on care later on. He says: "We are preparing our students not only for jobs but to become economically self-sufficient."

Mr Heard believes there is a chance that the independent Tomlinson committee may protect special needs funding.

He praises the efforts of mainstream education but he says that some disabled students fare better in specialist colleges like his.

And he says special needs provision in mainstream education is a lottery. "People with the same disabilities living in different areas can experience a widely different quality of education.

"There is more to special needs than just widening a door. Schools must give disabled students full access to subjects like science, IT and PE or they could miss out at FE level."

Mr Heard adds: "We work with students to help them handle everyday situations able-bodied people take for granted such as visiting a bank, travelling by public transport and cooking."

Last vacation, Adam made his own way back home to Cambridge. Escorted as far as Waterloo, he programmed his voice synthesiser to ask strangers directions as he crossed London by underground and boarded a train at Liverpool Street. And he is taking a great deal of interest in the progress of the Tomlinson Committee.

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