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'It's up to me to challenge their misconceptions'

Universities are spurning students who require special facilities. Josephine Gardiner reports. Malcolm Parfitt is blind. Now 32, he has encountered a disturbing amount of ignorance and obstruction from employers, trainers and universities.

Despite this, he remains remarkably unembittered and cheerfully determined to pursue a place in higher education. "If I accumulated too many chips on my shoulder, I'd end up bent double as well as blind."

Malcolm has A-levels in physics and economics, has done youth training in computer studies, and has a City and Guilds Further and Adult Teaching Certificate from Merthyr Tydfil college, which he has used to work as a teacher in further education.

He wants to take a degree in order to return to teaching at a higher level, and is especially interested in computers because of their potential in opening up knowledge to blind people. So far he has been effectively rejected by three universities.

The first was Cardiff, where he was interviewed last February.

"After the interview I got a letter which said, 'If we offer you a place, it must be on the clear understanding that you can cope without significant resource implications for the department as a whole'.

"In other words, I was not to expect any help from them."

After hearing that Swansea University had facilities for the blind, he applied and was told on two occasions that he had got a place. He resigned from his job.

The next day he rang the head of department at Swansea to check on an administrative matter and was told that there had been a misunderstanding and he hadn't got a place after all.

Undaunted, he then attended an open day at Newport University College of Wales, where he met a helpful head of department who offered him a place on his course.

"At last, I thought, I'm all right now." But when he turned up for his interview, the helpful tutor had left and the new head of department turned him down.

Malcolm is now on an access course at a local higher education college and is applying to University College, Glamorgan.

The catalogue of obstruction stretches back further than his university applications; when he was applying to do the adult teaching certificate, his local FE college, Ebbw Vale, refused to consider him because, they said, he would not fit in with their teaching methods. "I was then accepted at Merthyr Tydfil college on a three-week trial basis, which proved successful."

Working with partially sighted computer trainees afterwards, he was forbidden by his employer, the Alan Davies Training Centre, to give advice to the sighted students because "that was not my job. Trainees who came over to talk to me were told to go back. One day they even put screens round my desk, as if I had leprosy or something."

"I've learnt that it is entirely up to the student to challenge people's misconceptions about blind people. It was obvious to me when I was applying to Cardiff and Newport that I was the only blind person they had ever encountered.

"Another problem is the way people tend to assume we are a homogeneous group with the same personalities and the same amount of potential."

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