'Oscar' winner's vision for a future

Learning boost for blind has ripple effect, reports Martin Whittaker

Mike Scanlan scooped national recognition for work supporting blind and partially-sighted students when he won a learning and skills sector "Oscar". Now his work at Liverpool community college is set to make a much greater impact, improving the support other colleges give visually impaired learners.

A pilot project in which he and his team support neighbouring colleges in the North-west is being extended throughout England in partnership with the Royal National Institute for the Blind.

"It's lovely to be recognised with all my colleagues for the work we have done for the past 20 years," he said.

Mr Scanlan, who is himself visually impaired, joined Liverpool community college in the mid-Eighties teaching Braille and touch-typing. Today he is the college's team leader in study support for learners with impaired vision.

In October he received a national STAR Award for staff supporting people with learning difficulties or disabilities. Liverpool is recognised for the support it offers blind and partially-sighted students, and each year helps between 40 and 50 visually-impaired learners to get on courses. In its last inspection, in February 2005, the college's support for students - including its partnership with RNIB - was declared outstanding.

When a student with visual impairment applies for a course they are given an initial assessment of their needs for their particular curriculum area.

The college then helps them with in-class, one-to-one support for note taking or reading, transcription of materials into Braille or in electronic formats using specially adapted computers. Mike Scanlan's department also lends students a range of specialist equipment, for example to magnify print or screen reading software which enables a computer to talk.

"Someone might just want handouts enlarged, or a piece of equipment," said Mr Scanlan. "Someone else might require a note-taker because they can't see what's on the board, or others might require aspects of them all."

The college also offers specialist classes to sighted learners, including learning support assistants in schools or parents who want to help their children. Mr Scanlan says Liverpool community college differs from others in its approach to inclusion in that it has distinct specialist teams.

While his team specialises in visual impairment, there are others dedicated to support for deaf students, for dyslexic students, and for those with physical disabilities.

"I think we probably do it for more people and we have a good reputation,"

he said. "All colleges should be able to do it, but provision tends to be very ad hoc."

Three years ago the college began a partnership with the RNIB, funded by the charity and Greater Merseyside learning and skills council to develop its role as a specialist support centre.

The RNIB had reviewed the provision of post-16 education and training for blind and partially-sighted learners nationally and found that they are currently under-represented.

Another spur to improve provision was the 2001 Disability Discrimination Act part 4, which made it unlawful to discriminate against disabled students in education and training.

The charity's partnership with Liverpool community college began with a team of RNIB staff based at the college enhancing the support it gives its own students.

In September this year phase two of the project began, making the college a central hub offering support to Hugh Baird college, St Helens college, Wirrall metropolitan college and Southport college.

Mike Scanlan and RNIB staff also share their expertise, going out to colleges to offer staff development, while the colleges also send in their learning materials to be adapted for visually- impaired students.

The RNIB is now working to set up specialist hubs at other colleges, including Newcastle college, Park Lane college, Leeds and City of Bristol college. Its aim is to be working with all nine LSC regions across England by 2009.

"It's an exciting development," said Mark Braithwaite, who manages the RNIB's college partnership programme.

"We're really looking to improve local opportunities for blind and partially sighted learners so that they have the chance to study locally rather than at a national college."

Because visual impairment is relatively uncommon, it was better to concentrate on centres which already supported students with disabilities and learning difficulties, he said.

"Mike Scanlan has been key to this development. One has to be very open, very flexible and in a sense, share the vision and aspirations and he certainly does that."

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