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Specialism within the mainstream

The Disability Discrimination Act amendments require education providers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled learners. This has posed major challenges to mainstream colleges. It also raises another question. If accessible education is available to most disabled people with a local mainstream provider, what are specialist colleges like mine now about?

Half a century ago the norm was that if disabled people were to experience any significant specialist support that could only be in a specialist institution. Many specialist colleges were based in beautiful but remote locations, out of sight of most of society.

For some disabled people specialist education has positive memories. For others it felt too much like social isolation. Many longed to have more contact with their non-disabled peer group.

There will always be some for whom residential education or training is necessary. However, the modern view is that, wherever possible, disabled people should learn in the mainstream. And not just because the Government has worked out it is cheaper.

Larger mainstream colleges can offer a wider range of courses. There are also more opportunities for social integration and the development of adult life skills.

But, to work, specialist support has to be done well and in an environment that may not always be conducive. Blind and partially-sighted learners, for example, need trained, specialist learning support. A fast, effective method of transcribing learning materials into braille or other formats is essential. Then there are wider issues of staff training and multi-disability support.

Specialist residential colleges, however, already have this expertise. In 1989 the RNIB Vocational College relocated to the campus of Loughborough College. We run a specialist base room in the heart of the college to help blind and partially sighted learners integrate into mainstream classes.

Over the years we have gained experience of supporting learners in almost all the subject areas of a typical college, from higher education to special provision for people with learning difficulties.

We now give support, from 16, to further and higher education institutions throughout the Midlands. We provide a flexible package of support depending on the needs of individual learners and the host institution. LSC colleges usually pay for this out of Additional Learning Support funding.

Once local people with sight problems realise that their local college is serious about meeting their needs the effect on recruitment and reputation can be substantial. We are still welcoming new colleges and universities to our associate college network and the number of learners supported increases year by year.

We would also like to make the network about a wider range of issues. For example, all disabled people find getting a job difficult, but for the visually impaired the figures are staggering - some 75 per cent of those of working age are unemployed. Ironically, these are often people with considerable skills and potential commitment to an employer.

As well as technical and training support we can give advice on claiming Government grants for disabled employees. We maintain regular contact with the person and employer. We aim to be like a specialist recruitment agency in every way except one - usually our support is free of charge.

There are other transition problems facing disabled learners. Those progressing to university experience a major change in learning style and often face substantial delays in arranging specialist support.

On the basis of a close working relationship with a specialist college, a mainstream college would be in a stronger position to bid for funding for community and social regeneration projects where disability is a theme.

Colleges and universities are aware that they have to demonstrate to funding bodies, inspectors and the community generally that they are serious about supporting disabled people. If you would like to discuss possible co-operation with us we would like to hear from you.

Tony Warren is principal of the RNIB Vocational College, Radmoor Road, Loughborough, LE11 3BS.

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