Dear Ted, A bright, disabled student of mine wants to go to university but I think he'll struggle without the support he gets at school and at home. What advice should I give?

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Ted says

A few years ago we trained a student teacher without any arms. Throughout his career people had told him he would never make it to the next stage ("You may have got A-levels, but you'll never cope with universityIYou may have got a degree, but you'll never be able to teach"). When he completed his course the same people said he would never get a job, but he did.

It is true that going away from home is an especially big step. Many disabled students have parents who have assembled a massive local support system, with transport, medical care, tutorial assistance, and so on. The worry is that this will go away when the student leaves home.

Yet most universities are now geared up to take disabled students. It is likely there will be ramps for wheelchairs, tutorial assistance and special residential places. Usually both the university and the students' union have disability officers whose job it is to make sure disabled students are properly supported.

Your student should look at prospectuses in the usual way and then visit any campus of interest, asking to see the disability officer. The university needs to know in good time, as some older buildings are not very suitable. Universities usually make special efforts to help students with academic work: more reading time in exams for dyslexics, an amanuensis for students unable to write, suitable equipment in science labs or specialist rooms. It is very moving at degree ceremonies when these remarkable students graduate in the presence of their families and hundreds of admirers of their fortitude.

You say

Get him to make a list of his needs Congratulate and support your student in his ambitions. He is the expert on his needs and should be encouraged to formulate a list of key requirements well in advance of his UCAS application; he can use this to negotiate suitable provision. HE institutions, like schools, are required to make reasonable adjustments and, in my experience, they do so with passionate commitment.

However, any institution should be judged by what it actually provides for each student, and this will not improve unless those with disabilities are actively encouraged to apply to university and lead the way in telling us what support they need.

Carol Huckvale, University of Gloucestershire

Don't wrap him up in cotton wool

What age are you living in? Listen carefully: he wants to go to university.

They will be the best years of his life: he will make wonderful friends, will be challenged, maybe get pissed and have great sex as well.

He will be supported by disability grants to cover a full-time personal helper (if necessary) and specialist equipment. Any practical help he needs, he will get. The degree of disability is not the issue; independence is in the mind. I have seen too many people with disabilities being wrapped up in cotton wool, losing all confidence and becoming dependent.

People are more disabled by attitudes than by physical or mental restrictions. Your advice should be go for it, but apply early to ensure time to get funding sorted.

Anonymous, email Inform him of all his options

University is all about independent learning. There are no teachers coaxing and pushing. If your student is able to keep up his motivation and work hard, then he is more than prepared. Telling him "no" is not going to convince him; it will only discourage him and he may well become demotivated with life.

Any "no" has to come from him, and it is your duty as a teacher to inform him well. You can introduce him to other options in HE, such as correspondence courses and online learning, which may fit better with his lifestyle.

Amynah Bhanji, London

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