Focusing on the ability

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
Clare Jenkins visits a specialist college with an enviable track record in overcoming the obstacles of disability.

When the film Skallagrigg recently won a BAFTA award, among those applauding were staff and students of Hereward College of Further Education in Coventry. Because one of its stars was former student Kerry Noble.

Kerry, who has cerebral palsy, acted in a wheelchair. The performing arts are important at Hereward - Central Television are often in touch when looking for a young disabled actor, the Candoco Dance Company is based here and, from September, the college will be offering a BTEC advanced course in the subject.

Hereward is unique in a number of ways. Once the only LEA-funded special needs college in the country, it's now the only Further Education Funding Council-funded specialist college catering for students with physical and sensory disabilities. It also houses the National Federation of Access Centres, a 20-strong network of consultancies aimed at opening up access to buildings and the curriculum in further and higher education. It's a venue for disability conferences. And it's planning the first conductive education centre for adults in the UK.

Yet it's also a mainstream local college, with 80 non-disabled day students as well as 115 disabled, residential ones.

At first sight, Hereward looks just like the adjoining Tile Hill FE College - purpose-built (in 1972), low-rise, light and airy. Inside, though, there's the constant swish of battery-operated wheelchairs, entrances are wide, and double doors kept open.

Every room shows the adaptations made to enable disabled students to work computers, cameras, broadcasting equipment, desktop publishing.

In the darkroom, two students with special brackets on their wheelchairs to hold cameras are being shown how to develop and print photographs (some of which adorn the entrance corridor). The enlargers are ultra-sensitive to touch, the tables move up and down, the developers are automatic, and everything is controlled by large knobs. So even students with severe disabilities are catered for.

What used to be the library is now the learning resource centre, where books sit side by side with state-of-the-art computers admired on a recent visit by Gillian Shephard. In the multimedia suite, students are using joysticks, trackerballs, mouth sticks and headbraces - as well as hands - to operate Internet and CD-Rom-linked computers, word processors and interactive videos. Some are producing the college magazine and publicity materials. One is being helped to design a fantasy football magazine for a Young Enterprise scheme - last year's T-shirt business was voted Best Young Enterprise Company.

The TV studio was originally the gym. But as the student profile changed - the emphasis moving from relatively minor disabilities like asthma to such conditions as spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, as well as head and spine injuries - the gym became under-used. Now, it houses a broadcasting standard recording and edit suite - an on-site TV production unit produces four hours of cable TV a week, as well as corporate and training videos for the social services department.

Nearby is the study support area with technicians who adapt existing devices or create new ones to make life easier for the most disabled of students - individually developed computers using gearstick controls, to enable students to drive their own chairs, switch on the lights, TV and video, talk to people through a voice synthesiser.

In addition, disabled students have support workers and "study buddies". The emphasis, says marketing manager Mike Thompson, is on the individual. "There are numerous strategies to get people communicating and mobile, to allow them to do things without always having to call for help, to give them independence and privacy. There's no off-the-shelf solution to a lot of the problems they have. But barriers to learning can be overcome through adaptive techniques or human support."

Many students attend Hereward after years at one special school. "They come from a protected environment and are planted into one that's as non-institutionalised as possible," says Mike Thompson.

Given the competition for places, and the pressure on funding, they first have to persuade their local education authority that neither their physical nor their academic needs can be met locally. A two-day assessment precedes the offer of a place at Hereward - the decision being based on intellectual capability, not disability.

Within the eight study areas - among them maths and IT, sciences, humanitieslanguages, art and design - as well as traditional qualifications, courses include GCSEs in expressive arts and multimedia, City Guilds in photography, NVQs in business administration, a foundation course for Coventry's fine arts degree, and access to higher education courses like TV and video production. The latest development is a 24-hour curriculum, incorporating individually tailored programmes and extra-curricular activities.

"We're moving away from the idea of care and support," says Mike Thompson, "into the concept of success and achievement, independence and self-advocacy, using technological and human enablers with the student directing. So when they move on to university or work they can direct their own career needs and overcome their own problems."

In the past 20 years, over 1,200 students have gone on to higher education - 58 per cent last year half of them disabled. Others move into jobs, in the civil service, social services, the distributive trades and service industries. For students preferring self-employment, Hereward has its own on-site "enterprise park". Not all set their sights so high. "For some", says director of studies Janis Firminger, "the decision to attend FE, sometimes many miles from home, is a challenge in itself."

For those who can work, the college has 60 employer partners - among them, Massey Ferguson, British Rail and Sainsbury. Students go on work placements and the college is actively involved in trying to change perceptions of disability in the labour market. As Mike Thompson says, "We're helping the students develop their skills, but if the rest of the world won't recognise that potential it's a waste of time. A work placement has to be seen not as an act of charity but as something positive for the company as well."

Student governor Kerri Well agrees: "There's more to a person than a series of problems that money has to be chucked at."

Kerri, 20, has been at Hereward for five years. She chose it in preference to her local FE college in Exeter, where she felt the end result would be a day care centre. With A-levels in law, English and maths, and an access course in media studies behind her, she hopes to start a BA in media studies and international relations at Staffordshire University next year. She had offers for this year until the universities realised the extent of the physical problem: she has cerebral palsy and paraplegia, is wheelchair-bound and is dyslexic.

But as Hereward curriculum development manager Chrissie Vincent says: "We don't look at a student and think, 'My God, there's no way they can do this course'. It's our problem to overcome, not theirs."

"People tend to concentrate on the disability rather than the ability, " agrees Kerri Well . "So it was great to come here, where the disability is ignored and the ability focused on. But in an ideal world, you'd get this amount of support and understanding and practical support in the mainstream environment." What she would like to see is total integration. "I'm grateful to Hereward. It's helped me to identify what I am and what I want to achieve. It's been a great stepping stone. But ideally I'd like to break out of the disability mode, because why do we have to come to a place for people with special needs?" To tackle such complexities, the committee set up working groups on definitions; means of assessment, both of needs and of learning and achievements; specialist support services for students; inter-agency collaboration and legal responsibilities. Unravelling the definitions, powers and duties is "crucial", according to Professor Tomlinson, because, "when it is not clear who is responsible, key elements of FE and opportunities for individual students can be threatened or lost - or just so argued about that they become irrelevant for the individual".

Whether funds are available for specially designed computers or extra staffing can also depend on definition. The Tomlinson committee aims to clarify any grey areas. "Why can't we say a student's learning environment has to include a braille reader just like it includes maps for someone doing geography?"asks Professor Tomlinson. "We want to provide the FEFC with a clear way of allocating funds, and make provision educationally sound at the same time. "

Deborah Cooper believes tougher legislation, rather than integration, has to be the starting point for change: "Because, however good the FEFC has been, at the moment a college is entitled to say: 'We don't want you here because you're disabled'. That's legal and will remain so as long as FHE is left out of the legislation. It's also legal to say, 'Come here, but we won't give you the staffing or support you need to succeed, or we won't ensure the staff know how to meet your needs properly'. So a lecturer might refuse to wear the radio aid needed by a deaf student, or to write things in large print for the partially sighted. The only way to prevent that happening is through legislation. There are two disability bills currently going through Parliament - a private member's Bill, which includes FHE, and a Bill which partially includes them."

Professor Tomlinson agrees that legislation is vital. But he foresees problems. "If you can prove someone is breaking the law, it's obviously a successful weapon. The problem is that people with disabilities need special access to buildings as well as appropriately trained staff and appropriate equipment. And all have a price tag attached to them. You can tell people till you're blue in the face that they ought to have lifts, but you can't make people-find find the money."

His hope is that, once non-discrimination is law, Government money will be found - not just for more equipment and improved access, but also for teacher and management training and organisational development. "Effective change requires a combination of two things," he concludes: "new structures along with new attitudes and values among the people making and using those.

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