Back in April 2015, Robin Ferguson, an FE learner studying for a traineeship at Derwen College, stood on stage at the NUS students’ union annual conference in front of a 1,000-strong audience.
His three-minute speech was punctuated by spontaneous applause from the crowd, and when he finished they responded with a standing ovation. Everyone in the audience was aware that they were watching a moment in history unfold before them.
The motion put forward at the conference by Derwen College, based in Shropshire, which Ferguson’s speech supported, called for greater equality of opportunity for students with learning difficulties and disabilities, for more consideration of accessibility in NUS communications and for the promotion, defence and extension of disability rights.
Ferguson’s address was all the more powerful because he has Down’s syndrome. He had worked on his speech and discussed the implications of leading the drive for change with the support of Sarah Laszlo, the college’s learner voice coordinator. She was watching from the wings on the day.
“It was the biggest moment of my working life,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘This is where it starts.’ This is the point where seeing someone on stage representing this group of learners, having a voice and being heard, ceases to be remarkable. This should be happening at every conference.”
Laszlo and her team had co-created training with the NUS to support people with learning difficulties and disabilities taking up NUS leadership roles. It was trialled within Derwen College’s vibrant student council. “This group of learners all have opinions,” she explains. “Why shouldn’t they have the same opportunity to voice them as their mainstream peers?”
‘Conquering the world’
The motion that led to Ferguson’s triumphant conference speech was passed unanimously. The positive change it sparked was instant and the solidarity palpable, Laszlo recalls. “It was empowering. We came out of there thinking, ‘We’re going to conquer the world.’”
Rather than Ferguson’s appearance on stage being the pinnacle of his ambition to highlight the campaign for equality, it turned out to be just the start of his journey. A few weeks later, Derwen College was awarded the student union of the year (FE) title by the NUS Disabled Students’ Campaign, in recognition of the speech and the college’s work on learner voice. This is one of five awards that Derwen has won in the past year alone.
A few months passed; the college was waiting to find out whether its work would be picked up nationally by the NUS. Ferguson and Laszlo went to the NUS FE Zone Conference, in part to follow up on progress.
It was at this event that Shakira Martin, NUS vice-president for FE, asked if Ferguson would consider standing for election as an FE committee member, one of eight people to guide her in her role. His involvement would demonstrate the union’s commitment to diversity, and his input would offer valued expertise in how best to promote inclusivity.
The move would also make history, with Ferguson believed to be the first person with learning difficulties or disabilities to be elected as an NUS representative.
Before deciding whether to stand, Ferguson discussed it with Laszlo to ensure that he fully understood the implications. He would, in effect, represent students with learning difficulties and disabilities from across the country. Although it would be a massive responsibility, he was confident that he was up to the task.
After securing the nominations needed, Ferguson had to give another speech, this time to explain why people should vote for him. He took the opportunity to declare that he would hold the NUS leadership accountable to meeting the expectations of people with learning difficulties and disabilities and he would challenge them to ensure that all NUS work was accessible. “I told Shakira that she was going to have to up her game,” he says.
Ferguson’s decisive call to action impressed and he was voted on to the committee. He explains: “2015 has been a year to remember for me personally. In 2016, I’m hoping to come back fighting and make history again.”
The secret behind his confidence, he adds, is knowing that there are trusted staff he can turn to if he needs help.
‘Unwrapping the cotton wool’
Lazslo (pictured below) says that she believes self-empowerment for students with learning difficulties and disabilities can be found through engaging with unfamiliar experiences in a supportive environment. “I sometimes think it’s about unwrapping the cotton wool for people,” she says. “It’s about encouraging them to try new stuff. If it goes wrong, we’re there and we will be with [them].”
It’s clear to see why Ferguson has emerged as an inspirational leader. As well as his strength of purpose, he has the social skills of the most charming politician, instantly making you feel at ease. Owing to his speech disfluency, he does not express himself with speed, but the eloquence and the message of what he communicates is very powerful.
Ferguson’s mission is to lead by example. He has found his voice. His aspiration is that other students will find theirs. “It’s important for people know that they have a choice to speak up,” he says.
With his fierce determination, along with the unfaltering support of Laszlo and her team, Ferguson will doubtless pave the way for more learners to make themselves heard.
Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands
Derwen College, near Oswestry in Shropshire, offers predominantly residential provision for students with a range of learning difficulties and disabilities. There are around 13 day students and 250 students living on campus and in nearby bungalows, which students progress to as their level of independence grows.
The three-year study programmes, open to young people from the age of 16, comprise vocational learning, independence skills, maths and English, plus a range of therapy and support options dependent on individual needs.
Traineeships involve work experience. These placements are created in collaboration with local community partners. The college also runs a number of public-facing enterprises, including a gallery and a farm shop, all staffed by trainees.
Ferguson, originally from Oxford, started as a student on a three-year course then moved into a traineeship, working in the college restaurant, farm shop and garden centre. “I love college and I’m proud of it,” he says.