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An unfair hearing;Career Development

Jane Cordell found one university changed its tune when she became partially deaf

Two years ago I received a letter that changed my life. It was from my prospective professor on a Masters course. What it said, and the way it said it, irrevocably altered my feelings about being a graduate student.

A year before the letter arrived, when I had more of my hearing, I was offered a place at Cambridge to do an MPhil. This delighted me, but as I did not have pound;8,000 spare at the time to finance the course I decided to delay my studies for a year.

Suddenly, my hearing worsened alarmingly. Feeling that it was best to be honest about this, I arranged a further interview with the professor who had offered me the place. I imagined that because the department had been prepared to take me when I already had some hearing loss, they would be prepared to adapt slightly. I was wrong.

The offer did not entirely disappear, but the aforementioned letter made it quite clear that my hearing loss and the teaching method on the course were not compatible. This was therefore no longer the best course for me.

I would probably scrape through if I worked hard, I was told, but as ideas were shared around a table with eight to 10 participants, I would miss an awful lot and I should perhaps look elsewhere.

It was also pointed out that my areas of interest would not be best served at Cambridge (this had not been emphasised the year before). Oh, and by the way, they were most concerned about my deteriorating speech. Was I aware of this? Shouldn't I arrange intensive speech therapy to get myself back to the acceptable level I had reached during my first interview ?

No help was, however, offered even though Cambridge had a disability adviser who could have provided practical support at both admissions stage and during the course. The adviser, Jane McLarty, is also able to act as an advocate for students who feel that they have been discriminated against.

I only discovered this while researching this article. I wish I had known it at the time.

My experience on the Open University's MA course in education has been as encouraging as the Cambridge experience was discouraging. I was given impressive pre-course support and have even participated in a free residential weekend for students with hearing impairment.

The array of support systems provided on the weekend was a revelation, and the opportunity to discuss fears and ideas was invaluable. The tutor for my current module combines sensitivity and encouragement with academic rigour.

To be fair, I am not comparing like with like. The OU opened its office for students with disabilities at least 15 enlightened years before the Disability Act came into force and it has always epitomised the now-fashionable notion of inclusiveness of learning.

However, the difference, both in levels of student support, and price (less than pound;1,500 for three years part-time) is startling.

A colleague once sent me a thank-you card containing the message "You have many talents. Reach for them." At the time, I still felt discouraged by my Cambridge experience. Now, thanks to the OU, I feel that I can take that advice.

Jane Cordell is a lecturer at the College of North West London and a member of its disability committee. She is author of a forthcoming resources book for business English teachers, published by Cambridge University Press

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