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Why council should listen to Renoir

Guidelines for support in art and design would impede disabled access

Information and communication technology has enriched art and design education for many disabled students. Both sophisticated and simple technological solutions can maximise access to the computer and its software.

These can be augmented with practical assistance. Where the physical impairment is so limiting or degenerative that even these IT solutions are not enough, assistants can carry out the mechanical operation of the computer under the student's direction.

But following the Joint Council for Qualifications' response to the extension to the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, that came into effect last October, access to art and design qualifications could be barred to those with the greatest physical impairments. Yet these students arguably have the greatest need for an expressive visual language.

From September 2004, practical assistants and exams officers have been required to spell out the assistance each student has received and what has been agreed with the awarding body. There has been uncertainty as to what constitutes acceptable support.

Attention was focused on the council's guidelines, which state: "A practical assistant will not be allowed in subjects testing design or artistic skills, such as music, art, design and technology, information technology, keyboarding or word-processing skills where the practical skill is in itself the focus of the examination."

The guidelines then add "where minimal assistance only is required, please contact the board". However, no guidelines are given concerning "minimal assistance" and, currently, a hit-and-miss system is in operation whereby individual support requirements are submitted to the awarding body for approval.

Critical to the debate on assisting disabled learners to create artwork and be accredited for it, while retaining ownership, are the wider questions about where creative autonomy lies.

Mark Quinn's famous sculpture of Alison Lapper, which now graces the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, was carved by master stonemasons in Italy. If the council's guidelines that "the practical skill is in itself the focus" are applied to this work, it cannot be attributed to the artist Mark Quinn.

Renoir identified where creativity resides when asked how he painted beautiful works from his wheelchair with brushes strapped to his hand. He said: "One does not paint with one's hands."

The British Educational Communications Technology Agency's report in 2003, into the use of IT in art and design education, identifies the unease that traditional art critics and teachers experience concerning a perceived decline in draughtsmanship or "the real thing" - a first-hand experience of scale, texture and mark-making.

However, it sets these concerns against the benefits that the new ways of working with IT can offer and, in particular, for those with significant physical impairments. The report says "the computer allows the artist to focus more on the message, with less emphasis on the execution. The technicalities are handled so easily that it no longer becomes a question of how to do it, but indeed what to do."

The report highlights how the digital age rewards a different sort of student: "The computer allows the content of art to be a higher priority and allows young people who may not be so highly skilled in traditional media to produce expressive work."

These gains and the access that it potentially creates for students with high-level support requirements will be lost if the council does not adopt a more enlightened response to practical assistance in art and design for both IT and practical-based subjects. This requires a thorough investigation into practical assistance in the arts in schools and colleges and the setting of enlightened guidelines. It will also require an understanding of art as a conceptual, creative process assessed by more sophisticated criteria than whether it was a student's finger that pressed the button.

Dr Margaret Taylor is head of creative studies and a member of the research and development team at Hereward college in Coventry

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