People With Disabilities Less Likely To Become College Students

PEOPLE with disabilities are only half as likely to be educated to degree level as those without a disability, according to latest figures.

But while official statistics show Wales educates marginally more people with disabilities than any other part of the UK, a leading academic has warned much more needs to be done to improve access.

Professor Michael Scott, Principal of North East Wales Institute of Higher Education (NEWI) said, “From our first-hand experience it is clear that many professionals working with parents and carers are unaware of the support, resources and achievements possible within higher education.

“Breaking the barriers that face people with disability within higher education is a key priority for us.”

Across the UK 3.6% of students on full-time, first-time degree courses receive the Disability Student Allowance, more than 1% less than the figure in Wales. According to most recent official figures covering 2004/05, 4.7% of students in Wales receive the allowance and around 400 use wheelchairs.

NEWI has 7,500 students, 14% of whom have disabilities. Helen James, its director of higher education strategy and development, said, “Why should disabled people not have the same opportunity to higher education?

“Not enough is done to widen access. Some really strong moves have been made in Wales but a more strategic approach is needed. Access is one thing but participation is another. We need to encourage people better. When they get to higher education they are confronted with a traditional system perhaps not geared to their needs.

“The issues for students are whether they can get to rooms and access equipment. We have a lot of engineering and technical equipment. We had a blind student on our sound engineering course and built him an interactive keyboard.

“We also had a student in his 20s with cerebral palsy last year. He finished his MBA [Masters degree in Business Administration] successfully. It was a challenge providing the right support but we did it.”

Vicky Manley, who is blind and has a guide dog, has just finished the first year of a BSc in studio recording and performance technology development at the institute. Ms Manley, 21, said it had been a struggle at times, but she would never consider dropping out.

She has used some of her £224 disability grant to pay for help reading and taking notes. She has a computer that reads back to her and a permanent note taker for lectures. But she added, “There are hurdles. It’s harder making friends. I can get isolated and frustrated.”

Alan Morton became disabled during his first year at NEWI. He was diagnosed with a brain tumour and lost 70% of the hearing in one ear. He also has dyslexia and irlen syndrome which affects his sight and makes spaces between letters glare.

Mr Morton, 39, is now in the third year of his BSc in multimedia studies.

“When I was diagnosed with irlen syndrome the staff suggested putting a green plastic sheet over text I read. It stopped the glare,” he said. “For the first time in my life I could read clearly. I was so happy I cried.”

He added, “There is a properly lit, quiet work space with non-flickering screens and lights which dim in NEWI’s disability learning suite. This is very important for someone like me.”

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales said it was trying to increase and encourage numbers of students with disabilities.

“Our priority is to help higher education institutions in Wales to improve provision,” a spokeswoman said.

“We have seen institutions respond positively to our initiatives in this area, with the number of disabled students in universities and colleges in Wales increasing considerably over the last few years and, in the case of full time and first degree undergraduates, proportionally outperforming the rest of the UK.”