'Uneducable' man who learnt to beat disability

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The Independent Online

Mark Ellis lived in a world of his own until the age of 32, unable to read and write or communicate with many of those in whose care he was placed. He was unconscious for the first three months of his life and his doctors wrote him off as "uneducable".

Much of his childhood was spent in a hospital ward with mental patients, and, when he finally got to a school, he was tied to his chair during lessons.

Now aged 47, Mark, who was born with cerebral palsy, has graduated from university and yesterday he received the "individual learner of the year" award for triumphing over adversity as part of Adult Learners' Week.

He is planning to take up employment as a mentor to other disabled people to show them what they can achieve.

Mark could not pick up his award in person as a result of a fear of rail travel, after he was robbed on his last journey (a girl and a boy offered to go and buy him coffee and then took his money). But he said: "I'd like to be with disabled people who may feel they are less valued."

Mark has given talks to staff from Trinity College, Dublin, Leeds University and the Royal College of Nursing to increase their awareness of the potential of people with disabilities. He is planning to continue his studies, by taking an MA at Liverpool Hope University College, where he graduated in sociology and American studies.

It is a far cry from the memories that his father, a former seaman, has of the time when his son was born. "The doctors said to us: 'Just take him home, make him comfortable. Unfortunately, he's uneducable,' " Tom Ellis, 69, recalled.

He was a month overdue when he was born. "It was a very difficult birth - a double breach," said Mr Ellis. Mark spent the first three months of his life unconscious, and from the age of eight until 11 lived in a hospital ward with mainly mentally disabled adults.

"It was like a scene from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," said his father. "He was on a big ward with at least 20 other patients in it, and hardly anyone of his age."

Within a week of his arrival, someone set fire to the ward and he managed to set off the alarm. It was incidents like this that led his parents to believe he was mentally alert and capable of achieving much more. "Unfortunately, they kept him heavily sedated," said Mr Ellis. He did receive some education at a special school after coming out of hospital, but his father later discovered he had been tied to his chair while in the classroom. "He never learnt anything," he added.

From the school he was sent to a day-care centre, still unable to read and write, where he spent most of his time among elderly people. It was not until his father was told of Hereward College in Coventry, a national college specialising in education for disabled students, that he began to start learning, at the age of 32. "He couldn't read or write and couldn't even hold a pencil in his hand," said his father.

A former police officer who was lecturing at the college spotted potential in him. He was given a note-taker, who wrote down his responses as he used a speaking machine to answer questions.

He gained seven City and Guilds qualifications from Hereward College before progressing to a sociology degree at the Open University, and eventually taking the combined sociology and American studies degree at Liverpool Hope College.

He said of his first day at Liverpool: "I was quite nervous but excited at the same time. It didn't take me long to settle. I was just accepted as if I was an able-bodied student."

His father said: "They widened the doors for him so he could get his wheelchair in. They put a special table in the refectory so he could get the arms of his wheelchair underneath the table."

Mr Ellis is proud of what his only son has achieved, although he remembers what he terms the "dark days".

"Mark's a kind-hearted lad - a very understanding and a very loving person," he said. "We're over the moon because he has broken through the barrier. Sometimes when people see him people see the wheelchair - they don't see the person."