Education: When you need more than brains: Students with special needs can succeed, but only if universities offer the facilities, says Brenda Parry

Jane Lawson has just been awarded a first in law at Cambridge. It is her second first-class honours degree and the pinnacle of years of academic achievement. At 24, she is already a qualified solicitor, and in September will be taking up a post as a junior lecturer in law at Swansea University.

The fact that Jane has only 5 per cent vision makes her success the more remarkable. She is a student with special needs who has succeeded in a higher education system which is not always geared to the needs of people with disabilities. The success of Stephen Hawking, who is paralysed by motor neurone disease, is the exception rather than the rule. It can be an uphill struggle to pursue a higher education, let alone an academic career, if you are disabled.

Jane's 28-year-old sister, Anna, has even worse sight, yet she too has succeeded against the odds and is a law lecturer at Leeds University. The sisters are the daughters of a North Wales veterinary surgeon, and his law graduate wife. Both girls suffer from a rare disease, rhetinitus pigmentosa, and began to lose their sight as small children. Despite early fears for their future, they have studied with tape recorded books and dictated their essays and examination answers.

Anna went to Leeds university where there is an established reading service, and although there was no such service at Cardiff - where she took her first degree - or Cambridge, Jane quickly established a circle of people to help her. 'It's so important to have everyone on your side, including tutors who have to ensure that reading lists are available well in advance,' she says.

Both women feel more could be done for students with special needs. Sophie Corlett, assistant director of Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, says that such students have to search for the right facilities. Some universities have gone out of their way to create particular provision, but few offer facilities for everyone.

'We can advise students on the various allowances available for them for special equipment and human support, but it really is down to each individual to find a college with a suitable course, facilities and the right attitude,' she adds. 'The student with a disability has to start looking for the right placement ahead of the rest and even visiting the various possibilities can be a problem without mobile and caring parents or friends.'

But even if all the physical needs are catered for, it is also important to guage the attitude of the university and particularly that of the tutors involved.

'What it boils down to is that students with special needs have to do far more research than the rest and that in itself can be off putting,' says Ms Corlett.

While universities have become increasingly aware of problems facing students with special needs, there are still new buildings going up without proper wheelchair access, she says. 'It's very disappointing when this happens, and often it is because the designers have been badly advised, rather than ignorance of requirements,' says Ms Corlett.

The university funding council allocated pounds 3m last year for the development of special facilities, and is doing the same again this year, but few colleges can match the facilities provided for special needs at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, where they pride themselves in being able to accommodate almost any difficulty.

They provide readers and a braille translation service for the visually impaired plus numerous specialist learning resources; lecture theatres are looped for the hard of hearing and every building is accessible to the wheelchair-bound, including halls of residence which have specially adapted flats to enable the disabled to live alongside the able-bodied.

It is not surprising then the university is currently catering for 450 students with various special needs. The University of East London is similarly accommodating and provides help and advice on grant aid. Viv Parker, an education lecturer, spends nearly half her time helping students with disabilities. 'Attitude of staff is the single most important factor,' she says. 'You can have all the facilities in place, but one unco-operative staff member can make life impossible, whereas access to buildings can almost always be overcome.'

Useful publications: 'Higher Education and Disability' published by Hobsons and sent to all educational establishments and careers officers. Students can buy their own copy for pounds 1.50. The new edition, with much more comprehensive listings, is due out in September. 'Steps towards Graduation', by Professor Alan Hurst and published by Avebury Press at pounds 42, is an academic work, and well worth ordering from the library.

(Photograph omitted)

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