Case Study - Sociology and Mobility Difficulties
This case study is taken from the Demos project which ran from 2000 to March 2003 and was funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England under strand three of the initiative Improving Provision for Students with Disabilities. The project developed an online learning package aimed specifically at academic staff and examined the issues faced by disabled students in higher education. http://jarmin.com/demos/resource/interviews/01.html (information extracted and accessed July 2007)
You know on the UCAS form, what information did you put there? It asks specifically about special needs/disability?
I was very open about it all the way. I think I put something along the lines of 'part time wheel chair user'. For some reason I was obsessed with halls when I was writing my UCAS form - 'I have to have an en suite room.' This was the point that I had to get across. There was very little I had to make them aware of on the UCAS form, from my point of view because I am so used to dealing with my disability anyway; I knew it would be no problem for me to walk in and say, 'I need this, this and this.'
When you visited at Didsbury you must have been happy with the access to the buildings and so on?
There was a certain amount of 'Well I'll cope with it,' because it's only since I've come to university that we've got disability rights and we must have access and all the rest of it. Before it had been a case of, 'You will just cope with it,' and apparently, well I know there was a lift actually put in once they knew I was coming, at Didsbury. Apparently my course tutor argued the case for getting a lift in one of the buildings down in Didsbury. That was because of myself and another disabled student, both chair users who were coming in that year. So once I got there the access had already improved a little bit. As a result of me getting a Disabilities Officer position in the Students' Union they are constantly asking me questions and they know that if they mess up they will have all hell to pay and they are very good, generally.
My lecturers are all aware that, if they can, they need to schedule on the ground floor. It doesn't always work and we work around it. There was only one module that was a complete mess up, which was computers. It was when they were re-doing the library at Didsbury and there was no access to the computer suite for disabled students. They completely forgot this and I was none too pleased when I had to get out of bed at 8.30 one morning to get into university to be told to go home. But, because I am OK on computers anyway, instead of having the whole module I had about three hours tuition with a member of staff on a one-to-one basis and that brought me up to speed. So, generally, I do everything the same as everybody else, but on that one occasion I did get special tuition, which doesn't bother me. Some people have a problem with 'special lessons', but it doesn't bother me at all. I got the feeling that I knew more than the tutor did when we actually got into it and I realised how simple the stuff was, because my computer skills were already all right.
On the course
Just tell me about on the course in lectures and so on, do you get any additional support?
Yes. I started off floundering and then agreed to use a dictaphone. Decided that the dictaphone was far too much like hard work because it took me three hours every night to transcribe everything and once I discovered pubs and clubs that went out of the window. Since the end of my first year I have been using a note taker, who is actually a friend of mine as well, which gets over the issue of having somebody in the class with you. She has been introduced to all my friends. Everybody knows exactly why she is there and that they can't buy notes off her and all the rest of it.
Is she on the same course?
No, she's a professional note taker. She also does my personal care as well, so she is just like an all round person for me. She just comes in and takes my notes and I work from her notes and that works really well. I still sit there and actually contribute to the lecture - if anything I actually talk more than I used to because before I was trying to scribble down and stretch my hands and scribble a bit more. Now, because I am not actually taking the notes I can contribute to the debate more than I used to - and at the same time I am not missing out on my notes. So that is really good. I'm still getting used to the little abbreviations she uses!
Obviously you need handouts, like any other student, but you don't need lecturers to give you transcripts because you have got a note taker.
On the couple of occasions that I have not had Ally with me, I have asked for course notes but I have never had any success. But my friends, because I find myself lucky not being like a dyslexic student who has a hidden disability, everybody can see my disability and therefore everyone seems willing to help. So on those few occasions I've just got hold of my friends' notes and just photocopied them. So I've never really missed out in that sense. But yes it has been a problem sometimes when I've asked for lecturers' notes. They must be like the Crown Jewels or something because they just won't give them up for anybody.
Is it the same in seminars and so on? Do you take the note taker there?
Yes, we just call them all lectures; we don't tend to differentiate and she comes into lectures with me - which at the moment is two lectures a week - that's it. I think I do four hours at the moment, which is pretty cool. I think it goes up to six next time.
I was going to say, if you get such an amount of extra time for examinations, does that apply to assignments? It is going to cause you difficulties trying to write essays, isn't it?
I'm OK on the computer, this is the thing. So, on the computer I seem to be fine. I perfected typing one-handed and now I have the use back of my hands if very rarely causes me a problem any more. The reason I still have a note taker is because of my concentration lapses. Ally looked at my notes and said, 'Well, you can write OK that the notes that you take are a mess because you can tell when you are daydreaming. So I still have her for that reason, but my hand isn't really a problem any more, and never has been because I used to type one-handed. I was relatively quick anyway. So I have always just done my assignments. I have been given extensions in the past but it has been extraordinary circumstances rather than just my disability. Well the last one was that I had a bad placement in January this year. A really, really, bad placement and I exhausted myself just trying to keep going with the shift work and I also couldn't do my research which was supposed to be for my practise dissertation, which just happened to be something like 50% of my second year mark. I went to my lecturers, who were brilliant about it and they gave me an extension until the end of the summer from April. So I got a six month extension to enable me to go and do another piece of research. So I didn't do as well as I hoped to in the second year. But at the end of the day it's not the biggest - it's now that is the biggy. So I'm not so worried about that. But I have had extensions in the past. That was the biggest - six months; quite a major extension. It meant I got no summer.
How did the lecturers on the course find out? Is there a communication system whereby, 'We've got a student with a disability coming on this course,' therefore everybody knows suddenly and ... or did you have to go and inform them?
I have generally always used my wheelchair, so there is always immediately that thing that you can see that I am disabled. I actually make a point of using my wheelchair in these surroundings. It is a subconscious safety mechanism that I do. Every time I go to a new place I will purposefully use my wheelchair, even if I don't really have to, just because I want people to be aware of the fact that I do have a disability. It is also fairly obvious when I walk. As far as the very first time they found out that I was disabled, I can't remember. I can remember going to see them, possibly on the Open Day, or maybe the disabled student's thing, I can't remember. I think it was actually both, because I remember, on both occasions, or certainly one I remember, one of my lecturers sat down with me for an hour and a half. I'm fairly sure that I sat down with two of them previously, which would have been at the Open Day. I've only got a teaching staff of six or eight so that solved a lot of the problems first off because they are a very small team, they all have their offices on one corridor and they are always bobbing in and knocking on each others door. It's very friendly on the course. They have also got a very small number of students. It's a maximum intake of forty five. So it is more like a classroom style. For that reason you get your face known very quickly.
I remember talking to people at Open Day and sitting down and discussing, although as far as I remember that was more to do with the course than my disability. I also remember a week before my course started - because I moved into halls two weeks, for some reason, before my course started - God knows why. But a week before the course started I went to see Mike, my course leader and sat down and said, 'This is what my disability means and how it affects me,' and all the rest of it, 'Please pass this information onto everybody else.' No problems at all. They know that if I need the loo - I need the loo now, and I just run out of the classroom. They know that if I am sitting there daydreaming, it's nothing offensive, it's just part of my disability. And there are just a couple of others who are absolute buggers because they will ask me questions intentionally because they know that I am daydreaming! But they have been brilliant.
You've not had any problems with any of the lecturers?
Not really. There is one lecturer who can't get her head round the fact that I have a note taker who isn't a student, constantly trying to get Ally involved in class discussions and things like this, 'Why aren't you saying anything, Miss Rivers?' 'Because I am a professional and I am sitting here doing my job, which is to listen and take notes.' 'But you should be taking part in the discussion.' No she shouldn't. Ally will take a reading book in and if we go off and do group work, she will just sit and read a book. My lecturer cannot get her head around the fact that Ally is a professional and not a student - it doesn't make sense to her. 'But you sit and take notes?' 'Yes, it's my job to take notes - it's not my job to take part in the discussion of the group.' Then five minutes later she says, 'Would you like one of these?' 'No.' As far as that is concerned I've never had any real problems. My lecturers have always been great. I had one spell of illness in my first year, during which I was off for quite a long time - probably about three weeks, and I had lecture notes e-mailed to me and I had the assignment dates e-mailed to me. I hadn't missed anything by the time I got back.
You know at the Access Summit interview, you get a learning agreement or a report. How has that been implemented?
I can't remember exactly what it said. From memory, I don't think a lot of it was implemented, but at the same time I think a lot of it was irrelevant. I'm happy with the way that I have been dealt with and if I have ever needed anything I have only had to ask - from my university lecturers' point of view. The learning plan, I think, was a bit too over the top. I didn't need as much as it said I needed. So, therefore I would have kicked up a fuss if it had been implemented. I would have said, 'You are trying to treat me different' I'm quite happy with the way it has gone but I don't think we've stuck to the learning plan!
You have obviously had a reasonably good experience yourself on your own course.
Yes, I have had a very good, positive experience - I have been lucky. I think the attitude towards disabled people I would say is generally very good. I don't think I have come across people who have said to me, 'I've had bad comments.' or 'I've been bullied.' or anything like that. People generally seem to be very supportive. If anything, it pisses me off that people keep opening doors for me. Can I not open them myself? They are very kind, but that is what gets me in the end. I want to open the door myself; I'd quite like to open the door. No problems attitude-wise. There is always going to be the one of ignorance, in the nicest possible way. That's a very hard one to combat. There is still ignorance, but it is purely that and it's not a nasty thing that they should be blamed for.
Just to go on to assessments in terms of examinations at university. Is it the same situation as the arrangements that you had for A Levels?
Yes, I've carried those through. I get 25% extra time and unlimited and un-timed rest breaks and for that reason I generally sit my exams in a separate room. I usually go in one of the lecturers' offices.
I was going to say, how do they work out how much time you've spent in the room?
They trust me. Hand on heart, I stick by it. I have no desire to cheat. No desire to cheat whatsoever - that's never been an issue. But it's quite good sometimes. That is the one time that I think I notice that I am set apart from the other students. Because, number one, I'm in there for longer, and, number two, I'm in a completely different place. That can be quite odd sometimes because the rest of the time I literally do what everybody else does. That is the one time that it is highlighted that I am different. On the other hand, they are great. I still have the same rules about what I can take into the exam room with me.
So you don't use a computer?
What was the problem with that?
I've just never done it, so I've always been more comfortable writing by hand. I nearly considered it for my A Levels. Then they decided that - I don't know whether it was a cock and bull story or not, but they came up with a story, something like a week before my exams, that was something along the lines that if you are not used to using somebody transcribing what you are saying you won't get it right. I was thinking that I think what I am going to write when I write it with my hands so why can't I think it and say it and somebody write it down. But, that didn't work. I think if I had used it then I still may have used it now.
Are you talking about using a computer or a scribe?
Well, a scribe or a computer. I've considered using a computer but I think that will possibly put me at an unfair advantage because I am so quick. I was a PA during my year out. I was PA to a Company Director and I am quick. Literally, I've got the potential to write a thousand word essay when everybody else is writing 600 or 700 words.
Well, maybe they could give you less time!
No, no. I'm quite happy just writing. My essays are usually slightly shorter than other people's but I hopefully go for quality, not quantity. My marks don't seem to differ that greatly to other people. I could use a computer. Having sat in, because on one occasion last year there was a third year student who was disabled and I sat in the same room as her - they had all the disabled students in one room with one invigilator, and she was using a computer and I found it very off-putting. Tap, tap tap, while you are trying to write. I suppose I could use one. It's been offered to me. It's there if I want it. I've just never really felt the need. My arm tends to go through a funny patch about two weeks before the exam. They reckon it's just a nervous thing of it giving up. I always say to Mike, the course leader, 'Can I just have a computer on standby?' But I've never actually used it. The option is always there but I prefer to write if I can. I think it's the bloody-minded thing again - I will write because everybody else does.
Three tips for lecturers
Can you think of three tips to give to lecturing staff that would help the student?
Number one: talk to the student; they know what they need. Also I think it is important, again going back to this ignorance thing, pussyfooting around disability. I don't think lecturers are always honest when it comes to the academic standard of work. I think they give you a little bit of leeway because you are disabled, and you don't want that, you want to get a degree. I've had it in the past a couple of times. They will say, 'Oh well, you've only got such and such percent, but don't worry.' I'm saying, 'Why don't worry.'
So you are not saying ... 'I gave you something because I understand.'?
No, it's more like they've marked it honestly but they don't push you and they don't pick you up on the fact that you only got such and such, because you have got so much more on your mind. You are there because you want to do a degree. If they are not going to pick you up, then they are wrong.
The other thing I'd say to lecturers is to use the resources that are available within the university. I'm available, the Learning Support Unit is available - ask us if you have got any problems. There are a lot of lecturers who think they can do it on their own and quite spectacularly can't. But yes, just use the resources that are available, because there are a lot of people who eventually get round to phoning me and say, 'Do you know about such and such who is on my course?' I'll say, 'Yes, I've seen this person on several occasions and passed back the message for you to phone me if you need any help and you haven't. Now why didn't you do this six months ago, because it would have saved everybody an awful lot of time?' And they just won't do it; they can't find the link. There are a lot of resources available if people would only use it. It's the same for students.