Second or third time lucky

September 29, 1995

Nick Clarke, aged 36, is registered as blind. Actually he is partially sighted. A hereditary degenerative eye condition that appeared when he was five has meant the loss of his direct vision. If he looks straight at a person or a page of print it disappears and he sees instead gently flashing lights surrounded by vague peripheral vision. Although he can see movement, large shapes and colour, he cannot see detail or recognise people.

Nevertheless, Mr Clarke did well enough at Kings College, Wimbledon, to win a place at Clare College, Cambridge, to read pure mathematics. It was here, in 1977, that his problems began. "I have never really said this in a public way before," he says now, "but they were not used to working with someone who was partially sighted or registered blind. I missed out on a lot of aspects of life at Cambridge."

"Social life is very difficult when you don't recognise people," he explains. "Most people see people when they first arrive, build on those contacts by saying hello to people across the courtyard, seeing people in lunch queues, in lectures, I never got to the stage when I knew anyone to sit next to in the lecture theatre or at lunch. I always ate lunch on my own.

"I didn't do any activities with anyone like going on the river or going to clubs. There was no real advice or support in trying to break out of that.

"From an academic point of view it was, again, very difficult because university lecturers tend to have this habit of saying one thing, writing another thing and meaning a third. If you cannot actually read what is written - and in pure mathematics a lot of the language you need for each lecture course is new - there will be different types of symbols and ways of drawing things on the page - you cannot actually see them, you cannot keep up or understand what is being said."

Mr Clarke always sat near the front at lectures, using a hand-held telescope to read the symbols on the blackboard. He would choose lecture courses where he felt the lecturers were clearly saying what they meant and represented on the blackboard. Even then he usually only noted down about a third of each lecture and had to borrow other students' notes afterwards and transcribe them late into the night.

The obliging students got a bit fed up with this, not understanding how deficient his eyesight was, since Mr Clarke did have enough peripheral vision to enable him to get around without the aid of a white stick.

He never discovered any taped books in the library he could use. In fact he never even found the mathematics section of the library. His degree relied entirely on his note-taking ability, lectures and college-based supervisions. "It was difficult to ask for help because they were not really geared up to giving help," he says.

"It was partly that I did not know that I could get recorded material and partly that it did take quite a while for them to sort it out," he adds. "In my first year I went to my senior tutor and asked if the college would think about buying a magnifier - a closed circuit television - where you can put a book or a sheet of print underneath a glass and it comes up very big on the screen - but he said no.

"People found it very hard to realise what was wrong. I discovered afterwards that people thought I was rude, that I didn't join in groups, that I wanted to be on my own, that I didn't say hello to people. Actually I just didn't recognise anyone. Walking along the path lots of people would pass me but I never knew who they were. Other students also didn't realise that I couldn't read books, because I never went into libraries or public places to study because I couldn't make any use of them.

"It's very obvious when you are blind that you have to meet people and people have to help you get to the canteen and get to the library, but you can remain totally isolated as a partially sighted person with people not really realising how that affects you. Socially and academically it was a bit of a struggle. If I had been more assertive, had been through that sort of environment before and knew what I was doing I would have handled it differently.

"I enjoy maths and I enjoyed doing my degree. Looking back it was not so much miserable as a missed opportunity. It would have been really good to have engaged with Cambridge a lot more as a person and also as a partially sighted person who wants to get the university geared up more to think about the needs of the disabled."

After achieving a good second-class degree, Mr Clarke went on to Leeds University to do his PhD. Here he was much more assertive about asking the university for help and getting involved in student life. The university was also much more geared up to helping disabled students. There was a special tutor for the disabled, he was given large-screen televisions to read print and a room of his own in the library. He asked for and got readers to read mathematics books to him and set up a book-recording service which now tapes books for students all over the country.

Mr Clarke went on to do postgraduate research at Edinburgh University, and today is a principal equal opportunities officer at Kirklees Council in Huddersfield. His university experiences have led him to believe that British universities need to do more work to incorporate what it means to have disabled people as students into their planning and thinking processes.

"They need to think through the learning processes to make sure that universities are not just designed for abled-bodied students but also for disabled students," he recommends. "That means thinking through all the processes that happen to you, what happens to you when you first apply, what happens to you when you turn up, go for an interview, when you go to your room for the first time.

"They do it subconsciously for able-bodied students. They have to make disabled students feel valued and a mainstream part of the university. I think they would surprise themselves with how well they would deal with the situation."

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