From polioboy to professor

October 4, 1996

The Disability Discrimination Act aims to encourage institutions to provide a better service for students with disabilities. In 1953, a child psychologist was called to a Government rehabilitation centre to examine a 17-year-old polio victim, out of school since contracting the disease seven years previously. He said the boy was ineducable.

The psychologist went on to a distinguished career as an expert in rehabilitation, professor of psychology and finally vice chancellor of the University of Adelaide. And the boy? He became a professor.

Bob Giddings is a familiar figure on the roads of Bournemouth. Local inhabitants may not know exactly who he is, but many of them will recognise the popemobile-like vehicle, which has been specially converted to allow him and his wheelchair to travel.

His appointment at 61 to a chair in communications and cultural studies is recognised by many colleagues at Bournemouth University as overdue recognition. "I've had a lot of letters from other members of staff and quite senior managers saying 'about time too'," he says.

In the past two years his career took off and he became a reader before becoming a professor. But earlier his frustration at conditions for disabled people was compounded by the lack of redress.

"If I had been a black man or a woman I could have gone to law when less qualified candidates were promoted over me. The disabled don't have that option," he says.

But there have been improvements at universities. "Physical access is much easier now. I had a wonderful time as a student at Bristol, but I had to go into the main building via the coal hole and spent a lot of time being carried up stone staircases." There has not been so much progress on the emotional and psychological front, but it is coming, he adds.

Although he has reached the pinnacle of conventional academic attainment, he has to admit he provides excellent propaganda for opponents of formal schooling. "I got my education from staying at home, reading and listening to the radio," he says.

That mild unconventionality is perhaps reflected in his breadth and diversity of academic expertise - his last book, Imperial Echoes, published in April, looked at the small empire wars fought under Queen Victoria, while his next, out next month, is on Charles Dickens.

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