Skill breaks disabled block

July 21, 1995

This has been a year of anniversaries for Deborah Cooper. Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, which she runs, is 21 years old and the Open University, which has just awarded her an honorary master's degree for her services to the educationally underprivileged, celebrates its 25th birthday.

After being encouraged at comprehensive school to go on to higher education, Ms Cooper took a place at the newly founded York University. On leaving, she worked as a special needs teacher, and then, after taking a masters in Washington, as a community worker.

Her work was "talking to parents and working with kids after school, getting an insight into the role of parents in the whole education process," she says.

During all the changes of the 1970s, there was a feeling that the needs of disabled students had been ignored, even if they were legally entitled to further and higher education. "It took some challenges by parents and young people before there was acknowledgement that every student meant every student," she says.

The National Bureau of Handicapped Students was founded to coordinate advice about educational access as a result of these actions.

At the 1974 founding conference of the NBHS (as Skill was then known), one of the founders joked that they would all soon do themselves out of a job. Skill now has 16 staff (both number of staff and income have doubled in the past five years), and handled 5,240 enquires in 1994/95. Clearly there is as much to be done now as ever.

The 1995 Disability Discrimination Bill promises legislation to prevent discrimination against disabled people, but Deborah Cooper is wary about taking a simplistic approach to student access. "It's not only about ramps and doors, it's about kinds of support systems that are in place too. A very small percentage of people require major physical changes to the environment."

Equally important is encouraging practical ways for universities to help students, or to remove hindrances. Lecturers who refuse to allow tape recordings of their lectures are one example of negative attitudes which hinder many disabled students, but could be changed at no financial cost whatsoever.

Ms Cooper lives just down the road from the OU in Milton Keynes, and has been commuting to London for the past 11 years, first as Skill's assistant director, and latterly as director.

During this time, the OU has remained a major influence on her attitudes to the provision of education to those with disabilities and learning difficulties, both through its policy of wide and open access for students of all abilities and through more direct work on joint projects with Skill like the Open Learning Toolkit.

In keeping with its open access policy, the OU itself has more than 5,000 disabled students.

Skill deals with two main strands of enquiry from concerned students. The first covers funding, which is especially difficult for part-time disabled students, although the Government grant for full-time disabled students in higher education has gone up.

The second covers how to go about applying for higher education courses in the first place. Very often, local careers services do not have the specialist knowledge or expertise to advise about disabled provision on a national level. Skill therefore aims to be "a bridge through the education, training and employment sectors".

Until the publication of Higher Education Statistics Agency data this summer one difficulty for Skill was the limited information on the number of disabled students in higher education.

Ten years ago, Skill conducted research into this subject with a research organisation on behalf of the then Department of Education and Science, work which suggested that 43,000 students in England in further and higher education were disabled. The situation is now more complex.

"There are no reliable structures to be able to count the students in FE. We need these structures to get to grips with the numbers," she says.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is beginning to collect data on student disabilities, but for the present, informed guesswork is the best guide. "My guestimate for disabled students over the age of 16 in schools, colleges and universities in England is about 200,000."

Skill will evidently not be out of a job in the 21st century.

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