‘I didn’t know who to turn to’

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Cat Clark has already started making plans for Freshers’ Week. “Freshers’ Week can feel quite isolating when you come to university where nobody knows about your problems. I feel that it is going to be up to me to make sure all Freshers understand that I am here during Freshers’ Week for them to come and talk to me.”

Cat is the Furness JCR disabled students officer. She’s one of a number of student officers who offer support for students with disabilities. They act for Lancaster’s 500+ disabled students, offering support and making sure they are represented. They’ve been able to achieve this even without the support of a permanent non-sabbatical officer this year. In terms of fighting for student support, Clark has found she’s had no problems. “For me, the university has been really helpful,” she said. “I have not really got any disappointments with the university’s support.”

The student support services offer guidance to perspective students on apply for Disabled Students Allowance. They also provide research and library support, note-taking support, and specialist equipment for scanning and producing materials in alternative formats.

First year Collette McColgan, who has Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis, has been very impressed with the levels of support she’s been offered. “I’ve never had to consult the university about any issues so far, but I feel safe in the knowledge that they’d help me out if I needed it,” she said. In particular she pointed out how well informed she’d been kept during her application process, and how patient the support services had been.

Despite the many students who feel they are being well catered for, there are some who believe more still needs to be done. Adam Hoolahan, who is severely blind, was another first year in Furness. He left the university at the end of last term, as he felt he wasn’t given enough support from his department. “It started off not so enjoyable,” he said, “especially when I had problems, I didn’t know who to turn to.”

Hoolahan said that in particular he felt unsupported by Lancaster’s Politics and History departments. He claimed that the departments were not aware enough about the nature of his disability and that he found it hard to obtain essay extensions. “In terms of my course it was taking me a lot longer to type up material than anyone else. With books, I was having to go to the library and scan books in, without having a book list or anything. I was scanning books in to find they were a load of rubbish and not really relevant.”

The convenor of Part I Politics, Dr Graham Smith, could not comment on Mr Hoolahan’s individual case, but offered the department’s policy on students with special needs. He said: “In all cases where disabilities are identified to the department we work with the student, Student Support, and other relevant agencies to ensure that an appropriate level of support is offered. This could include: research and library support, note-taking support, and specialist equipment for scanning and producing materials in alternative formats.”

The disability services manager for Student Services, Christine Quinn, said: “I am always dismayed to hear of any student who leaves without completing their course of study, particularly when such a lot of effort across campus goes into supporting and retaining students.” McColgan, who took the same Politics course as Adam, maintains that she never had a problem with the department.

Another area, which Hoolahan highlighted as being difficult, was orientation and access. Hoolahan required the help of a carer – funded by his local education authority – in order to get around the university campus. He said the worry he might not get that support in his second year was one of the key factors in him choosing to leave. The Equality Challenge Unit is currently undertaking an audit into how higher education institutions can improve the access for sensory disabled students.

The university does have very extensive access routes, which are used by all students. Joe Hardacre knows the routes than most. Being in a wheelchair, he says he finds the campus “generally accessible”. We went for a tour of the northwest campus to see if this was true.

Starting with the Chaplaincy Centre, we found that the first floor was practically inaccessible for students with mobility disabilities, as there was no lift. A member of one college’s JCR had raised the issue, saying they felt the Chaplaincy Centre wasn’t accessible enough. SCAN attempted to contact the Chaplaincy Centre regarding their accessibility but did not receive a reply. The first floor of the Centre includes the Buddhist Meditation Room, the Natural Health Centre and a number of the chaplains’ flats.

Next we went to one of Hardacre’s departments, Linguistics and English Language in Bowland College, to see how accessible his seminar room is. The lift up to the department, which already has a door too narrow for Hardarce’s wheelchair, wasn’t working properly when we got there.

“The campus is generally accessible, though there are a few complaints,” Hardacre said afterwards. “The practically inaccessible lifts, while amusing, are ultimately pretty frustrating. Also the seminar room for my linguistics was particularly annoying. The university are to blame for that one, as it was the second term and they knew full well I was in a wheelchair, so sticking me in a room when I could only gain access by walking was pretty bloody stupid.”

If and when problems such as these asrise, all the students SCAN spoke to agreed there was one support group they could always count onIn Cartmel, their Female Equal Opportunity officer, Rosanna Spray, thinks this is the right direction for support services to be taking. “There is a stigma between people our age: disability scares us. If we were better educated normal students would be able to help too, instead of awkwardly moving out the way.”

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