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Higher Education, Opportunity and Disability

Our daughter, Nadia, has complex disabilities. She has cerebral palsy and uses a motorised wheelchair. She is deaf with a cochlear implant. Her primary receptive language is BSL and her primary expressive language is through an AAC device.

Nadia has come through mainstream schooling, is now nineteen and attends her local College. She works harder than anyone I have ever met (of any age) and is absolutely dedicated to achieving something in her life. She wants to go to University to study disability and different needs within education.

Nadia does not have learning disabilities, however she does not easily achieve good exam results. This is because she is confronted with a system which demands her to condense her astonishing range of ability, energy and dedication into units of English academia, within narrow parameters.

Nadia has been brought up to have high expectations of herself, and to achieve positive outcomes whilst contributing to society.  She has a maturity and sense of responsibility that far outweighs many students who get the necessary grades to get into university.  She is a young woman with strong values and knows what she wants to make a difference to people’s lives in the future.

She also has an excellent knowledge of disability, inclusion, discrimination, human rights and education; she simply doesn’t always know how to express this knowledge in English.

English is not Nadia’s language, however this is the medium through which she is judged on just about everything she does. As a deaf person her first language is sign and yet there are even restrictions regarding the interpretation of exam questions into sign language.

Nadia has the most comprehensive CV, including many awards which she personally has won; over 100 hours of voluntary work and many hours of paid work experience, achieved whilst running workshops and talking at conferences primarily about her life experiences.

As an Augmentative Communication Aid user, Nadia’s second language is the communication system she has learned through using her Dynavox (communication device).  Very few young and deaf people around the world use a communication aid with the confidence and competence with which Nadia does.  The system is complex and takes years of hard work and motivation to use and to become successful with.  Yet once again examination boards and entry requirements make very little allowance for these different communication systems.

The result is a continual struggle to manage the levels of academic English required – essentially the one and only standard that overrides everything else. Where are the measures for maturity, dedication, resilience to adversity and hard work – as well as the skills of alternative communication, being multi-lingual and more general people skills?

We are not suggesting that it’s straightforward, but we are saying that a great deal more thought and imagination needs to go into the process of including people with disabilities into further education, higher education and beyond. Just consider that absolutely no imagination went into the creation of a random age for the category of “mature student” and yet even this makes a real difference to the lives of people who are dedicated and hard-working, but who will never achieve ‘A’ grades in exams.

We as a family together with Nadia have worked incredibly hard to ensure that she has a meaningful adult life with the same opportunities as her peers and siblings.  We are now all wondering whether this was worth it and that she is heading to a bleak future with poor outcomes.

Unless we change the system, society will continue to dump extraordinary people like Nadia – who have battled the challenges whilst going through mainstream childhood – back into a segregated and disenfranchised adult life.          
                                        Andy & Katie Clarke, Nadia’s Parents    July 2011

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Higher Education, Opportunity & Disability  © Andy & Katie Clarke, 2011.

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