BACK TO THE FEATURE INDEX

The prestigious reputation of the University of Cambridge alone may be enough to make it appear out of reach to many of us. But its scattered "campus" (the university and its colleges are spread throughout the city) and ancient buildings do nothing to make it appear accessible to students with disabilities. Look behind this façade, however, and you'll find that Cambridge is endeavouring to attract bright students from many underrepresented groups of society.

"Cambridge is committed to widening participation in order to ensure that we continue to attract the best students, whatever their background," says Judith Jesky, university disability adviser. "This includes students with disabilities, who are often forgotten during the widening participation debate."

But recruiting more students with disabilities is just the first step. Once enrolled, students are given as much support as they need to get the best out of their studies. Providing these services, together with information and training, is the remit of the Disability Resource Centre. "Whatever the person's disability and whether they are staff or student, we are here to try and enable them to achieve their full potential," says Jesky, who manages the centre.

When the centre was first set up in 1999, with funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England ( HEFCE), it was located in the former DAMTP building where at one time Professor Stephen Hawking and his team were also based. The HEFCE money ran out 3 years later, but the University itself took over and totally refurbished a new building, at a cost of £125,000. The centre moved into its new home, where it enjoys better access and resources, in January this year.

The centre attempts to go to any lengths to provide the assistance students need to pursue their studies. Access to buildings may have to be facilitated, equipment in the lab adjusted, computers or human assistants provided, sign language interpreters made available, or teaching materials transferred to Braille or tape.

Particular attention is paid to equipping each individual with a package that is tailored to his or her needs. "For those students who have always had a disability and know exactly what they need, their support needs may be well established and practical to implement," says Margot Freeman, disabled students support co-ordinator. In this situation the role of the centre is to make sure that people in charge understand what has to be put in place, and that adjustments have been implemented. "Other people may be less confident if their disability came later in life," she continues, "and they need much more human resources, one-to-one support." The centre also helps students claim for the funding they are entitled to, such as the Disabled Students Allowances.

More and more disabled students are now studying science. "Twenty-five years ago, disabled people were definitely excluded from the lab," says Jesky. But although students with disabilities were at that time confined to reading books and writing essays, "science is no longer seen as something they can't do," continues Freeman. The reasons for this change are twofold. First, young people with disabilities are getting access to a better education at an early stage, allowing more to take up places in higher education. Then, social attitudes have changed sufficiently for people to think they should have a go.

The legal landscape is also changing, most recently with the introduction of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, which extended the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995. The latter made discrimination against disabled people unlawful in employment, for the supply of goods and services, and selling or letting property--but left out education. The new legislation, implemented in September 2002, introduced Part IV of the DDA to bring on board education authorities and further and higher education institutions, covering admissions and student services. The Act states that a disabled person should not be treated less favourably without justification, and reasonable adjustments should be made so that he or she is not at a substantial disadvantage.

However, although universities can anticipate and reduce difficulties by, say, facilitating access to buildings, "if an individual doesn't disclose [his or her disability] and requires an individual response, it will not be put in place," warns Jesky. "The fact that there is this act means that we are encouraging people to disclose." While students are not legally obliged to mention any disability when applying, they are given the opportunity to do so at the earliest stage. "On the application form, there is a disability section where you can tick boxes," explains Jesky. When appropriate students will then be invited to get in touch with the centre to ensure they get the support they need.

"Where it gets difficult is when people are worried about disclosing a difficulty and don't, so it comes [when the student] is already experiencing the problems and being disadvantaged," says Jesky. "Our ambition is to make sure that students have been in touch" and that the adequate support has been put in place so that they can work in optimal conditions from day one, Jesky insists. "The pace of study here is very fast, so if you lose time getting things right, then you are losing valuable time," emphasises Freeman.

The centre advises that students with disabilities who are considering studying at Cambridge University should get in touch with the centre as early as possible, even well before the selection process. "We try to give as much information as we can and arrange visits so that people can make an informed choice about whether or not a college is right for them," says Freeman. The centre can help with consideration of issues such as accommodation and the location of a college in relation to relevant departments. It may also step in during the application process to make sure that disabled students are "interviewed and selected fairly," says Jesky.

But of course it is not up to the centre to evaluate whether or not the student is up to the work. "A person's disability is not part of the interview process," says Jesky, assuring that selection is based only on "academic abilities. The very fact that we are here is a sign that the fact that somebody has a disability is not a barrier to apply to Cambridge," says Jesky.

In addition to helping students and staff directly, the centre is also trying to make a difference in their working environment. Many courses are organised to train university staff on how to deal with issues related to disabilities. "People who are front-line service providers are more likely to attend these courses," comments Jesky, wishing more academics would come too. "This is not necessarily a lack of interest [on their behalf], but a lack of time," she explains. Still, "departments are usually very willing to help, and they like a challenge and problem solving," continues Freeman. The centre is also involved with two committees dealing with disability issues within the university. One is in charge of developing policies, and the Joint Committee on Disability was set up early this year to promote the awareness of disability issues and co-ordinate initiatives improving facilities and services.

All higher education institutions now have a disability service, but the number of people they employ and how extensive their services are vary enormously across the UK. "To have a centre like this where you have got really nice premises and access to quite a lot of resources, we are within the better end," says Freeman. Some universities have developed expertise in a particular field, such as dyslexia, but Cambridge University prefers to keep a more generalist approach.

To identify a university or college with the course you want and the facilities or support you need, use Skill's Into HE database.

So what does Hawking think of the Disability Resource Centre? "[For him] the centre is just the first step on the ladder," says Jesky. "He wants us to fight for the rights of students with disabilities," explains Freeman.

And they are well worth fighting for. You are talking about people who "have tremendous life skills and a good degree," says Freeman. Being well organised, very good at managing people, and able to take a mature approach are only a few of the transferable skills people with disabilities have had to develop. "If you are disabled and successful, that means that you are a good problem solver because you spend your life doing that," adds Jesky. You also have to be very driven and persistent. "Any disabled student must work twice as hard," says Freeman.

"My whole philosophy is not to let your disability stand in the way of achieving what you are capable to achieve," says Jesky, who uses a wheelchair herself. "People who are coming here have already found ways to achieve things," concludes Freeman.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.