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Issue 482, 20 May 2002

Knowledge, experience and the highest standards – our disability services are leading the field

If you've never needed it, you might not know it was there. You might stumble in unawares, thinking it's social sciences (next door). But for those who know, the distinctive whoosh of the automatic doors means they're in one of the best university disability centres in the country. Whether student or staff, when they go back out onto red route, they'll know the support is there for them to work or study on an equal basis to the other thousands of students or staff who walk past those doors none the wiser.

With a reputation across the sector for excellence and highly praised by all who use it, Leeds' disability services are leading the field. The University has more students with disabilities than any other HE institution – way above the national average – but is distinguished by more than just quantity.

"Leeds is special in having a fully comprehensive service, of the highest quality, rather than offering support primarily to students with one particular disability as many institutions do," said head of disability services Judith Russell (pictured left with C&IT projects officer Gwil Selwood).  "We can ensure that any student who wishes to come here to study can do so, without their disability being a barrier."

The purpose-built disability services centre in the centre of campus – designed from scratch with the full involvement of the disability team – is also unique within the sector.

The reception area alone reflects characteristic attention to detail – from noisy doors and tactile surfaces, down to colour coded doors and strong colour contrasts to define the parameters of the rooms.

Other higher education institutions are looking to Leeds to get their own services online: Judith Russell is acting as a consultant to four of the 29 HEIs funded by HEFCE to establish disability support services.

Leeds' success is certainly worth imitating. "In the last five years we've grown from supporting just 90 students to over 900," said Judith Russell. "Leeds is now actively attracting students with disabilities because of the support we can offer."

It was a deciding factor for pharmacology student Amit Mehta (pictured right). He looked at other universities but Leeds came out on top: "Leeds' prospectus was the only one which flagged up its disability support – and it was a generally popular university. I was so determined to come here, I put Leeds courses as my top four choices."

As well as being deaf, diabetic and visually impaired, Amit Mehta needs blood transfusions every few weeks for sideroblastic anaemia. The regular hospitalisation was causing him to drop behind in his work, so disability services helped him set up a more workable arrangement with his department: he's now taking his final two years over three.

"The service at Leeds is so good, because it's a specialised disability service. Not only are they quick to respond, they also have the necessary experience of dealing with people with different disabilities and different needs."

Starting out as a drop-in office on red route, disability services now offers a dazzling array of support, from note takers, to IT software and specialist equipment. The centre even includes a full RNIB transcription centre, producing texts in Braille, on tape and CD Rom.

Leeds is one of only four UK universities to provide 24-hour support from personal assistants, all trained by the service and the students who will be using them. PAs at other universities are self-employed, but at Leeds they're all University employees, ensuring a consistent high quality service.

When students are accepted for a course, their needs are assessed and the service then helps them access the necessary allowances and funding, and ensure that the support is in place for when they first come to campus.

For administrator Rosemarie Lees, this early support is crucial: "Disability services  ensured everything I needed was in place from day one, so I could just get on with my job on an equal basis to everyone else. It took the pressure off coming into post – I've worked in other places where they didn't have the same specialist knowledge and it was just a nightmare."

Rosemarie Lees runs the LINK project, working with disability services and continuing education to raise the educational aspirations of disabled adults. She knows how crucial the service is, having used it first as a student, then as a member of staff and now on behalf of the adults she works with.

"We want to help our students start off from an equal basis, but it's more problematic as they've never believed university could be for them. But the demand is there: in just four months, we're already working with over 50 students, and many of them will attend courses or even go on to a degree. Showing them the support that's available gives them the confidence to come here."

Nineteen year old Shona Cormack (pictured left with personal assistant Lucy Winder) remembers her first day only too clearly: "It was awful, there were so many people, and I didn't know anyone and no one knew me. I was really glad to have the personal assistant to show me round."

Until coming to university, Shona – who has cerebral palsy – had never been away from her parents for long. Now in her second year, she appreciates the confidence and independence that being at Leeds has given her.

"It's been really positive, getting used to a new way of life, sorting out problems for myself rather than turning to my parents. I know now I can cope in the big wide world, but it's felt really reassuring, knowing that the support is there when I need it."

Disability services not only help staff and students, they also offer work placements to disabled adults who've been unemployed for a while. Ann Cheesbrough (pictured right) came on a placement as a receptionist at disability services. The experience and support she received gave her the confidence to apply for a full-time post. She got a job as a receptionist in process, materials and environmental engineering ten months ago and hasn't looked back since.

"I love my job: the staff are great, all really friendly, and the students are no problem. I'm not seen as 'the visually-impaired receptionist', just as Ann. I'm really happy here, and wouldn't work anywhere else. End of story!"

Leading the field doesn't stop plans for further initiatives, such as a £2m programme to improve access to buildings and specialist training sessions for teaching staff.

"We've achieved a lot, but there's always more to be done," said Judith Russell.

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