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Disabled students deserve a fair deal

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: December 03, 2013

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Today is the United Nations' International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Rich Amos writes about the issues people with disabilities face every day

It's not my fault that I was born with cerebral palsy. Nor is it my parents' fault. It's just one of those things. Yet I am constantly made to feel as if I am somehow to blame for who I am and the support I need to be independent.

Like anyone else all I want to do is live my own life – without people staring at me. If I need help I will ask for it. My disabilities do not define me as an individual. I want to be able to make my own choices about where I study, where I live and how I want to live my life.

Yet it is easy for even me to forget that, when the system; and I include education, health and social care, is hell-bent on preventing me from making any choices of my own free will.

I attended National Star College, a Gloucestershire-based specialist college for young people with disabilities. It provides further education for young people over the age of 16. I now work at the college supporting students.

To be able to attend National Star I had to be refused from mainstream further education before I could attain funding. I had to face rejection, written down in a document. Unlike our able-bodied peers, young people with disabilities have little choice to where they attend college. That choice is made by the local authority which now holds the purse strings for the funding.

To a young person fighting for the choice and opportunity to attend the most appropriate provider, the system can make you feel that your education is not worth the investment.

Already we are seeing many local authorities deciding not to fund any further education out of county. Many of our students – and their parents – have had to fight tough battles to attend National Star.

Imagine telling every school leaver they can go to the college or university of their choice – as long as it is in their county. What would happen to those universities and colleges offering specialist courses and degrees? Putting the right to freedom of choice aside, such a ruling would be a death knell for fine education institutions throughout the country.

Yet this is what all specialist colleges must now face. As one of our third-year students said yesterday when she met Edward Timpson, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families, she chose National Star for not just the academic offering but also for the social integration and vital therapies such as physiotherapy and speech and language therapy. It was the right choice for her – but a choice that will be taken away from many others.

With cuts to benefits and support, people with disabilities can feel like the pariahs of society. We are lumped together with those who try to evade work. Ask any student here, regardless of ability, and most of them, if able, want to work. It might not be a job as you imagine – 9 to 5, five days a week – but we all want to contribute to society.

Why wouldn't we? People want to be part of society. We all want to feel we have made a difference in life. Just because some of us use a wheelchair to move or a computer to speak doesn't mean we don't have something to offer the world.

No one is going to say to Stephen Hawking or a Paralympian athlete that they have no worth, that they lack ambition they are not entitled to follow their dreams.

While the Government has great aspirations with its proposed Children and Families Bill without the finance it is just that, an aspiration. The idea of joined-up thinking, of health, education and social care experts working with an individual to help them achieve their aspirations is a wonderful concept. But the Bill and the education funding are not integral. Decisions have been made about funding by Government and by local authorities before the Bill is finalised.

At the moment the Bill states that local authorities must have "a regard to people over 18". What does this really mean? Will young people be able to access funding post-18 if they have acquired a disability later in life?Or if they require longer to learn new skills? We are really worried that young people will just be cut out of education because they have reached their 18th birthday – not because they are unable to progress.

We are not asking for the moon. We are not asking for handouts. All we ask is an opportunity to make the most of our skills, to be able to contribute to society and to make our own choices in life. Is that really too much to ask?

Rich Amos is a learner involvement co-ordinator at National Star. He was a member of EPIC, a group set up by the Council for Disabled Children, to advise the Government on the Children and Families Bill

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