Archive for November 5th, 2018

50 objects for 50 years. No 29. The wheelchair

Monday, November 5th, 2018

This week’s object is the wheelchair, the International Symbol of Access, because as, the former OU Vice Chancellor Martin Bean once noted ‘We’re home to more students with disabilities than any other university’. Writing in 2001 about the OU, Jagannath Mohanty concluded with perhaps some exaggeration, that, ‘As there is no basic qualification for entry to the OU and most of its students are deprived or handicapped in some way or other, this University is the most socialistic in nature and spirit’. In 1972, long before legislation encouraged other universities to accept students with disabilities, the OU appointed a Senior Counsellor with special responsibility for this field. In 1973 there were 554 students with disabilities identified in the rest of full-time higher education; by comparison the OU had about 1,200. In 1975 the OU specifically undertook to ‘continue to take all possible practical steps to enable full participation by disabled students in all aspects of University life’. A study concluded that students with disabilities had higher success rates than achieved by their non-disabled counterparts, and a drop-out rate markedly lower than for the general student population. Maggy Jones reported that she had to leave another university because of lack of wheelchair access, adding that ‘for the severely handicapped the Open University is proving to be their first real educational opportunity’. Leslie Hayward lost his hearing at the age of nine, had little schooling and counted bottles at a factory for a living. He received his OU degree in 1975 because he could read materials, rather than having to listen to lectures. One student said her choice had been made because ‘due to ill health I couldn’t take up the unconditional offers I had received from traditional universities’ and that her studies dovetailed with her work as ‘a full time Mum’. A further reason for the relatively high number of students with disabilities might be because, on average, OU students were ten to fifteen years older than conventional, full-time, students. John Cowan concluded that the students felt that within the OU they ‘had a community experience in which they cared for students with disabilities’. He recalled one summer school when, at about one o’clock in the morning, on seeing a severely disabled student arriving in a vehicle adapted to take his wheelchair, he asked the student, ‘How is it going for you?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘I’ve just been to a party, and I’ve never been to a party in my life. And it was absolutely wonderful.’ Students with multiple disabilities continued to be attracted to the OU because, even though legislative changes improved access to other institutions, the OU continued to offer support across a range of disabilities. These included audio recordings and 3D diagrams for the visually impaired, large-print texts and visual descriptions for screen readers

In the early days the attraction for the housebound or those with restricted access to university campuses was the possibility of study without having to negotiate buildings which were not designed for those with a range of disabilities. After 1990 there were reforms, including the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the Human Rights Act 1998, the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Act 2001 and the Disability Discrimination Act 2005. In compliance with legislation, universities across the UK began to treat staff and students in similar ways.  However, the OU maintained its interest in being open to people. In 2001 it provided Disabled Student Allowances to 2,200 students with disabilities. In 2003 the Institutional Disabled Students Strategy and Action Plan was launched, having been developed in the context of both Quality Assessment Authority guidelines and the Disability Discrimination Act. Although data collated about students refers only to those who have self-declared as having disabilities, by 2013 there were over 17,000 UK-based students with disabilities, health conditions, mental health disabilities or specific learning difficulties (such as dyslexia) studying at the OU.

OU Students Association trip to Rome, 1978. There is an account of the trip in the book, Disabled students on a study tour of Rome, Have wheels: Will travel (Reading: Educational Explorers, 1976).