Brain wave

People with head
injuries are learning new skills and confidence on a college course designed
specially for them, says course leader Sheila Mulvenney.

About 20 people an
hour are admitted to hospital with head injuries in the UK. Some injuries will
prove fatal, but each year more than 150,000 children and adults in the UK will
survive. The causes vary: road traffic accidents are common as are falls and
other accidents – for example, during sports. In addition to these, damage to
the brain can also be caused by anoxia (insufficient oxygen) – for instance,
during a stroke or heart attack. The results are similar and for many this
means life-long disabilities.

The problems
following an acquired brain injury (ABI) vary. 
Some people spend weeks or months in hospital, although the rehabilitation
process may continue for years. The impact on a person’s life can be huge –
over 60 per cent of marriages of people with ABI break up and many never return
to full-time employment.

The physical problems
include mobility problems, fatigue, sensory impairment, speech difficulties,
ataxia (lack of co-ordination), spasticity, weakness, and paralysis.

In addition, people
may find that their memory is impaired, their ability to learn new things is
reduced and their concentration span affected. Also they may suffer from
reduced problem-solving ability and impairments in their visual, perceptual and
constructional skills. The emotional consequences are immense, as people have
to cope with physical and intellectual problems in addition to dealing with their
own loss. Most people seem to remember life before the brain injury even if
making new memories can be a problem, which can add to their frustration.

The rehabilitative
pathway is lengthy and often arduous for both the person with the injury and
his or her family. The national head-injuries association, Headway, has centres
around the country providing a range of facilities and information for those
who have an ABI and many have found its services invaluable.

As someone who had
taught in further education for many years on a range of care-related courses,
I had been involved in placing students at our local Headway centre for
vocational experience. We have now begun a college course specifically for
people with brain injury. The Continued Learning Pathways course is a one-year
programme that allows students with ABI to choose from a wide range of modules,
including pottery, art, woodwork, computing and numeracy, speaking and
listening, and personal development.

Classes comprise a
maximum of six students at any one time. 
Additional learning support is available during each session to help
with writing or reading, but also to repeat instructions given and help
students stay on task. Learning support assistants escort

students from their
transport to classrooms.

Individuals with ABI
want different things from the programme, although all gain a nationally
recognised certificate for completed modules. Some hope to learn new skills
with a view to re-employment. For instance, one student used to be a car mechanic,
but after a stroke in his early forties left him with a one-sided weakness and
dysphasia, he is taking the computing modules, hoping they may provide future
employment opportunities.

Employment may not be
an option for some, and time can hang heavy for people whose lives are now
restricted, so new hobbies are valued. Pottery, art and woodwork have given
several a new outlet for their creativity, and the process is also beneficial
in terms of skills, since movement and co-ordination are required.

Without exception,
the students with ABI seem to be enjoying their college experience, as are the
staff and other students at college, particularly those in the “care” section.
It has also made us aware, for example, of the number of college doors in
college that are difficult to open if you are pushing a wheelchair. And
although ramps are provided, they are often at the rear of buildings, and
disabled toilets are not on the same floor as classrooms.

However, with
continuing supportive management and funding, inclusive learning is becoming a
reality rather than rhetoric. The learning curve has become a learning circle.

Undoubtedly the
college is providing a valuable service, but in turn students are teaching us
many things about accessibility issues and how attitudes and lack of
understanding can be as disabling as physical conditions. One definition of
rehabilitation is “the relearning of skills”. It is then perhaps wholly
appropriate that this rehabilitation take place in a learning oriented rather
than care-based environment.

Sheila Mulvenny is course leader at Bedford
College. The work referred to is carried out with Headway in Bedford.

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