Breaking barriers

The academic study of disability may itself be
disabling for the group being studied, but a new course seeks to
break down this effect by involving people with learning
difficulties. Graham Hopkins reports.

With joint working increasingly the done
thing, it is strange that we still have two very distinct and
entrenched views of disability: the medical model, which sees it in
terms of people having something “wrong with them”; and the social
model, which sees the “problem” of disability not with the person’s
impairment but with the barriers their society or environment
forces them to face. Remove the barriers, it is therefore argued,
and you remove the disability.

barriers facing people with learning difficulties often take the
form of negative ideas or expectations about their “deficits” and
“limitations”, which may deny them chances to join in fully with

ever, education is the key to the sweet shop. And yet research,
founded on the medical model, has shown that academic study has
pulled down the shutters on positive ideas and expectations of
people with learning difficulties.1

academic study of learning difficulties may itself be disabling for
the group being studied. This has inspired Manchester University to
launch a new degree programme to counter that trend.

Launched in September 2001, The
BA (Hons) Learning Disability Studies course shuns the associated
“signs” and “symptoms” of particular “syndromes” or “conditions”,
in favour of analysing those social and ideological factors that
result in the disadvantage and low status of people with learning

  “Additionally,” says lecturer in
education Iain Carson, “as a result of being involved in research
in partnership with people with learning difficulties, I have
increasingly been made aware that they want to be supported by
people who operate within a social model approach.” Crucially, the
course “aims to bring about real change in the lives of people who
have learning difficulties by working in partnership with

who better to help inform the design and teaching of the course
than people with learning difficulties themselves? With at least
half the course’s steering group made up of people with learning
difficulties, they certainly have a strong hand on the

Docherty of self-advocacy group Manchester People First was
sceptical at first: “As a learning disabled adult, I see some of
the bad points in relation to what this new degree is trying to do.
A lot of people like myself wouldn’t want to tell stuff to students
whom we didn’t really know – we’d have to get to know

Docherty continues: “We didn’t
want students coming to us saying, ‘This is what I want to do’ or
‘This is what I’ve got to do for my course.’ We wanted to tell
students, ‘This is what I’d like you to help me with. This is what
I’d like to do.'”

At the
design stage people with learning difficulties offered their
services in return for Carson offering himself as a volunteer
advocate. “Once the course was up and running, they became an
integral part of the team, involved in teaching, monitoring
students’ practice and devising assessment tools, for which they
are paid,” adds Carson.

as part of its commitment to widening participation, the university
targeted mature students, believing their experience to be more
valuable than any academic qualification. As one mature student
says, “I thought before we started that having no qualifications
would be a problem, but it hasn’t been, because it’s

says:”It’s early days yet, but we hope that students, staff and
people with learning difficulties will all be partners in learning.
We hope to learn about the barriers that disable people with
learning difficulties in our society, and to work together towards
removing them.”


Scheme: Involving people with learning
difficulties in the design and teaching of BA (Hons) Learning
Disability Studies.

Location: Manchester.

Staffing: Three members of teaching staff
(equivalent to 1.8 full-time staff).

Inspiration: A growing awareness of the needs
of support workers and advocates who did not want to undertake
traditional nursing or social work training.

Cost: People with learning difficulties are
paid (collectively) £80 per hour, which they have chosen to
pay into Manchester People First.


1 M Potts and R
Fido, A Fit Person to be Removed, Northcote House, 1991; J
Ryan and F Thomas, The Politics of Mental Handicap, Free
Association Books, 1987


For more information contact Iain
Carson on 0161-275-3382 or
leaflets and course philosophy will be sent on request. Also


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