14 May 1999

A disabled student faces massive odds

A physical disability need

not be a barrier to a happy

and fulfilling student life.

Ask Chris Swift – a man

who, against the odds, has

taken up a place at

agricultural college.

Tim Relf heard his story

AGRICULTURAL colleges are physical places. Theyre big on sport. The students play rugby, swim, have sponsored tug-of-wars. Perhaps it is inevitable: They train farmers and farming is one of the most physically demanding professions. But this is a side of college life that can be intimidating for those people who dont like to play sport. Or cant.

This was something Chris Swift gave a lot of thought to before going to Harper Adams last autumn. He knew it could be a loud and rowdy environment. How, he wondered, would he cope in a wheelchair. But Harper was where he wanted to be. It wasnt as if he was a stranger to the place – he started a course there in 1994 but was forced to leave the next year after developing Guillian-Barr-Syndrome, a rare neurological disorder. "I wouldnt be anywhere else now," he says.

The decision to return was only made, however, after all the options had been considered. One was living at home and following an Open University course.

"But it wasnt what I would have wanted to do before this happened, so it wasnt what I wanted to do afterwards," says Chris.

&#42 Fresh start?

Another option was a fresh start at a new campus. But Chris liked the small and friendly atmosphere of ag college. "I didnt want to go to somewhere like Wolverhampton Poly." No, Harper was the place. "I was itching to get back."

But its been a long, hard and, at times, frightening journey. "Scary as hell," is how Chris remembers the first days. "One of the biggest things I was frightened of was what other people would think." And heads did turn. Almost inevitably. "The first day I went into the dining hall and felt the line of people looking at me."

Some of the students later told Chris they have never seen anyone in a wheelchair before. But it wasnt long before the heads stopped turning. "It took about two weeks – and then no one gave a monkeys."

Now, Chris is well into his first year of a degree in agricultural engineering with marketing and management. Its less practical than the straight engineering course he started first time around and allows him to develop his interest in computer-based design and mapping.

Pursuing further education was, he is convinced, the right thing to do. "I had A levels – but they wouldnt get me very far. Not going to college was just not an option. I needed to get ahead."

Hes doing nearly everything the people around him are doing: living in halls, chatting over coffee between lectures and paying regular visits to the student union bar. "Doing the things students do."

Unlike his contemporaries, though, he heads off to Telford twice a week for physiotherapy. GBS, about half as common as multiple sclerosis, remains a condition about which little is known. Indeed, it was something that doctors had difficulty diagnosing at first. The diagnosis ranged from pneumonia to a bad case of drunkenness. It struck so suddenly, developed so quickly. His parents had to take him home to Kent.

"In the morning I could get up and go to the bathroom, by lunchtime I had to be helped to the bathroom, by the evening I couldnt get out of bed."

Returning to the college after a break meant there was a different set of people to those around him the first time he came. So thats meant new friends – which has been a good thing. "It meant I had a whole new take on things."

&#42 Supportive college

The college, meanwhile, has been very supportive. Ramps and electric doors have been installed. His needs have been fully considered in finding placement work. "Theyre unbelievably well geared up. They couldnt have been more helpful, " says Chris.

And such support is not something he would, necessarily, have got elsewhere. Some educational establishments might say they are wheelchair friendly -but they arent, he says. "Some people think that the big colleges will be more switched on. But I doubt that. The smaller places, like this, are more personal and have more time for you."

His thought are on placement work and a career. As agriculture becomes more technical so the physical side becomes less important.

But hes a realist and knows there will be problems. The agricultural industry is, he reckons, one of the last bastions of prejudice. "I was the only wheelchair in Earls Court," he says of last years trip to Smithfield. And sounding out potential employers didnt exactly inspire him with confidence. "They wondered what I could offer."

Their loss.