Visually impaired teen battles for place at specialist college

Date: Thursday 14th July 2016
Alicia-Grace Walton with letters from the county council rejecting her applications for financial support
Alicia-Grace Walton with letters from the county council rejecting her applications for financial support

A PENRITH mother has told of her battle to try and secure an education for her teenaged daughter who suffers from an incurable sight condition.

Linda Jackson, of Raiselands Croft, says she has become “enraged” at having to fight for daughter Alicia-Grace Walton, who has Stargardft condition. The 17-year-old is classed as severely sight impaired blind as result of a condition which affects only one in 9,000 people.

She cannot recognise people’s faces as close as 5ft away and needs annual checks in Newcastle. At college, she needs modern equipment for the visually impaired as well as extra support with independence.

But her experience of local colleges is that the equipment is outdated and the support is not broad enough which makes learning both more difficult and exhausting.

Alicia-Grace cannot always see things other students take for granted, like steps, stairs, signs, or where the canteen and toilets are, explained Linda, aged 45.

Alicia, who turns 18 next month, said: “Because I don’t walk around with a cane and don’t have really thick or dark glasses, a lot of people don’t realise I have it.

“You’ll ask people where things are and they’ll give you funny looks, because they expect someone of my age to be independent.”

On a personal level, her phone has to be set on the largest text, she has to use magnifiers to see computers and putting on make-up or even reading labels on tins is an effort.

There was hope after they found out about the specialist Royal National College for the Blind, Hereford. It specialises in supporting over-16 students with sight loss like Alicia-Grace and goes further by properly preparing them for a life of independent living and work.

Working single mother Linda, who works at James’ Fruit and Vegetables, Penrith, is desperate for her daughter to get a good education and job in case anything ever happens to her, as she has no siblings to turn to.

Mother and daughter have attended the residential college four times for open weekends to see how it compared and fell in love with the facilities.

Alicia-Grace says the college environment made her feel “normal” for the first time in her life. She wants to study there for two years and eventually become a sight-impaired support worker.

“It’s one of the only places that I have ever been where I feel normal and not different to everyone else. Everything is set up for a person with a visual impairment. Students I have spoken to say it has changed their life,” she said.

“I want to get a good education so I can get a good career. I want to work. I don’t want to go on benefits because I would feel like I am taking them away from people with really bad disabilities who can’t work. I was always brought up to work.”

Two applications for support from Cumbria County Council to cover the college’s £32,500-a-year fees were turned down last year and then again this year. The council believes different places throughout Cumbria can match what the specialist college offers.

The authority said in its refusal letter: “The Local Education Authority would deem that a placement at the Royal National College would be incompatible with the efficient use of resources. Placements at a specialist college are funded by public money and subject to an audit. Evidence needs to be clear that no other local provision can meet needs.”

Linda says nowhere in Cumbria can compare with the Hereford college and she feels that the decision condemns her daughter to a life of unskilled employment or a life on benefits, which would ultimately cost more in the end.

Linda said: “They are telling me all these things are available in the county and they aren’t. I don’t want her to have special treatment, all I want her to be able to do is access the same things as other people. Decisions like this amount to playing God with people’s lives.

“We have been to a solicitor and would challenge them but to do that is going to cost between £6,000 and £10,000. To send her there, I would have to sell my house. I just think it’s unfair, in this day and age, that every other child can go to school and they get a book they can properly read or a computer that they can use.

“It’s unfair that because she has a disability she needs these things and they are not provided. It’s wrong you have to fight to get them. I don’t blame the local colleges at all because it’s not their fault. They don’t have a full understanding of sight impairment.”

The pair appreciate the cost of the specialist college is high. Alicia said: “It is a lot of money and I could understand it if they turned me down because I had brought the disability on myself. But it’s not my fault, I was born with it.”