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Learning from experience: what happened when one university employed a lecturer with learning difficulties

Three years ago the University of Hertfordshire employed Scott Watkin, a man with learning disabilities, as a visiting lecturer for its nursing course. His lectures give a greater insight for students.

Three years ago the University of Hertfordshire employed Scott Watkin, a man with learning disabilities, as a visiting lecturer for its nursing course. His lectures proved to be a revelation for many students and have given them a greater insight into the lives of people with learning disabilities. Paul Maloret, Senior Lecturer at University of Hertfordshire, and Scott talk about the difference he has made.

Scott Watkin
Lecturer Scott Watkin speaks at the Learning Disability Practice conference held in Manchester. Picture: Neil O'Connor

In 2013, the University of Hertfordshire employed a visiting lecturer in learning disabilities who was an expert by experience and had learning difficulties himself.

Three years on, Scott Watkin’s lectures have become an essential part of the university’s learning disability nursing courses.

Mix of skills

Scott came to the university with a diverse range of experiences. He works at SeeAbility as an eye care and vision development officer and part of his role is to travel the country giving talks. He is also the co-chair for the Transforming Care Assurance Board which oversees the Transforming Care agenda.

Scott has said that his biggest achievement so far in his career has been the ability to hold down three jobs at once – three jobs with very different remits. Teaching is something he never thought he would be able to do and when he receives positive feedback from students, it fills him with immense pride and satisfaction.

Scott has a chromosomal condition called Williams syndrome, a developmental disorder that is characterised by mild to moderate intellectual disability and physical abnormalities.

In Scott’s case these include muscle weakness in his face and visual impairment. Scott’s vision can vary from day to day. He has had two cornea grafts that have improved his vision but there is still a long road ahead and his sight affects his daily working life.

Value and respect

Inclusion entails playing a meaningful part and being valued and respected by peers. For many people with learning disabilities it means being given the opportunity and support to be truly included.

There have been many examples where Scott and others with disabilities have been asked for their input, but because of the complexities of the task or the lack of preparation and adjustments, it turns out to be an exercise in tokenism.

Scott reflects on being asked to join a curriculum development group for a nursing programme:

‘I joined the group after they had met three or four times. I was told that the group needed a service user and it was important that my views were recorded. The meeting lasted three hours. I was never entirely sure about my role, but every now and then I was asked about the curriculum.

'The support I have received from other lecturers has enabled me to overcome some of the hurdles I faced'

‘They used lots of jargon and I found it difficult to keep up. I had very little experience of the previous curriculum and I found it impossible to make a decision on the new programme.’ 

His experience at the University of Hertfordshire has been very different. It was decided early on that the best way to use his skills would be to allocate him to a particular module covering person-centred approaches. Scott’s own experiences would be invaluable and would also be informed by his work with the SeeAbility team.

In the upcoming year Scott will be asked to join the curriculum development team for a new preregistration programme. He is very much a part of the academic group at the university, and he is in a position to have a big effect on the student experience.

Scott’s experience

‘At first I found teaching quite challenging, I was used to speaking at big conferences but teaching was very different. Students would ask questions as and when they felt like it and at times I found this difficult because I was used to taking questions at the end of a presentation and it could make me lose my train of thought.

'From the outset I felt that the students and other lecturers appreciated my input and I was able to confidently give the students my point of view.

'Hearing about the real-life experience and the challenges that people with learning disabilities face is an essential part of their learning.'

Reactions

‘Some of the examples I use are of negative experiences with healthcare professionals. I enjoy hearing the student’s reactions to this and the discussions about what learning disability professionals can do about it.

'To be able to engage with the students in this way has been empowering.

'Students will often give me immediate feedback after a session. Many say they felt overwhelmed by the barriers that face people with learning disabilities and after our discussions they can see the wood for the trees.

‘Colleagues will often come to me for advice about service users. I feel valued and listened to and I am convinced that they appreciate my work.'

Great support

'The support I have received from other lecturers has enabled me to overcome some of the hurdles I faced when I began this lecturing role – particularly when engaging with the technologies used as part of the virtual learning environment.

‘In addition to the experiential insights, I also spend a good deal of time talking about national policy. I have played a part in driving many of the Department of Health’s policy changes that affect the lives of people with disabilities.

'This puts me in a strong and credible position to inform students about policy and the rationale behind changes – and the impact that it has on nursing practice.

‘I have long been an advocate for more people with disabilities being involved in teaching learning disability nursing programmes, however in the past I’ve been invited to be involved in many aspects of learning disability practice and education without really being prepared and have therefore not been able to have the impact that I would have liked.

'Great care must be taken when people with learning disabilities are included, the more preparation and time given beforehand is crucial and only then can the person with disabilities be expected to truly have a real impact.'

 

Seeing the effect that the appointment has had on Scott’s confidence and how his performance in the classroom has developed, the evidence is clear that taking this step towards inclusive educational practice can have substantial benefits for all.  

A student’s experience

‘It has been a fantastic learning opportunity to have Scott come and teach us and to be able to hear about the inequalities he has faced and overcome.

'He has helped us to understand what it feels like to have to fight against these barriers, and how, as learning disability nurses, we will be able to help people with learning disabilities break down those barriers.’ 

Jo-Ann Chapman second-year pre-registration learning disability nursing student, University of Hertfordshire. 

 


Scott Watkin is Visiting Lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire. Paul Maloret is Senior Lecturer at University of Hertfordshire.

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