How we helped physically disabled young adult’s transition into university life and independent living

Virgin Care supported our Occupational Therapy Team in Devon to launch an innovative project to help bridge the gap between college and university education for physically disabled young people. The project would help them acquire skills to develop their independency by experiencing what university life would be like with the support of independent carers rather than patents.

University - shutterstock

Introduction

The Occupational Therapy Service in Devon, which Virgin Care run as part of our Devon Integrated Children’s Services contract, work with and support children and young people, parents/carer(s) and teachers to find solutions to minimise the difficulties children and young people with emotional, psychological or physical difficulties face and help them to get the most from life.

Virgin Care found that there was no facility in South West Devon to help young people with complex physical needs, who are academically able, acquire the life skills needed to help them easily and successfully move on to higher education and independent living at university – and later into employment.

Through research we also found that Powerpack, a Devon-based charity offering activities for young wheelchair users, and other Occupational Therapists around the county, had several young people in similar situations. The service’s therapists thought the best way to help meet and develop their patients’ needs and skills, was for them to experience a real-life situation away from home.

Virgin Care facilitated our Occupational Therapy Service to come up with the idea for Project Fast Track, which lets young people experience a mainstream setting and to experience what university life would be like with the support of independent carers rather than parents, to help build their confidence and independence skills.

We supported the team to work in partnership with other professionals including occupational therapists, physiotherapy therapists, psychology therapists, occupational therapy students from Plymouth University, the Exeter University AccessAbility team, and disabled alumni peers to deliver the project.

Results were positive and all of the young people involved saw significant improvements in terms of their occupational performance and their satisfaction – there was also an improvement in their self-confidence.

Difficulty bridging the gap between college and university

Children and young people with emotional, psychological or physical difficulties can experience issues with their participation as fully as possible in everyday activities which might hinder their ability to grow, learn, socialise and play.

Nationally, it is widely recognised that disabled students are currently faced with barriers preventing them from believing higher education is a realistic option for them. Virgin Care found that patients in our Occupational Therapy Service represent this challenge facing disabled young people who live in Devon and Cornwall, and aspire to further, higher education and employment.


Service user feedback

“I cannot see how to bridge the huge gap from A-level to University and more importantly studying away from the security of home…the very idea of going to live away at University and on my own feels completely daunting.”


Virgin Care found that for young people with complex physical needs, who are academically able, that there was no facility in the South West to help them acquire the life skills needed to help them easily and successfully move on. This meant that many bright young adults can be disappointed and unfulfilled when transitioning into adulthood.

Service users and their parents also expressed concerns about how they might manage away from home without having some help beforehand.

Through further research we also found that Powerpack, a Devon-based charity offering activities for young wheelchair users, and other Occupational Therapists around the county, had several other young people in similar situations.

Finding the best way to develop independent living skills

Virgin Care understood that the best way to help develop our patient’s independent living skills was for them to experience a real-life situation away from home. We found that young people had also expressed a wish to have this experience in a mainstream setting to find out what university life would be like with the support of independent carers rather than their parents.

We supported the Occupational Therapy Team to work in partnership with a multi-disciplinary team from other South West Devon professionals including occupational therapists, physiotherapy therapists, psychology therapists, occupational therapy students from Plymouth University, the Exeter University AccessAbility team, and disabled alumni peers to deliver Project Fast Track, as it is known.

Student halls accommodation at Exeter University was identified as the location to allow service users to experience life at university, which would help:

  • Maximise personal goals and outcomes – to become the basis of an evaluation that could be shared with other education establishments, and adult services, to help these services better prepare physically disabled young people for further education and adulthood in the future
  • Raise the aspirations of young people with a physically disability – to put them on the right track to achieving their dream of further study, employment and being fulfilled and autonomous adults

In July 2013, service users were immersed in a week of independent living at Exeter University with full guidance and support from professionals at the University. The programmes were individually tailored, offering each young person an opportunity to acquire new independent life skills, coping strategies and providing them with information to help open up choices, as well as enjoy a positive experience of independent living, for the first time in their lives in most cases.

During the week the group explored the campus, used shops on and off campus, endeavoured to make their lunch and dinner in the kitchen, explored possible solutions to some of the physical challenges and barriers to independence, did their laundry, played table tennis and went to the pub.

Significant improvements in occupational performance and self-confidence

By facilitating the Occupational Therapy Service to introduce the project, all service users involved saw significant improvements overall in terms of their occupational performance and their satisfaction – there was also a significant improvement in their self-confidence.

The project was particularly effective at:

  • Providing opportunity and encouragement to try new activities, such as making themselves meals, shopping, budgeting and doing their laundry
  • Promoting socialisation
  • Promoting independence in self-care activities
  • Learning how to direct their care for themselves

user feedback and students on the course enjoyed the experience and felt it gave them the confidence to consider University as an option for them:


Service user feedback

  • “It made me feel more confident seeing that I can cope on my own and without my parents, but with the help of carers.  I can now see myself going to University and coping with it. I would definitely recommend the course to others.”
  • “I had a great time and learnt a lot about University life. I am now able to plan for the future with confidence knowing I could cope with the challenges facing me at University.”
  • “It was an extremely successful activity and it allowed me to gauge the limitations of my future independence. It was also a chance to have a taste of uni life and interaction with new young people.”

Following Virgin Care’s promotion of the project in the area, numerous young people expressed an interest and the project was repeated in 2015 for another six students.

We continued to develop and improve the programme so students will stay in adapted flats on the campus which are more suitable and will receive a tour of the University gym by a personal trainer with experience of advising people with disabilities in appropriate use of exercise equipment.

The AccessAbility Team at Exeter University also promoted the project among the South West Universities Network as an example that could potentially be replicated elsewhere.

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