Meet Nathan - The severely disabled UWE student whose firm already employs 11 people
AS the latest intake of freshers arrive at the University of the West of England's Frenchay Campus, there are plenty of nerves among the new students.
Stepping into the independent world of student living can be exciting, but it can also feel a little intimidating – especially for the thousands of UWE students who have some sort of disability.
But now he's entering his second year, business enterprise student Nathan Fernandes is keen to reassure freshers with disabilities and younger disabled students who are considering whether university is for them.
The 19-year-old knows all too well how intimidating it can be to arrive at a large university campus with a disability.
He has had cerebral palsy since birth, a condition which severely restricts his movement and speech.
However, Nathan's achievements, in spite of his physical disabilities, are truly remarkable.
As well as launching himself enthusiastically into his full-time studies, he also runs his own website development business, VEU Design – currently employing 11 computer programmers.
He has also developed an initiative called VEUcan, which provides disability awareness workshops, talks and mentoring services – working with other disabled people, families, academia and industry to help them to improve their disabled facilities.
"My ethos is that I won't let my physical disabilities to get in the way of doing the things I want to do – academically, professionally and in my social life," Nathan says.
"If I can provide some inspiration to other people in a similar situation along the way, then that certainly has to be a good thing too.
"I want other people with disabilities to know that you can do this – it absolutely is possible to have a normal university education like everybody else. The facilities are here for you."
For students with severe disabilities like Nathan, it seems technology is the key to his liberation – quite literally, in fact. As he enters his student halls, an electronic key fob built into his sophisticated wheelchair communicates invisibly with a nearby sensor, so all the doors open for him as he approaches.
The majority of his work and communication is done via a specially adapted computer. Nathan can do everything from typing e-mails to designing websites, all through the use of a single joystick.
But giving people like Nathan an equal opportunity to access higher education is not just about clever technology.
Nathan's adapted room is considerably more spacious than your average student digs.
"Plenty of space to manoeuvre the chair," he explains, communicating with the help of his interpreter Dave Hatton.
But Dave's role extends far beyond interpreting Nathan's difficult speech. He is employed as Nathan's live-in carer. He stays with Nathan around the clock to ensure he's able to get the most out of his university experience.
"I sleep in the neighbouring room," Dave explains, "and we basically do everything together throughout the term – from helping him to get washed and dressed in the morning, to assisting him in lectures and seminars – not to mention the all-important student social life.
"I'm supposed to work with Nathan for 22 hours a day, but I always say, what the hell, let's call it 24 hours," he laughs.
Dave works for a private live-in care company, Agincare, and is funded through social security streams.
"There aren't many jobs where you get to know a client this well – but I love it," he says.
Nathan went to an ordinary state school – Preston Secondary School in Yeovil – so he is used to integrating himself and his particular mobility needs into a regular school environment.
"I've been doing this all my life," he tells me. "It may look like hard work, but it's all I've ever known."
For the past four years, Nathan has also made a series of films about carnivals – using a camera mounted on a tripod on his wheelchair.
"I also don't let my disabilities stop me having a social life," he says. "My friends are spread out all over England, and I travel on my own on the train to visit them all regularly.
"But my biggest hobby is getting involved in the West Country carnival circuit."
Andrew Warrington, from UWE's disability services department, says the university is particularly proud of its disabled facilities.
"It's one of the great things about being on a big modern campus like Frenchay," he says. "Some of the older universities have, by necessity, older accommodation blocks that simply aren't as easy to adapt to this kind of use. So we're very lucky here.
"We have 35,000 students at UWE, and more than 3,000 of them are registered as having some form of disability – from things like dyslexia, all the way through to more severe disabilities like Nathan's cerebral palsy.
"We make every effort to ensure that everything is put in place to ensure they can concentrate on their studies without having to worry about the practicalities of getting around."