My disabled son was told to study more than 100 miles away

Education cuts leave young man facing uncertain future while undergoing painful leg-lengthening procedure

A Scottish university has been accused of failing a young man who is enduring excruciating leg lengthening procedures.

Tricia Stronach said she was “furious” with UHI Shetland over the way it has dealt with her 18-year-old son, Troy Smith.

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The family also believe his ongoing battle to continue his studies after leaving school will be experienced by many others as a result of cost-cutting measures at the college in Shetland, and across the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) network.

Since he was six, Troy has regularly been having his legs broken in two places and “pulled apart a millimetre a day”, as part of a procedure that lasts a year each time. A consultant at Great Ormond Street Hospital recommended the painful leg lengthening technique in order to ensure his short limbs can take his bodyweight in adulthood.

Troy Smith in hospital while undergoing leg lengthening procedures in 2015Troy Smith in hospital while undergoing leg lengthening procedures in 2015
Troy Smith in hospital while undergoing leg lengthening procedures in 2015 | Troy Smith

The family moved from England to Scotland, where Ms Stronach is from, when Troy was in primary school, and he latterly attended Anderson High School in Lerwick. Despite the ongoing procedure, Troy opted not to take painkillers in order to ensure his memory was not impacted as he sat three Highers in May.

“I have tried in every way possible to ensure I have a productive future. I was determined to study an HNC at UHI,” he said.

When Troy did apply in January, he said his school contacted UHI Shetland “several times” to discuss his transition and his Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC) plan.

Under the Equality Act 2010, all colleges and universities have a duty to make “reasonable adjustments” to ensure that students with disabilities which affect their studies are not placed at a disadvantage.

However, the family said that, despite the contact from the school, UHI “kept putting them off”, with one official eventually responding: “Come back to me next term”.

Then, at the end of May, they received a call out of the blue to say the business course Troy had applied for had been cancelled, but that he could instead study at UHI Orkney, more than 100 miles away.

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“There had been no transition, little contact so they knew nothing about me. I did explain on my application but they didn’t look at it,” Troy said.

Distance learning was also suggested, but Troy finds online courses difficult. Then, an apprenticeship was discussed, as was a National Certificate in engineering, but the tasks set during the interview process came as a surprise, resulting in him being rejected.

Ms Stronach said: “I’d say the word I would use is furious. I think furious because when UHI found out they had done things wrong, what did they do?

“They said, ‘well we’ve helped you because we told you you could go to Orkney, they said you could go to Perth for online, and we’ve had a meeting with you. So there you go, you go off and sort it out’.

“You know what, the schools along the way have done things wrong but they’ve got integrity. I don’t think UHI have got integrity.”

Ms Stronach believes Troy and others are already being impacted by cuts at UHI Shetland and the wider university, which is undergoing a restructuring process.

It was recently reported that 13 staff are leaving UHI Shetland, and there would be the loss of a number of courses in business, accounting and community learning. Troy said: “I don’t think it was handled correctly. They haven’t put on their website that they’re changing people around, people are leaving and you might not get courses - they are all going to be online.

“It’s like, for people who can’t learn online, they are going to have to (learn online) if they want to do what they want to do. And it’s not fair.”

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Troy and his mother have written to several senior figures about their experience, including Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth and UHI principal Vicki Nairn.

They said they understood the need to make changes at UHI, but that needs to be done without “affecting Scotland’s most vulnerable people”.

They added: “It will be rolled out across the Highlands and Islands and how many more people will suffer?”

A spokesperson for UHI Shetland said: “While there was communication between UHI Shetland and the school about a transition visit, it was suggested that this take place at the start of the summer term when course applications are processed. We regret that the timing of this communication may have caused concern.

“Regarding the business course Troy applied for, we had to make the difficult decision not to proceed with this course which has now been discontinued due to financial constraints. We understand the disappointment this decision caused and recognise the impact it had on Troy's plans.

“We did offer alternative means for Troy to pursue his studies, including online delivery through another partner institution. We understand that this option was not suitable for Troy due to his medical condition and learning preferences.”

The spokesperson added: “We recognise the importance of adhering to legal obligations under the Equality Act and ensuring that appropriate transition arrangements are in place for students with disabilities. We take these responsibilities seriously and are committed to our processes to better support all students.

“Transition arrangements would only begin once the student has a place confirmed with us and this, as yet, has not happened in Troy’s case. However, we are in the process of speaking with Troy and his family to further discuss other possible courses and opportunities that may align with his interests and needs.

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“We regret any distress caused to Troy and his family during this process and are dedicated to finding a constructive resolution.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We have responded to Mr Smith’s letter, setting out advice and some options available to him.

“The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that all disabled students and students with a long-term medical condition or additional support needs are supported as they study in further and higher education.”

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