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BRINGING THE VI STUDENT VOICE INTO FOCUS

Senclude’s Dan Williams looks at the importance of personalised support for university students with visual impairments (VI)

DAN ASKS STUDENTS ABOUT THEIR EXPERIENCES OF ACCESSING SUPPORT.

My discussions with students who are registered blind and in receipt of Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) mostly show a less than satisfactory service when it comes to support providers and accessible information.

The initial stages of eligibility for DSAs and Student Finance England asking students to contact an assessment centre where a disability adviser will work out what help is required works well enough.

The problems often arise when students start their courses, only to find the various forms of support such as note takers, assistive computer software, additional study time and accessible learning materials turn out to be severely lacking or even non-existent.

What should be a new and exciting chapter in life can easily become a nightmare scenario of isolation and anxiety.

Here’s some of the feedback we’ve had from current and former students:

  • “Not one of my sighted guides has any VI specific training and they often do or say silly things, and more often than not don’t know how to guide correctly.”

  • “It has taken a year to have information sent to me in an accessible format prior to lectures, and as I am about to start a new year; it is highly unlikely accessible materials will be arranged for some time. I am not able to access the university library systems at all, it is inaccessible and is not compatible with my assistive technology.”

  • “If I want journals or books, I must ask the Librarian to access them and send them to me which takes so much longer than a sighted person. I am also unable to access any materials i.e. lecture notes on the university website at all. It has taken all year for the university to arrange the library staff to send all documents to me in an accessible format.”

  • “I was left to case manage my own support when I received funding which detracted from my studies and enjoying life on campus.”

  • “I didn’t receive an adequate amount of support hours from my Assessor meaning I ran out of support half way through my course.”

Funding support via the DSA is a key factor in whether a student is successful at university or not and assessors have a vital role when it comes to appropriate recommendations for assistive technology, specialist support professionals, sighted guide, transcriptions, electronic note taking and allocated hours for mobility training, including any study away from the university such as a year abroad.

The quality of the support provider will show as they action recommendations appropriately for the individual concerned. Effective communication and partnership working between the student, support provider and university are vital to ensure a successful outcome.

Peer Support

Student socials are a great way to make friends and meet people and this is often where blind and vision impaired learners really struggle in terms of what’s available and how they get to them. Universities can provide student mentors to help with this.

Peer support also helps when it comes to being guided to and supported at extra-curricular events and blindness can soon become something people automatically take into consideration.

That said, staff and students can be hesitant to approach someone with a visual impairment, particularly when meeting for the first time. People want to do the right thing but they often don’t know how to and the fear of getting it wrong or causing offence can sometimes result in a reluctance to engage. This is resolved once people are put at ease so students with VI need to be open and encouraged to be good self-advocates which is something that our specialist support professionals work on with students.

It’s all in the timing

After enrolment on the course, it can take until the course begins to establish who will be funding DSA support as it can be either NHS Social Care Bursaries or Student Finance England/Wales. This can be very stressful as it is not always clear if support will be funded for some time due to the level of the course.

There have been occasions when sighted guides have not turned up to support learners, as enabling is often changed due to the changes in the way the university employs them.

Staff Support and Accessibility

Inaccessible computer systems are often the biggest challenge as most courses are accessed through the university website. Also, the support offered is constantly being cut and changed, leading to uncertainty about who is doing what.

Self-advocacy is definitely required when it comes to accessing information. Some universities use a learning platform called WebCT which is impossible for learners with VI to use.

Although tutors are happy to send information by email, it can be frustrating not being on an equal playing field with peers.

Support with proof reading is also very helpful, but this is something students often have to fight for and is rarely consistent which is not only frustrating but time consuming too.

One student stated:

  • “I had to submit my portfolio in print, which was a complete nightmare from start to finish as I am unable to see it and it needs to be signed with a pen in various places at many different times.
  • I have had to put up with negative comments on my placement regarding support, this at one point made me so upset, I cried at work, which was humiliating.
  • I was marked down on an assignment because it was in italics inappropriately and I had not realised as I could not see it.
  • I am about to be found a placement, but accessibility, such as Jaws software and a support worker to drive me to client visits, has become a real issue. I am currently trying to resolve this, but I am not even sure who I should be liaising with at the university. I feel I am going around in circles.
  • There have been so many challenges and although many of the university staff try hard to help, the system, structures, cut backs and accessibility make support and the course very frustrating and challenging.”
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      When lectures are recorded and all materials made available electronically, life becomes so much easier for learners with VI. Making services accessible isn’t difficult if included at the design phase but it’s much harder and costly if done later.

    Funding Issues

    DSAs do not cover social activities so travelling to and from them without a sighted guide is often extremely difficult and can impact on learners’ health and safety.

      “I am just so used to having to fight for existence and if I were not so organised and motivated, and had such good support at home, it would just be far too stressful to continue the course.”

    One interviewee made these recommendations:

    1. A meeting with all staff that are involved in the support package should be arranged and everything possible set in place prior to the start date. This would make the student feel at ease, comfortable and empowered to start their university life.

    2. One point of contact – This person should be able to see the whole picture rather than just fragments, they should be able to understand the possible needs of a student with VI, be able to deal with adjustments or any other issues that may arise.

    3. Support staff to be consistent – This is so important as it enables you to build a rapport and they understand your needs. Having inconsistent support staff puts you at a disadvantage, it costs time, and having to repeat yourself time and time again can be very exhausting.

    4. Inaccessible websites – University websites are generally not accessible. For students with a VI to feel fully included and to have access to all material as a sighted person, this needs to be implemented.

    5. Resources – Lecturers to be fully informed regarding their students with VI and make reasonable adjustments. All information to be given to the student in a timely manner, prior to lectures and in an accessible format.

    6. Sighted Guides – All sighted guides to be provided with the correct training to guide and communicate effectively with a person with a VI.

    7. Students Union – Anyone involved or working in the student union should also have the skills and training to guide and effectively communication with a person with a VI. This will enable them to include all students in their social activities.

    8. DSA should be able to support students with social activities, therefore enabling all students to fully experience university life.

    Empathy and Understanding

    Senclude is run by, and for, people with visual impairments so we fully appreciate the many challenges students face as we have similar lived experiences.

    We are proud to offer a service based on empathy and understanding that puts students’ needs at the heart of everything we do.

    If you are a student, assessment centre or university, we’d love to hear from you as we are continually looking at ways to improve our services.

    Contact details:

    info@senclude.com

    Useful links:

    Non-Medical Help (NMH) Information for DSA Needs Assessors

    Services for Higher Education Institutes

    Government website giving full details of DSAs: