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Disabled Student Diaries 2003

Ouch! Special Report
Disabled Student Diaries 2003

Student Diaries 2003: Sara

by Sara

27th October 2004

Meet Sara - one of Ouch's disabled Student Diarists for 2003. She has albinism, is visually impaired, and is studying Physiotherapy at the University of Birmingham.

I'm into singing and the performing arts, though haven't had a lot of opportunity to pursue that lately. Get me on a stage, it's all about me! I love Coldplay, Stereophonics, Travis and Alanis Morissette - who is still out there singing, honest. My ideal night out is getting ready with mates and going out to pub and club.

I've just finished my A-levels at the Royal National College for the Blind (RNC) in Hereford, which I found a bit of a weird insular experience because I'd been very much mainstream before going there. Prior to that I was at a comprehensive in Cirencester, working hard at acting 'normal' to fit in, but at RNC it was the complete reverse and I felt I was having my visual impairment thrown in my face left right and centre; it was weird to me.

At RNC, access was sorted as a matter of course; at comprehensive though I only had a classroom assistant for 5 hours a week, just for practical lessons in science and design - me and bunsen burners don't go well together, see. Any coursework handouts were reproduced in larger print by photocopier.

I did fine in mainstream, but I chose to go to RNC for sixth form purely because my local sixth form colleges in Gloucestershire were not geared up for VI access. I felt I had more of a fighting chance in Hereford.

I'm living on campus in halls. There are four other girls in my house.

I've arrived at university with no access equipment whatsoever, so studying is going to be a little tricky. This is an NHS-funded course and my equipment isn't coming from the usual Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). Every time I called up or sought info I was given a different story. Information was hard to come by and I didn't get my access assessment until two weeks before I started at uni.

I was assessed as needing: a laptop with enlargement software, a scanner to help me read texts, a portable CCTV camera for my laptop, a minidisc to record lectures and a printer. However, on day one I'm starting with my Dad's old laptop, which has no screen enlargement software (nightmare!) and I've got a little dictaphone thing that I suppose could be of some use. I'm extremely annoyed about this and don't expect to get anything through until after Christmas now. I'm hoping that they'll OK funding for assistants to help me take notes and read to me, or else I'll really be stuffed. Fingers crossed.

I'm studying physiotherapy - I know it's a cliché blind profession, but really that's not why I'm going for it! It's really what I want to do - had I a little more sight I would have wanted to go into medicine, and this is the next best thing.


Monday 22 September, 2003

The day before the long awaited departure into student life, I am feeling a mixture of excitement and anxiety and I can't decide where one ends and the other begins. Excitement as I am about to embark upon what most people say are the best three years of their lives, anxious because I just can't get that feeling of being 'different' out of my head.

Tuesday 23 September, 2003

I've finally arrived and all isn't quite as I had hoped. It turns out that all my housemates have moved in the day before me - images of deep and meaningful bonding and irreversible group formation are running through my head. Apart from that, the halls are great - not too far from campus and my room has a large desk for all my fabulous computer equipment, when it arrives.

Wednesday 24 September, 2003

All is well - my housemates haven't become lifelong friends without me! Actually they are all a rather nice bunch of girlies, and I think we are all going to get on rather well.

I also managed to bring up the whole albino thing. It took me ages to finally pluck up the courage and say "I have albinism, I am visually impaired." I was desperate not to be solely judged and defined by my disability, yet I didn't want it to go unsaid and for people to give me odd looks as I shove my face in a book or blatantly walk past them in the street. And the amazing thing is that they really don't care; they just said, "OK, is there anything we can do to help?" and that was it! All those hours of worry over people running miles in the other direction or freaking out so much they just ignore me - for nothing! Perhaps I should learn to have a little more faith in people.

Thursday 25 September, 2003

The tiredness is finally catching up with me. Went out last night with the medics, nurses and physios. Had an amazing evening and met loads of people, although I did remember what it was like to go clubbing with people who don't really understand my visual impairment. I think people were really thrown by the concept of why I am OK to wander around in the daytime without too many problems, but am continuously stumbling over steps and have a complete inability to find toilets in a nightclub (flashing lights are not my friends).

I also took time out from my busy schedule of alcohol and clubs to visit the library and check out the facilities available for those of us with 'serious sight loss'. (What is that expression about? I haven't lost any sight - I was born like this!) It turns out that the university's room that usually contains all the adaptive technology has been knocked down and is currently being replaced by individual study booths, which seems like a really good idea. However, this isn't much good to me at the moment, especially as my equipment from Disabled Student's Allowance hasn't come through yet.

Friday 26 September, 2003

Finally got to see the Physiotherapy block today. They have totally re-done the interior for this September so it all looks very impressive - aside from the huge set of unmarked concrete steps outside. I will undoubtedly get closer to these little beauties at some point, and when I say closer I mean arse-step-face-step-arse-step-face-step sort of close.

I also came across the university's love of notice-boards. It appears that this is one of the main methods of communication, especially when they incorporate notices in tiny print. Having discovered this, I decided I had two choices. I could either (a) stand on tiptoes and press my nose right up against the cork, while squinting away and looking a wee bit bizarre to the average onlooker; or (b) ask for an individual copy in large print. I decided to choose the second option, and it seems that the staff are extremely accommodating and I should have my own large print copy by Monday morning - but I might not hold my breath.

Despite this it seems that the rest of the facilities are great, and apparently they are putting in a large screen monitor and CCTV into the computer cluster, which is nice.
University of Birmingham

Saturday 27 September, 2003

Damn! My plan to keep my dirty little secret of having been to blind school for the past two years has failed. It appears that many of the students here in Brum come from Hereford, so silly old me jumps in with, "Oh, I've been at college there for the last two years!" However, it seems that once again my feelings might not be shared by the 'wider community'. It appears that non-disabled people really aren't aware of any of the stigmas surrounding 'special' education that exist amongst us disabled types.

Sunday 28 September, 2003

I have been back in the real world for a week now - and you know what? I love it! I really feel that I am slotting in with everyone else without any problems. As far as the eyesight issues go I'm not bothered, and neither is anyone else.


Monday 29 September, 2003

I had my first lecture today. I was quite impressed as despite the fact that the enlarged timetable that I mentioned in last week's diary didn't turn up (just as well I didn't hold my breath), one of the lecturers was on the ball enough to give me copies of the sheets she was using on the overhead projector.
I also had the opportunity to meet with my personal tutor - it's extremely useful as she is also the Welfare Tutor for the department, so she is aware of disabilities (especially visual impairment, as there is a partially sighted girl in the third year). During the meeting we discussed passing information about my sight onto lecturers and getting my own pigeon-hole on the end so it's easy to find.

Tuesday 30 September, 2003

Pigeon-hole is present and correct, with a nice large print name label next to it. However, it doesn't appear that any discussions have been had with the lecturers. Never mind, it's still early days.

Due to the lack of hard copies coming my way, I decided to use that wonderful little creation that any respectable partially sighted person owns - the monocular. Only trouble was that as I was about to remove it from my bag, I realised that I was in a room full of people who had probably never seen one before. In total embarrassment at my close call with looking hideous, I quickly placed the bag back down at my feet with the monocular remaining part of its contents.

I also ventured to the laundry for the first time today, as it was almost getting to the point of having to wear my undies inside out! OK, it wasn't quite that bad - but you get the picture. So off I wandered to the laundrette, nice and close to my halls of residence and with plenty of machines (although quite pricey at £1.70 a wash).

"So what could go wrong?" I hear you cry. Instructions, that's what. For some reason the laundry peeps felt the need to position the wonderfully small directions on how to use their fabulous machines on the wall above them in miniscule print. So I did the only reasonable thing I could do - that's right, I got on top of the machine and shoved my face right up against the bloody notice. See, I told you it was a reasonable thing to do! Unfortunately, I didn't realise that I wasn't alone; as I clambered down from the machine I turned to find a rather amused lad sniggering in the corner - DAMN THIS WORLD.

Wednesday 1 October, 2003

OK, so the monocular situation is getting stupid. Today, I decided to take the big step of placing it on the desk. Admittedly it was still in its little pouch and so totally unidentifiable, but I feel it is important to introduce people to these things slowly.

Alright, so I might be being pathetic about the telescope, but I was pretty brave today when I took the big step of telling my teaching group for practical sessions that "I am partially sighted." (Yes, I know it's dull, but it gets the point across). I felt that in these particular lectures my eyesight might cause me some hassle, and it would be easier for everyone if 'it' was out in the open right from the start. I deserve a gold star.
University of Birmingham

Thursday 2 October, 2003

I did it!! I used the monocular and - as with everything else that I have worried about - it was fine. I'm not sure anyone else even noticed it (or perhaps that's just wishful thinking!)

I also came to the conclusion today that I have no choice but to employ a notetaker, as I am totally unable to keep up with the pace - speed handwriting isn't on my list of can do's. I was also extremely aware that there still seems to be no sign of large print hand-outs or copies of projector slides ... and that I really need some sleep! Unfortunately all the parties are finally catching up with me, to the extent that my eyesight is suffering as my nystagmus have gone crazy!!

Friday 3 October, 2003

Had a quiet day today and got the chance to have my first lie-in (hallelujah!) so I am feeling a little more human. Decided to go into the city centre to do a spot of shopping. BIG MISTAKE - the place was heaving. It appears that the newly developed Bull Ring, nice as it is, is attracting quite a few manic shoppers, so I spent my whole time playing the left/right "dancing game" and being unable to find anything I wanted. However, one plus is that Brum city centre is fairly accessible and easy to navigate, so I didn't get too lost.

Saturday 4 October, 2003

Went to a huge party at the Guild (the Student's Union) and lost all my housemates (no, they didn't do it on purpose). Had a bit of a panic and then remembered the wonderful invention of mobile phones and the superb text facility they possess. Located my friends within minutes, and all was well. It's actually given me a little more confidence about going out in the future, as I've realised they're starting to understand that it's difficult for me to find them in busy places.

Sunday 5 October, 2003

I was in an article in The Sunday Telegraph magazine today. I wasn't overly impressed with what was said and the way in which people with albinism were portrayed, but decided to show my housemates anyway. I think the article may have helped them understand albinism a little better and perhaps given them the confidence to ask me questions about it. I was also touched when one of them read the article and said "But they haven't mentioned anything positive. What about your A-level results or going to a good uni or about the fact that you're fitting in just like everyone else and everybody loves you?" I can honestly say that made my day!


We sent each of our students a disposable camera, so the photos appearing on their pages this week were all taken by them or their friends - including the pics of the full splendour of Sara's room in halls.)

Monday 6 October, 2003

Had another meeting with my personal tutor, which brought with it the good news that the lecturers haven't just been ignoring information about my sight - in fact, they haven't received it yet. This was bizarrely reassuring. Now all I have to do is wait and see what happens when the message does get through.

Another heartwarming moment with new friends, as they have now worked out the 'big arm wave' so that I am able to find them in crowded areas, e.g. bars and clubs. It's nice to know that people are ready to help when my usual attempts at total independence fail.

Tuesday 7 October, 2003

Had a lecture in 'Basic Life Support' today, and clearly the message about the 'visually impaired student' hasn't reached all corners of the university just yet. However, there are some advantages to the current ignorance levels, as I was really rather thankful not to be able to see the overhead projection picture of the man who pee'd on the underground tracks. Just to clarify the gruesome nature of these images, they actually had a trained nurse present to sort out anyone who passed out.

My first 'real' lectures have also highlighted the fact that I am very uncertain about just how much my lecturers are expected to do, and how much is my own responsibility in terms of employing personal notetakers and readers.
Sara at her desk
Had my first practical lecture today. It went really well, especially as the lecturer cleverly used me as the model to demonstrate movements to the rest of the class. This would indicate that the message has been received about my seeing issues, which is rather good.

I was further encouraged when I went to check my lovely little pigeonhole (actually it's quite big - just as well under the circumstances) and found lots of nice large print copies of the overhead projector sheets from the last week of lectures, plus a few handouts ready for the week ahead.

We also had the wonderful opportunity to get our oh-so-sexy clinical uniforms fitted. I have to say that I am not the most fashion conscious of people (well, unless it comes to dodgy mobility aids), but those trousers are really not attractive. I mean, come on ... the waistband comes up past your ribs and then they flare out at the hips only to taper right into your ankles! Yummy! The only trouble is that I'm a bit worried that they're not actually meant to do that - it's just that the size labels were rather small to read, and perhaps they said 'maternity size' rather than 'medium'! (It always looks attractive when you're trying to read size labels in the back of trousers - people give you quite odd looks).

Thursday 9 October, 2003

Have begun to get extremely frustrated at the lack of facilities available to me. Due to the non-existence of computer software and CCTV equipment in the libraries, I was unable to do the research required for one of my lectures. It was a little embarrassing, to say the least. I felt like I was making excuses, even though I know I genuinely couldn't do what was being asked of me due to lack of accessible resources. It was a group learning session, so when I told them of my woeful problems the lovely lecturer said (in his most patronising voice), "We'll forgive Sara today, seeing as she has extra problems!" I DON'T LIKE BEING PATRONISED!!
Sara shows us the full splendour of her student room
I'm also aware of the fact that I am going to have to be very exact when explaining to lecturers about what my 'problem' is. Today I tried to tell one of them that when talking to me he should use my name, otherwise I won't know if he is speaking to me. He interpreted this as, "I also have a hearing impairment" (yeah, I'm not sure how he got that either). So whilst he announced to the class that any handouts that people produced should be put into a large print format, he also told people to speak loudly and clearly to me. I did correct him (politely, of course), but it looks like I am going to have some very NOISY conversations over the next few months.

Friday 10 October, 2003

FANTASTIC NEWS!! The cheque for my DSA has come through, so I can go out and buy all my computer equipment! YAY!! I was feeling so good about this that I even attempted to cook - yes, that's right, a ready-made pasta bake that you just pop into the oven. It seems so simple and yet it just isn't - how was I to know you had to ignite the gas oven?!

It's not as bad as it sounds - I didn't blow up the entire hall of residence, although there was possibly a minor explosion in the oven. Oh well. Straight after my little blunder my housemate had an incident with a potato, which made me feel better.
Sara doing the washing up in her student kitchen

Sunday 12 October, 2003

OK, so I missed out a day, but Saturday was really dull. Just did a whole lot of sleeping and eating and the like.

Today was far more exciting, as I finally got my computer equipment. Admittedly it isn't all here yet (I have still to receive the CCTV and Zoomtext), but thanks to several functions on Windows XP and a large monitor I now have a computer that I am able to access. This is quite a relief - and I am eternally thankful to my wonderful parents who brought the equipment here, and to my super efficient father for installing it all.

It was nice having my parents to visit, partly because they took me out for lunch, but also 'cos it's good to see people you know ... although it was rather tricky to explain why we have a lamp-post across our front garden (no, its not meant to be there).

All in all, my third week of university life has been rather good. Most importantly the social side just keeps getting better and better, and the academic side is also pretty cool - even if the nine o'clock lectures are starting to interfere with my late nights!


Monday 13 October, 2003

Finally given into the harsh lighting conditions in the practical rooms today and decided to wear my new tinted contact lenses. They really do make all the difference in terms of comfort. Unfortunately, they also take away some of the contrast, thus making reading quite difficult. It also confuses lots of people too - one minute I have blue eyes, and the next minute they're dark brown.

Wednesday 15 October, 2003

Had my first meeting with the university disability co-ordinator. I know it's quite far into term, but it is partly my own fault as I didn't get my act together to arrange a meeting earlier. The whole thing was rather unproductive - nobody's fault, just the current circumstances. We were trying to arrange note-takers and readers, but because my lectures vary so much and my timetable changes every week it's very hard to put anything in place. The only solution we came up with was for somebody on my course to be my note-taker. Now all I have to do is find someone - I don't want to put pressure on any of my new friends to do it, and I feel a bit weird about asking people.

It's bizarre. Physiotherapy is meant to be a degree totally suited to people with visual impairments, and yet it seems to be making things harder than ever. If I was doing a straightforward degree like Sociology then I would have set lectures, so note-takers would be easy to employ and I wouldn't have to worry about practical sessions.

The one good thing that did come out of the meeting was that I will be able to employ somebody for library assistance. They'll be able to come to the library with me to help find books and do research, which will be really helpful because the libraries here are MASSIVE!!
University of Birmingham

Thursday 16 October, 2003

The reality of people's memories is finally setting in, and it seems that lecturers especially have selective memory where my visual impairment is concerned. It's strange how they can only apply my 'issues' to certain circumstances and not others. For example, one lecturer understands enough to ask the rest of the class to produce handouts in large print for me, and he can remember to say my name when he is speaking to me, yet he can't remember to produce his own handouts in large print ... hmm.

However, all my other lecturers are being fab. I am getting lecture notes in advance in a large font - perhaps not large enough but hey, magnifiers aren't that bad. I am also receiving my own copy of the information from the overhead projectors at the start of each lecture, and they are even learning to describe what they are doing so I can follow it better. I am really impressed by the vast majority of lecturers, and things are far better than I could have ever expected!!
Sara in a physiotherapy class

Friday 17 October, 2003

Had a great day today. An old friend came to visit me so I could show them round the uni. It was really nice to see a familiar face, but it was also nice to be able to show someone just how well I'm doing and how happy I am here.

Saturday 18 October/Sunday 19 October, 2003

Haven't done much this weekend. Like the last one, it's mostly been catching up on sleep and watching pointless television 'til the early hours of the morning. I also had the the importance of rugby explained to me - although I have to say I am not convinced.
This weekend has also given me a chance to reflect on my first month at university, and you know what? - it was a good reflection. Before I arrived here I was so nervous. I had just spent two years in 'special' education and didn't know what the transition back to mainstream would be like, but it couldn't have gone more smoothly.

Socially, I am having a ball and I have made tons of new friends! Academically it isn't bad either - I am definitely meant for mainstream education, not that I regret going to RNC (Royal National College for the Blind) in the slightest.

To be honest, I couldn't be happier. In fact, it's official - I LOVE UNIVERSITY!!


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