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Disabled student diaries 2009

Ouch! Special Report
Disabled student diaries 2009

Andrea's Diary (Disabled Student Diaries 2009)

by Andrea

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Lives: Coventry, West Midlands
Going to: University of Warwick
To study: Sociology.
Why this course: Chose between sociology and psychology. She likes Warwick's modular approach to the subject.
Career wise: She is looking to work in social work on counselling. She chose a university close to home so that she could continue to benefit from her family's support. She is considering moving out of home and in to halls in her final year.
Disability: Optic atrophy means that Andrea has tunnel vision and can see well but only across a tiny area.
Access needs: For lectures, Andrea will have a note taker during the 'settling in' period. At her needs assessment the possibility of lecturers providing her with a digital summary of presentations was discussed. She will be getting a Netbook computer, as she is a fast touch typist; she'll be using JAWS screenreader software for the first time.
Interests: Andrea loves reading, in particular fiction. Her favourite audiobooks are the Harry Potter stories read by Stephen Fry.
Hopes for first term: To build up a wider network of friends.

Week 1

Friday 2 October, 2009

Andrea and her guide dog Cara
Hi guys! Well its three days until I start uni - I'll be studying Sociology at Warwick University and I can't wait. Everyone says that university is the best three years of your life and I'm ready to fully embrace what it has to offer, but also a little anxious.

As I live in Coventry, the same town as the university, I won't be living on campus. I've had numerous visits to familiarise myself with it but it's still a bit daunting as it's so big. I take two buses to uni which is currently taking me around an hour and a half due to roadworks. Though I'm not very good at recognising the right routes around the uni, my 4 year old black Labrador Cara (my guide dog) is excellent at this, and I know that we'll be able to work together to figure out where to go on Monday.

Happily, I couldn't have chosen a better subject as the buildings I need are right near the bus stop. To help me do my work, I'm going to need some computer equipment. I filled in the relevant Disabled Student Allowance forms some time ago and had an assessment in August. After this, I requested a small netbook computer, JAWS screenreader, a printer, a scanner to help me read the text books and a dictaphone so I can record lectures.

I've also requested funding for a helper who can come into lectures and read things off the screens for me, and help me read handouts - that kind of thing. I've not done this before so it's a learning curve for me. Whether I'll get the handheld GPS device I've asked for in order to help me find my way round a little better is perhaps another matter.

Sadly, none of the computer equipment or funding has turned up yet so I will be starting without.

Saturday and Sunday 3-4 October, 2009

Andrea and Cara working together
I'm starting to get really nervous now. Just can't wait to get there and meet everyone.

This weekend is Freshers weekend for Warwick students, which gives newcomers the chance to explore the uni as well as moving into accommodation and so on. However I wasn't there as I had a prior arrangement down south.

In 2006, I became one of the youngest guide dog owners in the country at only 15 - it was part of a pilot scheme to see how younger people would cope with it, 16 being the usual age at which visually impaired people are allowed dogs.

My guide dog Cara accompanied me at school from the start of year 11 and the whole experience has been seen as a huge success. To say thank you, Guide Dogs invited the four young people and their families down to London for the day. It was fantastic to meet everyone, and I think it’s helping to reduce my feeling of anticipation about tomorrow.

Monday 5 October, 2009

Andrea close up
Well I'm here... and I have to say the first day of student life at Warwick has been brilliant! I can't believe how supportive everyone has been. The disability advisor arranged for a third year student, Annie to meet me at the bus stop at 9am and she accompanied me to the welcome talks, taking notes for me which was really helpful.

At one point they flashed up a picture of Cara and told everyone that you should only stroke her if her harness is off which was really fantastic; after that, if people wanted to say hello to her they came up and asked. I then met with my personal tutor and some of my lecturers. They were asking what they could do in lectures and seminars to help me. They have agreed to send me notes and PowerPoint presentations prior to lessons which would be great.

I've met loads of people (Josh, Lauren, Suraya, Praveen and Natalie) which I'm really glad about because I thought that living off campus might affect the social aspects of student life but it hasn't. After the welcome meeting we hung out in the common room and went to get lunch. They were all willing to help me with crowds which is one of the things I struggle with - and I think today was the busiest on campus.

Having that human support was great but it was also good to see how well Cara coped with the people and the noise - none of which bothered her at all. On Tuesday I get to choose my subject options earlier than everyone else so I can avoid the crowd of 600 people who will be there Wednesday. What will I choose?

So yeah, my first day has been brill and I can't wait for tomorrow!

Week 2

Tuesday 6th October, 2009

Hiya, well today was just as good as yesterday. I arrived on campus at 8.45, having left my house at 7.30 which would ensure that I got there on time. I also found it a lot easier on the bus as I knew exactly where to get off, having now established some landmarks to look for.

Last week all sociology students were given a timetable of what would happen in the first week, and today we had to attend module talks in order for us to choose what we'd like to take. I had already chosen my modules however I was still unsure about one of them social welfare in Britain which I decided to change to media sociology, which sounded more interesting. In the end, my chosen modules are: sociological imagination on investigation (a core module), birth of feminisms, class, gender and empire, and media sociology.

Because I had been allowed to choose my modules, and meet the lecturers earlier in the day, I didn't attend the talks. Although this would have been a good way to meet other students, I was advised by a member of staff that they would be extremely busy, and so I went back home. Prior to leaving however, I met with the media lecturer and he provided me with all of the PowerPoint slides, which he had 'reduced' for me and printed out on paper.
Andrea on campus at Warwick
Some people assume I'd want my reading materials enlarged but, with tunnel vision I need things reducing - shrinking to half the size - so I can see as much as I can in a small area. This was fantastic and I spent much of the day looking at them, as well as going on Facebook and adding some of the other first year students that I had met. I also found out that there is a Warwick sociology forum on Facebook which looked good and had many students on, so I would like to join that.

Went on Insight Radio, a station for visually impaired people, to talk about the pilot scheme to give guide dogs to younger VIs that I was on and that has now been launched officially. I was asked about how I was finding university so far, and like I said on the radio, I'm having a fantastic time!

Wednesday 7th October, 2009

Today is officially the busiest day on campus and so I was advised by my personal tutor, who is also the head of the Sociology department, not to go in. She said all that would be happening today is that students would be registering for their modules, which I had already done.

She told me Thursday and Friday would be the best days to meet other students, and after later speaking to a few people on facebook, they said that it was mayhem and probably a good thing that I didn't go.

Not going in to uni today meant that I was free when I was contacted by a local newspaper who wanted to interview me about my experience of the guide dog pilot scheme which I mentioned above. The interviewer said that we looked like the 'perfect partnership' which was lovely. She told me that we'll be in the paper either towards the end of the week, or early next week. Having a Guide Dog while at school really enhanced my life so I am pleased to help them promote what they're doing.

Thursday 8th October, 2009

There wasn't really much on at uni today, except all sociology students were able to pick up reading packs for the modules that we would be taking - I needed 3packs which cost just under £20.

I met up with a second year student, Poppy, who was really helpful. She has been supplied to me by Disability Services here on campus; they have lists of people willing to be notetakers and mentors and they're ultimately funded by my Disabled Student Allowance.

When we arrived to pick up the packs, there weren't many first years around and therefore no great opportunities to socialise. We went to the cafe to get some lunch and she told me that anytime I needed any help, just to contact her. I'm really looking forward to tomorrow which will be the first proper chance that I'll get to meet the other students on my course.
Andrea with Cara

Friday 9th October, 2009

All of my human support has now been arranged for next week which is really good. Today was the first day that I really got to know my fellow students; it was a sociology induction day.

We were split up into deliberate non-friendship groups so that we would have to mix with different people. I was with five others (Kat, Zoe, Heather, Chris and Lucy) and by the end of the day, we were really good friends.

We were given a task called 'The Sociology of Art' whereby we had to go around campus, examining two pieces of art, and asking people - students, lecturers and other staff - what they thought the point of having art on campus was. In particular, there were some coloured rectangles on the walls of the atrium area of the building, all backlit. It was recently commissioned art but it seems that most people hadn't even noticed it was there: "It breaks up the white" was the most common response.

Although this wasn't the most exciting task, it was really useful in helping me get to know the other students as we had to work together to make our mini research project, presenting our findings to the rest of the sociology students at the end of the day.

I think today was the best so far as it was the first time that I was able to properly meet the other students. They were all extremely helpful which meant that I didn't need an older student's support and so didn't feel left out in that sense; being registered blind didn't hold me back at all!. I can't wait until next week when I will see them again, and will hopefully start to have more of a social life: going out etc, and being a normal student!
Cara and Andrea

Saturday 10th/Sunday 11th October, 2009

Well it's the end of the first week, which has been brill! I've met loads of really nice people which means that I don't feel left out - I thought that not living on campus might mean that I was a bit isolated.

Just a few things that haven't gone to plan though. I still don't have any of my equipment from the Disabled Students' Allowance, my laptop for instance, which is really annoying and means that I will need human notetaker support in all of my lectures and seminars. I hoped that I would have the equipment ready for the start of lectures.

Also, all of my friends at uni have received their maintenance loans but I haven't. Maintenance loans are for everything bar tuition fees; most people seem to spend it on accommodation but also on books, paper, anything you'd need to help with your studies. I phoned student finance to find out where my money is ... and apparently my passport isn't valid, even though I applied in April and my passport was definitely in date at that time. This means that I will have to send in my new passport, and it may take 6-8weeks before I receive any money, which again, is really frustrating.

I'm also realising now how long it will take me to get to university, for example, I will have to catch the 7.30 bus on Mondays for me to get there in time for my 9 o'clock lectures, and although it won't really bother me this year, I may consider moving onto campus, if not next year, then definitely for my 3rd year as I will be required to go in a lot more to use the library etc. Yes, that's something that I will definitely have to think about.

I've had a really good week but I haven't had a single lecture yet. I just can't wait to start now - the course begins properly on Monday. Wish me luck!

Week 3

Monday 12th October, 2009

Today is the day my lectures start proper!

Usually I get up at quarter past six in order for me to get to uni for nine, but the other day I was contacted by the BBC Coventry and Warwickshire radio station to see if I would do a short radio talk about these student diaries. Mum drove me to uni where I met the interviewer who asked me loads of questions about how I am finding it so far. Apparently I answered really well which was good as I was very nervous.

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Afterwards I met up with Carrie, an older student who will be taking notes for me in lectures on Mondays while I wait for my laptop to arrive. She walked me to my first lecture: Media Sociology. The lecture theatre was big, a 75-seater, but it wasn't big enough for the amount of students and many had to sit on the floor at the back. We just managed to get a seat before they were all taken.

A few students I met last week came up to me and told me who they were (Alice, Lauren, Josh) which was helpful as I sometimes struggle at recognising faces. We sat with them, listening to the lecturer who, for the first half an hour, told us what we'd be covering in this module; it all sounds really interesting.

It lasted for about an hour and a half, after which I stayed with my assistant and the others. Carrie showed us the cheapest places to eat, and we all sat and chatted for a while.
Carrie needed to get a book so we went to the library. She showed me how the building was set out - it was very helpful. All of the sociology books (there are hundreds!) are on the 5th floor and so I spent a bit of time trying to familiarise myself with how they're coded but I couldn't, there are just too many. So I think that if I need a particular book I will have to ask for help.

I got back home around 4.30 and after sorting my dog Cara out, I spent a bit of time looking through the reading packs and getting everything ready for tomorrow. Carrie e-mailed me the notes from today's lectures which were brill and covered everything that was said.
Andrea with friend

Tuesday 13th October, 2009

I have a different notetaker on Tuesdays - Ann, who is a postgraduate student. My first seminar 'Class, Gender and Empire' started at 11. There were around 15 students present and we spent the first half of it just getting to know one another which was really helpful and meant that we were all more open and chatty. We spent the rest of the session going over what was said in yesterday's accompanying lecture, such as when the notion of 'Englishness' emerged, and so on, as well as reading the lecture notes and PowerPoints; it was a good chance for people to ask about anything that we didn't understand. I then had an hour break in which I went with my friends to get some lunch.
Ann then took me to a small and secluded field whereby I could give Cara a free-run (let her off the lead and run around) and also let her go to the toilet as we haven't yet found where her specified run (proper toilet place) is. I will have to ask for someone to show me it.

I had my first feminism seminar today, which again sounds very interesting as we spoke about the origins of feminism. My seminar tutor, who also happens to be my personal tutor, explained that Britain was one of the last countries in which feminism developed which really surprised me. Most of my friends take this subject too.
Andrea receiving her A Levels back in August - Courtesy Coventry Telegraph
I haven't been going straight home after lectures as I'm keen to meet as many students as I can. A lot of my friends say that the people they're closest to are those living in the same accommodation - obviously living together means that they see a lot of each other and can develop friendships easier. Though I live at home, this hasn't really affected me as Cara has been an excellent ice-breaker. Most of my friendships have developed through people coming up to us, asking our names and what she can do for me. The most common question has been: "How does she cope with having to sit down through all of your lectures?"

It seems a lot of people thought that I was just training her because apparently I don't look like a blind person. That might sound a bit weird but they said that the speed that we walk and the fact that I don't walk with my head looking at the floor is quite impressive). This made me feel really good and not as though I'm being left out which was one of my fears prior to starting uni.
One of my friends, Alice, has invited me to her flat on campus, which is really nice! She says it's really overcrowded though, with her having only one cupboard shelf in the kitchen, and she's struggling to sleep with the constant noise from the nightclubs.

I didn't get home until 8.30 which isn't late, but it was very dark. Though Cara works just as good at night, I don't feel very safe in pitch-blackness, especially as I have to change onto a second bus. Last week I met with the disability officer at Warwick and she said that part of the Disabled Students Allowance which pays for ink cartridges and that kind of thing, can also be used to get taxis; either if its raining or if I'm going home late some nights. This is brilliant as it means that I can start to experience some of the nightlife that Warwick Uni has to offer. It's called the General Allowance and will take some time to set up.
Cara, Andrea's guide dog - Courtesy Coventry Telegraph

Wednesday 14th October, 2009

I arranged to meet my final notetaker, Annie, at the bus stop on campus so she could help me find the lecture room. However it turns out I didn't need her as a guide because my personal tutor got on the bus and sat next to me. I was a little nervous at first but she's a lovely woman and offered if she could help in any way. She also asked if I had received any of my equipment from the Disabled Students Allowance yet; I told her no and she said she could arrange for the department to loan me a Dictaphone to record the lectures which was fab.

When we got off the bus, she took me straight to a member of the admin staff and they gave me a really good one which I used in the lecture and listened to when I got home.

Thursday 15th October, 2009

We were told in our media seminar that all students are required to do a 10minute presentation on a given topic each week which is going to be really scary. I was given the subject of moral panics in the media; I was quite pleased with this as it seems easier than some of the others. It's still going to be nerve-wracking though as I'm not allowed to use a PowerPoint presentation, and I'm not very good when it comes to reading written notes as I keep losing my place when I look up at the group from my piece of paper.

Friday 16th/Saturday 17th/Sunday 18th October, 2009

It's the end of my first proper week which has been just as good, if not better than last week. I've met loads more people, and again, everyone has been really supportive. All of the lectures and seminars were very interesting and I'm really glad that I have chosen to study Sociology, a subject that I'm truly passionate about. They say the key to being able to keep up with all the reading we're given, is to skim-read but I can't really do this. When looking at 12.point print, I can only see 2-3 words at a time and therefore I will have to learn to speed up or I may lag behind.

I probably won't be doing much over the weekend in terms of meeting people from uni as Alice is going back to London for the weekend to see her family. Now I've established some really good friendships at uni, I want to develop them outside of the academic arena as well.

I really want to invite some friends to my house which would be nice, as well as doing normal teenage stuff like going shopping, the cinema and so on. I think the reason I haven't done this yet is that I'm scared of being a burden - the people I have met so far are lovely but, for example, if we went into town, I'd probably be asking them loads of questions about what sort of clothes/shoes they're looking at as that's something I struggle with.

I struggle with nightclubs too; the noise doesn't make it the greatest environment for dogs and it isn't really fair to take her very often. I struggle with the flashing lights and would be scared of losing the people I was with at the start of the night. All of my friends outside uni say it's not a problem, but I'm just a worrier and don't like 'putting people out', particularly as I've only known them for a fortnight. I think its got something to do with me still lacking in confidence, but I'm sure I'll get over that!

Week 4

Monday 19th October, 2009

After lectures I met with Alice, who I would say is my best friend at uni. She's on my course and we got chatting after she asked about my guide dog, Cara. She's lovely and always willing to help, constantly assuring me that I'm not in her way.

After this we went to get some lunch in the library cafe and Alice introduced me to her housemates, some of whom are studying maths, who were all really nice. Before going home, we walked around, getting to know each other which was really enjoyable – they all seem to know the campus very well, which is good because I don't. Hopefully it won’t take me too long to figure it out.

When the disability officer asked me how I was getting around, and I told her that I was still having to rely a lot on other students, she said that she could arrange what's called 'buddying' support. This is where an older student could give me orientation support, as well as being able to offer a helping hand if there is anything that I need. This was comforting as I still don't know where the social buildings are, and so haven't been using them as much as I'd like.

Tuesday 20th October, 2009

Tuesdays are my busiest day of the week and so I didn’t have much time for socialising. In the hour that I had free however, I met up with Alice and we went to a careers fair. It didn't help that I took Alice to the wrong building which was quite funny, but when we eventually got to the right place it was rammed.

In speaking to the other students, I feel that I've got it quite easy. Warwick Uni prides itself on high academic achievements and so we have been given a lot of work - particularly reading. Speaking to my friends living on campus, they're still getting used to having to do everything, not just the academics, and also missing family life.
Night club
Yes, living on campus would enable me to have more of a social life, but I don’t cope very well in nightclubs (I get easily disorientated by the dark and flashing lights), and don’t want to be putting pressure on my friends at this early stage. Perhaps when I get to know them better, I won’t feel that I'm being a pain, and so will enjoy this aspect more.

I love the fact that I can enjoy the university experience as well as living at home and having the support of my family – something that the others are missing a little. Not to mention the money that I am saving – the cheapest accommodation is about £75 per week, which is a lot of money to pay to live elsewhere in the same city.

Wednesday 21st October, 2009

Only one lecture today, 'birth of feminisms', which is one of the few lessons shared with two of my really good friends, Alice and Eilidh (pronounced Ailee). After the lecture, Alice asked if we'd like to go to a pub/restaurant called The Dirty Duck and have a meal. The carvery was delicious and we stayed there for well over an hour, talking about everything.

Lots of people ask how much I can see and assume that I need large print materials. In fact, a smaller font is better due to my tunnel vision. My liaison contact at Guide Dogs has offered to send me a pair of 'bending specs' which simulate the extent of my vision for normally sighted people.

The reading packs for me have been a nightmare! Although the writing is tiny, which is better for me, it makes finding headings extremely hard. It was becoming very frustrating and I'm already beginning to lag behind a little. I mentioned it to my personal tutor and she said that she would she what she could do. Later she persuaded Alice and Eilidh to sort out the reading packs for me, which was fantastic!

Thursday 22nd October, 2009

I still have no equipment from the Disabled Students Allowance, despite having requested a netbook, printer, Dictaphone and note takers within the deadline. The university have provided note takers ahead of the payment arriving.

I had arranged to meet the disability officer who has agreed to lend me a laptop until mine comes through. It was huge and quite heavy, and so won't really be appropriate for carrying to and from university, but will be very useful for using at home. The fact that I won't be using it in lectures isn't annoying as the three note-takers that I have are fantastic, emailing me the notes from all lectures and seminars within 24 hours, and they are always in-depth and very informative.

I met up with Eilidh to give her one of my reading packs, and she said that she had nearly sorted out the other, and would give both to me tomorrow. It appears that I wasn't the only one struggling to work them out – she was also struggling and said that she had to ask one of the lecturers about the best way to organise them.

Friday 23rd October, 2009

I usually wouldn't have to go in on Fridays but one of my lecturers had arranged for us to visit the Modern Records Centre in the library. A large part of the library consists of many ancient documents etc that students can use when conducting research.

I also found out that I would be receiving an individual induction to the library. This should help me learn my way round the sociology texts which are housed on the fifth floor.

Afterwards, I met up with Alice and Eilidh and we decided that once a week we should meet up (sort of like a mini study group) to share notes etc as we have four essays due in three weeks. We're going to look at the essay titles and try to help each other to understand them.

Eilidh also gave me the two reading packs that she had sorted out for me, and they're brilliant! She's written on the front how she's laid them out, and each week's readings have been split up with different coloured dividers. At least I won't be behind anymore and everything should be fine from next week.

Alice got on the bus with me on the way home as she's going to Kent for the weekend to see her boyfriend. I probably won’t be doing much over the weekend, but to be honest, I've got loads of reading to catch up on that I should have done last week!
Andrea and Cara walking into the distance

Saturday 24th/Sunday 25th October, 2009

All in all, this week has been brill – I've done a lot more socially than last week, and even though my social life isn't perhaps as I would like it to be, I think its just my lack of confidence that I'm sure will come, especially as I become more comfortable within my friendships. Everyone, staff and students alike, are constantly asking if there's anything I need. I've met loads of lovely people and can honestly say that I feel right at home at Warwick Uni.

The reason that I feel so welcome and comfortable at Warwick is that I have learnt to ask for help. Everyone has always told me that if I need anything then all I have to do is ask, but it can be embarrassing, and I'm always afraid of being a pain, and putting people out. Now I know that people really don't mind. For example, if I hadn’t asked my tutor about the reading packs, I would still be struggling knowing what to read and where to find it.

I know starting uni can feel really daunting, with most people that I have spoken to with a variety of disabilities, saying that their greatest fear is being left out by the other students. I honestly don't feel that I have been left out as I have just tried to give 100% when socialising with the others – I'm planning my first proper nightclub experience next week!

I know I have the academic ability to succeed – all that's holding me back at the minute is lack of confidence, which I think many people with disabilities can relate to – don't be ashamed or embarrassed, especially if there's anything you need - we're just the same as everyone else, and I think that truly believing this will allow uni to become the experience of a lifetime!

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