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Navigating University

Peter White talks to visually impaired students about coping with university life. Are they prepared, and are the institutions they attend prepared for them?

Going to university presents special challenges if you are blind or visually impaired. It may be your first time away from home. You have to learn a whole new level of independence from finding your way around unfamiliar spaces, to decoding lectures and fitting in with your new friends. Peter White talks to three students about their experiences.

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19 minutes

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Last Tuesday 20:40

In Touch Transcript: 04-12-2018

THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT.  BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

 

IN TOUCH – Navigating University

TX:  04.12.2018  2040-2100

PRESENTER:          PETER WHITE

PRODUCER:            LEE KUMUTAT

 

Megan

Hello.  My name’s Megan.  I am 26, I’ve studied an undergraduate degree in creative writing and I graduated with my master’s degree in creative writing two weeks ago.  Both at the same university – the University of Gloucestershire.

 

Callum

Good evening.  I’m Callum Stoneman.  I’m 19 and I’m currently in my second year of a computing networking and security course at the University of Bolton.

 

Kaya

Hi, my name is Kaya.  I’m 22 years old.  I’ve just started my university course which is BA Honours Business and Marketing.

 

White

Well you won’t have needed a degree yourselves to figure out that tonight’s In Touch has been handed over to a panel of students basically.  We want them to discuss the whole experience of college if you’re visually impaired – living away from home, dealing with your money maybe, getting around what’s often a complicated campus.  There are so many things that you’ll be doing for the first time.  And we’re inviting you to compare notes, make confessions, offer advice and tell us what you know now which you wish you’d known when you started.  And don’t be shy.

 

Let’s start with Kaya.  You are the only first year, to what extent has university, so far, been what you expected?

 

Kaya

Well in general I’ve got to say my university has been fantastic, like the experience.  The disability department at the university have been really helpful.  However, the only problem, so far, have been the DSA and…

 

White

Right, now we’re going to come to that in some detail, that’s of course the Disabled Student Allowance.  Let me bring in Callum.  What surprised you about the experience?

 

Callum

I – it sounds horrible – I wasn’t expecting to have as much support as I actually did get from lecturers and from disability support staff.  From how college made it out, they made it out that it was basically you sit in a lecture for a couple of hours a day or a week, whatever, and then it’s very much do-it-yourself.  I was quite surprised by how willing the lecturers were and how far they’re willing to go to help you out when you need it.

 

White

Megan, surprise us.

 

Megan

When I started as an undergraduate, I’d chosen the University of Gloucestershire and when I went on the open days they were the only university who gave me a prospectus in braille.  I was so made up.  It was interesting because I actually applied two years in advance because I took a year out to go and teach English in Germany.  And by the time I came back, all the disability staff who were clued up seemed to have gone or moved on and the disability department was completely different.  That was the only thing I got in braille, pretty much, the seven years I was there.  So, they hooked me in and then yeah…

 

White

And didn’t really follow through.

 

Megan

No and the sad thing was, as well, I’d emailed the disability department just before I got on the plane to Germany and I said – please, could you make the lecturers aware that I’m registered blind so that we can start those discussions early with two years to go.  And when I started at the university I walked in to my lectures and I was met with dismay, indifference and my lecturers had no clue about me arriving at all.  And I was just so disappointed because I think that was a real missed opportunity, especially as I’d gone to do creative writing and psychology – a joint honours degree – and because psychology has this statistical visual aspect I was forced to drop the course because we didn’t have that preparation, we didn’t get the support.

 

White

And a bit galling, I suppose, that you were actually so prepared, so quick off the mark, and then it didn’t lead anywhere.

 

Megan

And the interesting thing is that when I went back to do my masters by then the Disabled Students Allowance had changed from the government paying for a lot of the student support to the university having to pay for a lot of it.  And actually, the disability support improved when the university had to take more responsibility for it.

 

White

Kaya, what about the issue of how well prepared the university was for you, rather than you for it?

 

Kaya

It took a lot of time for my university to find its way with what sort of needs I had.  So, one of the main things was that I needed the handouts because I can’t see what’s on the board.  They kept forgetting to print it out and in a font that I could read.  That was quite frustrating because I had to just listen in the lecture and I couldn’t write anything down because I couldn’t see what it was.

 

White

How did you deal with that, because you probably don’t want to seem that special, I’m curious to know how you dealt with it?

 

Kaya

Well at the end of each lecture I went up to my lecturer and asked if they had a copy of it and that’s when some of them replied – oh sorry, I’ve forgotten – or – sorry, I can’t print out from this computer that I’m working on.  That was quite frustrating.

 

White

Callum.

 

Callum

In terms of asking for help it was quite easy because as soon as I asked for something, either the lecturers or the support staff were straight there.

 

White

What’s really striking about this is how random it is and I’m going to introduce somebody who may be able to shed a bit of light on this in a more general way.  And we’ll start with the money issue and one of the issues is of course grappling with the forms you’re required to deal with to claim DSA – Disabled Student Allowance.  Just to make it clear, it’s a grant designed to help with the added costs of being at university, getting the right access technology, coursework in a form you can read, notetaking at lectures and finding your way around what are often complex campuses.  One guest here who hasn’t spoken yet and that’s because she’s not a student but should by now know a lot about them because she’s been studying them for the past eight years, looking at how young people transition between school, employment, further education and higher education.  That’s Rachel Hewitt.  Rachel, what have students been telling you about how it’s worked for them?

 

Hewitt

Instead of looking at the students as an individual, looking at the individual course that they’re taking, it’s very prescribed and not flexible enough and I’d question how fit for purpose it is for students with – particularly with severe visual impairment.  DSA guidelines give different headings of support that a student might be able to access through DSA.  But there’s only a small range of options available when actually the student might need something else.  So, for example, they might be on a course, like Callum’s studying, they might be studying something which is more technical and instead of having someone who necessarily has a specialist knowledge in working with students with visual impairments they might actually need a student who or support worker who can actually help him interpret those diagrams.  Yes, it is limiting students.

 

Megan

One of the things that surprised me was that the disability department staff, so not the support workers but the ones who kind of coordinate the whole venture, that they knew so little.  They asked me about my needs at the beginning of the process and I explained I’m completely blind, I can take my own notes it’s just that I need someone to describe the lecturer’s PowerPoints to me and maybe give me some sighted guide to find a seat and things like that.  And for seven years the support workers had been asked to take notes for me.  So, you know I get that a lot of people need notetakers, at the same time it was just really – I don’t know…

 

White

Right, about notetakers, I mean Kaya, how have you found that?

 

Kaya

My notetakers are really helpful but again it took a bit of time for it to completely be organised because from the delay from the DSA sorting out all my equipment and all of my needs, like that was quite frustrating.  But now it’s set up, it’s really good.

 

White

And you’ve been there what, I guess, about two months, yeah?

 

Kaya

Yes.

 

White

So, but really what you would really want is for that to be in place at the start?

 

Kaya

Yes, very much so because like I said I can’t see the board whatsoever.

 

White

And how long did it take to get it sorted out?

 

Kaya

I’d say about three weeks?

 

White

And Callum, what about you?

 

Callum

In my first year I started off recording all my lectures, so I’d bookmark certain points where I think ooh I need to know that.  Occasionally I’d write little notes of it down in Word but more often than not my lecturers would actually provide Word versions of the PowerPoints which made things a lot easier as well.  Ninety nine percent of the time I could take my own notes or I can – I just have an accessible version of the PowerPoint.

 

Kaya

Yes, I have that too as well.

 

Megan

I have to say that everything is online these days.  And actually, I think that’s really beneficial.  Every university has something called a virtual learning platform, which basically means that everything is online.  And it’s just been my lifesaver for the past seven years because that’s where the lecturers upload all their presentations, resources and that’s where all students are expected to go and they happen to be in an accessible format, so great, no different treatment needed.

 

Callum

Yeah, it has for me as well because ours is quite a technical course, so everything’s online anyway.  In many ways, as long as the university’s learning platform is accessible, which in my case it is, you’re kind of safe.

 

White

I think what’s already very striking is how random it is, in a way, you’ve all described very different experiences and it often seems that you literally have to deal with things as they come up.  I mean I know you’ve all talked about it, to some extent, but I would quite like to know how the DSA has worked for you all individually and the question of actually getting it, the forms and so forth.  Callum, how did you cope with that?

 

Callum

I filled in a form online along with my student finance.  Then I was invited for an assessment where they basically just had a chat about the things I can do independently, the things I can’t do independently and suggested human support obviously and some equipment.  I actually was only hoping for a laptop and a JAWS licence, which is screen reading software, but they actually suggested a scanner for scanning print documents into Word.

 

White

There seems to be a pattern here with you Callum of getting more than you expected.

 

Callum

Well yeah, I did get more than I expected but then I think it had a bit of consequence because later on in my course the one thing they didn’t offer me was a braille display and without trying to go into too much detail, when you’re trying to read computer code and write computer code you’ve got to be very, very specific, the punctuation and the amount of spaces you put in and little things can just stop it from working.  Quite late on in my course I tried out a braille display, it was like oh god I need one of these, trying to go back to my DSA and say oh I need this now.  My university actually took over and dealt with the majority of it but I hear they had a little bit of a nightmare in actually getting that.

 

White

Rachel, DSA should help with that shouldn’t it?

 

Hewitt

Firstly, we’re really finding that students, when they go to their assessment of needs for DSA, that the assessors don’t necessarily have an understanding of visual impairments and they don’t necessarily have a full understanding of the range of technology that’s available to them.  When the government announced these changes to DSA they really made a case that there should be less emphasis on human support and actually there should be more of an emphasis on technology instead.  Which to me makes sense, but what we’ve seen actually is that the amount of money which is available for assistive technology hasn’t actually really changed.  So, I think it’s something like about five and a half thousand pounds for the entire course that you can get to pay for equipment, which when you’re talking about specialist equipment like braille displays doesn’t go very far.  The thing that we’re also finding is that because of these budget restrictions that students are actually not getting all the equipment that they need.  So, they might have got a laptop with JAWS but then there’s not enough money left to get the braille display that they want.

 

White

And in a way it shouldn’t be surprising, should it, that sometimes students will need something – they won’t always know exactly what it is they need, they’ll learn that as they go along as well.

 

Megan

No one prepares you for university and I think schools are now recognising this and trying to improve that transition.  But another big factor we haven’t factored into this yet is mobility.  I mean I started my degree as a long cane user, I’m now a guide dog owner and guide dog owners are in the fortunate position that Guide Dogs for the Blind Association will provide the mobility and route training because it’s specialist training with the dog, as much as with you.  But you know if you haven’t got a dog you are reliant on sighted guide and using the long cane or similar.  When I was in my undergraduate degree my first year they gave me 700 mobility hours.  So, that was for a teacher to come in and do cane training.  But now with the Disabled Students Allowance the mobility training is put into the box with interpreters and people – I’ve got a friend who’s at university, she’s got 30 mobility hours a year and 700 or something ridiculous sighted guide hours.  So, she’s got lots of hours for people to guide her but very few for her to actually learn her way round with a cane.

 

Hewitt

I have to wonder if that’s something to do with the assessment that they’ve had, maybe not quite defining what support they meant for the person to have, that seems a bit strange to me, I have to say.

 

Kaya

I was also given mobility training from the DSA but I had literally two sessions and then suddenly I received the letter that my mobility trainer doesn’t work anymore for the DSA, so I’ve now been waiting for two months for a new mobility trainer and I don’t know where all the routes are.

 

White

And how difficult is it, as a building, as a set of buildings?

 

Kaya

Oh very difficult because with the mobility trainer they are supposed to help you with routes and even like routes into the town and like the city centre and bus routes as well because at home I live literally in the middle of nowhere so I hardly use buses.

 

White

This has all come as a bit of culture shock?

 

Kaya

Yes, very much so.

 

White

One thing we’ve not talked about and we must do before we end – university isn’t just about work and it’s not just about access and it’s not just about finding your way around the campus, it’s about making friends, it’s a social experience and I just want to know how you all found that.  Megan, you’ve been there a while now but maybe you could cast your mind back – how difficult was it at the beginning?

 

Megan

At the beginning I thought it was going to be difficult so I spent my first year living in halls of residence and I think for every student it’s a real mixed bag, it depends who you end up with.  It was kind of awkward from the start and I was trying to be very chatty with them but also just – I you know, if you ever want to ask me anything about being blind go ahead and by the way let me know if I make a mess of the kitchen and stuff because I’m trying to be lazy but sometimes I might be messy without meaning to.  Six months later, I did accidentally make a mess of the kitchen and they made a massive fuss about it, moved everything in my food cupboard around deliberately and just stood and watched me trying to find everything when I came in to make a cup of tea.  It got really awkward.  And the washing machines and dryers were all touchscreens, so I spent a lot of that year washing my knickers by hand.  Put it was way – I was very happy to move out into a student house.  And I have actually made lifelong friends through uni, I’ve met some awesome people and I’ve met some people who are a complete pain in the neck, so it’s like life.

 

White

So, you do think it’s as random as that.  I mean do you think it’s anything you did?  I mean you say you made the kitchen messy but it just seems – it seems almost kind of extraordinary that people should behave like that.

 

Megan

Well they’re young, you know, 18-year olds are completely wrapped up in a world of their own so often I’d be like – if you’re going to the supermarket could you or could I come with you because I need to grab some stuff.  A lot of the time they’d then be like – Oh yeah, we went three hours ago, we forgot to tell you.  Or I went with them once and they left me standing in the fruit and veg aisle while they went to get their stuff, before I had a chance to say could you help me and then they came back to me like an hour later, going, haven’t you done yet, you know, kind of.  And it was just – oh the thing is I was on a bad start because they saw all my Disabled Students Allowance equipment being delivered and it was the joke then – oh get her to buy the drinks, she’s rich, look at all this stuff she’s got and she gets taxis everywhere.  So, that’s what I did wrong I think, I don’t know, not much I could change but it was a pain.

 

White

Kaya, what about you, first year?

 

Kaya

I’ve actually had a really bad experience with my halls of residence.  I’ve already had to move rooms because my first flat they tried to blame everything on me, if someone left the hob on – oh it was Kaya, she can’t see.  And you know it was unbearable.

 

White

Well I knew we would run out of time long before we’d finished all the things that we had to say but my thanks, you can hand in your papers now and start talking.  Megan Paul, Callum Stoneman, Kaya Phytoduncan [phon.] and Rachel Hewitt, thank you all very much indeed.  And if you, the listeners, want to tell us or our students about your time at university please do.  You can call our actionline on 0800 044 044, you can email us, that’s intouch@bbc.co.uk or visit the website www.bbc.co.uk/intouch where you can subscribe to or download our podcast.

 

That’s it, from me, Peter White, producer Lee Kumutat and our panel, goodbye.

 

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