Monday, 26 September 2016

Studying with Sight Loss | Your First Year At University

Whether you've got 20/20 vision or absolutely none at all, there is no doubt that starting university is a huge deal. Preparing can be stressful, the thought of moving can be daunting, and the uncertainty of what's to come can leave any potential student feeling a little out of their depth. When I started my degree in 2014 I remember feeling an even split of nervousness and excitement for the new chapter I was embarking on.
  I'm almost completely blind, and like any student with additional needs my journey through secondary school and Further Education did not always run smoothly, as additional needs inevitably tend to mean additional challenges. Of course, I'd spent enough time in education to know that university would be no different and would come with its own set of challenges. I'm about to enter the final year of my degree now, and although the past two years haven't been disastrous, there were definitely some teething issues in my first year, and some situations I wish I'd handled differently. So with that in mind, I've put together some tips to bare in mind if you or someone you know is starting university with sight loss. I'm not under the impression that everyone's experience will  mirror mine, as everyone's needs are unique and affect them differently. But I do think there are a few things worth bearing in mind that should make your transition into university at least a little bit smoother, regardless of how much sight you have.

Making yourself and your needs known.  
You will be given a lot of help and support throughout your time at university, but you will need to be proactive in asking for it and arranging for it to be put into place. Most universities run on a significantly larger scale to schools and colleges, so it's important that you make the effort to make yourself known to the right people as soon as you can. I was the only student at my secondary school with a serious sight problem, and the local college I attended had only worked with a handful of blind students in recent years. Needless to say I was quite accustomed to a smaller-scale setup where the majority of people didn't need to be told that I had a disability and what my needs were. Starting university reminded me that in the larger scheme of things I am a very small fish in a very big pond. Having to be proactive and independent in explaining your needs in a professional environment can seem like an intimidating prospect to begin with, but it an important skill that will develop with practice.
  Your key point of support at university will be the Disability Office. This will usually be located within your university's Student Services department. The Disability Office will usually be responsible for arranging the majority of your support, including note-taking and learning support, mobility support and examination adjustments. Someone from the Disability Office will usually get in touch with you directly before your course's start date to discuss your needs beforehand. My firm choice university contacted me after I'd received my results in August to discuss my needs, but my insurance choice university invited me to an interview before even making me an offer. Every university has their own procedure for assessing the needs of students with additional needs. A lot of the support you receive will be funded through your Disabled Students Allowance, so it is very important that you have completed the necessary steps to apply for this in advance of your course's start date. Any delay in applying for funding can mean a delay in your support being put into place.
  Whether it comes to living support, mobility support or note-taking, if there is any part of your support that isn't working for you or you feel needs to be adjusted, you will have to speak up about it. At university you will have no Statement of Special Educational Needs and you won't have a SENCO closely overlooking your progress. In my experience I've found that the majority of teething issues related to support can usually be resolved quickly and easily through email or over the phone. When it comes to university - and to most things - the absolute worst thing you can do if you have any issues is suffer in silence, so if you do find you have any issues, don't let them fester. You can contact the Disability Office at point during your time at university for support with your needs, and you must make sure to contact them if you find that your needs change, or if what's currently in place isn't working for you.
  As well as the Disability Office, you'll also need to make contact with your university's Examinations Office. They will be responsible for putting in place any additional or alternative arrangements that you require for academic examinations. They will work closely with the Disability Office and your respective academic department to make sure everything is in place well in advance of your first set of exams, and may request that you come in for a meeting to discuss your requirements. Make sure you let them know what your requirements have been for examinations you have sat previously. These could include extra time, the use of a reader/scribe and modified question papers. Although your university will aim to match these measures, you may find that the nature of your course and the type of examinations you will be sitting cause your examination requirements to change. You can contact the Examinations Office at any time if you feel that your examination requirements have changed, and they will do their best to accommodate you.
  Lastly, in terms of accessing support, I'd also strongly suggest getting in touch with each of your lecturers to introduce yourself and let them know that you have a sight problem. This can usually be done quickly and easily by mass email, and shouldn't be too difficult a task. Even if you don't have a lot of teaching hours in your timetable, of if your lecturers change frequently, it's still important to make yourself known. Let your lecturers know of any minor adjustments you require - such as using a specific coloured pen on a whiteboard. Any requirements you have for the adjustment of lecture materials - PowerPoint presentations, handouts and so on - will usually be handled through the Disability Office, so you shouldn't need to discuss these with individual lecturers. 

Mobility and orientation.  
Something you should prioritise as early as possible is getting to know your surroundings. It goes without saying that this is especially important if you're attending a university away from home and/or if your sight is particularly limited. Your mobility support will usually be arranged by the Disability Office, and will be given to you either by a trained mobility officer or another trained member of university support staff. Your mobility and orientation support will be funded through your Disabled Students Allowance, so, as mentioned earlier, it's vital that this is in place by the time you are due to start your course. 
  It goes without saying that the level and type of orientation support you will need will of course depend on you and your needs. Take some time to think about the routes and locations you'll need to learn, and talk your ideas through with whoever is supporting you during your orientation. Remember, if you are attending a university away from  your home city, you'll naturally have more routes and locations to learn. As well as the locations of your lectures and other classes you'll need to know the location of local shops, GP and dental facilities and public transport routes. Universities can be large and are often spread out over multiple campus', so make sure you take full advantage of the full range of mobility support and training that is offered to you. Although your university will aim to get your orientated during your induction period, your DSA should provide continuing mobility support if you need it. You can also ask for additional support at any point if you find that the routes and locations you need to know change. It's unlikely that your lectures and classes will be held in the same rooms for three consecutive years, but the Disability Office will be on hand to offer support as and when you need it. 

3. Meeting people and joining societies
The thing that I found the most difficult during my first year at university was socialising. While it's true that having a visual impairment should in no way stop you from socialising and behaving just as any other Fresher would, it's no secret that it can. Making friends isn't a skill that comes naturally to everyone, and if you fall into a habit of being isolated whilst at university, that habit can be very difficult to break. In my experience, the easiest way to socialise is to get your foot in the door early. During your Induction/Fresher's period, the majority of the people around you will be in a similar position to yourself - on a new course in a potentially new city. The only difference is that the majority of your peers will be facing these experiences without a visual impairment.
  Clubs and societies are a fantastic way of meeting new people and making friends. During your welcome period your university will organise a Fresher's Fayre, where you will be able to browse the different societies that are on offer. Most universities will have a society to suit virtually everyone, with activities from sport to showchoir. The Disability Office will be able to arrange for someone to accompany you around the Fresher's Fayre if you need some extra support. Should you choose to join a society, both your Students' Union and the Disability Office will be able to give you any support that you need to participate fully in the activities that your chosen society/s make available to you. But remember, you cannot assume that the people around you will know what your needs are, so if you require support in joining and participating in societies, you will need to reach out and ask for it.
  Of course societies and clubs aren't the only way to meet new people at university. If you choose to live in student accommodation, you will probably be living in a house or halls of residence with complete strangers. You will also meet new people on your course when your timetable begins. Your university and your Students' Union will organise a variety of icebreaker events throughout your Fresher's period, both with and without alcohol. It's no secret that clubbing and partying is a staple activity associated with student life, but when it comes to those of us with a sight problem it can become something of an elephant in the room. Clubbing can be a great way to mingle and meet people, but it is definitely not the beginning and the end of student life. If you aren't one for staggering around the streets on a Saturday, that is absolutely fine. With that being said, if you meet some people that you are comfortable with and fancy going out on the town, do it. If you want to get legless and steal some traffic cones, do not let the fact that you can't see stop you. Just make sure that you take some common-sense precautions to keep yourself safe. Start by letting the people you're going out with exactly what your needs are. If you need constant sighted guidance or someone to read the drinks menu out to you, tell the people that you're with. Try to avoid downplaying or sugar-coating what your needs are - people can only help and support you if they know how to. Also make sure to take the mobile numbers of the group you plan on going out with, as well as the contact number for a reliable taxi service. You may also want to take some time during daylight hours to visit some of the popular clubs and bars in your area. By doing this you'll have the opportunity to learn the layout of the venue when it's quieter and lighter. Remember, the friends you make during your Fresher's Week may not be the same friends that you walk out of your graduation with in three years' time. You'll have many opportunities to meet people from all different walks of life over the next three years and not all friendship blossoms will bloom into flowers.

  So that's it - my top tips on starting university with a sight condition. You're about to begin an incredible new chapter in your journey. It will be full of highs and lows, and you may find that you walk out of your university in three years' time as a completely different person to when you started. Enjoy it, work hard and embrace the many new opportunities you will be given. Remember, if you need help, ask for it. The absolute worst thing you can do in a crisis is suffer in silence, and there will always be someone on hand to either support you or signpost you to someone who can. 
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