Many years ago, as a new and very novice academic I was asked to be personal tutor to a new 1st year physiotherapy student. I agreed, and in passing, heard that he was visually impaired and that because I was nice, I would be a good tutor for him! And that’s where it all started.
Fast forward to today. My entire academic career was changed by meeting this one student. Through worry, lack of knowledge, zero confidence and lack of any skills that I could actually support this student, I learnt so much. I had to ask a lot of questions, ask for lots of support and think creatively and differently about how I could make my classes accessible for him. In retrospect, I was really just using all the skills I’d learnt as a physiotherapist, making assessments, identifying challenges and putting in plans to address them. I encountered barriers and enablers, and had to face many misconceptions, and bias and even discrimination from my colleagues and peers, mainly from ignorance. And that was just me. The lecturer. Imagine how it felt for the student?
That one student experience made a huge impact on the way I taught, practiced, communicated and ultimately how I researched. My research as a doctoral student at VICTAR explored the learning experiences of visually impaired physiotherapy students. I learnt an incredible amount about visual impairment and education through my own experience. That very first student showed me that it was ok not to know anything, especially when he politely told me that asking him how much he could see wasn’t very useful. But we worked together, and learnt by asking for support, and exploring and trying out new things in class. And over time we got there, he qualified and is a practicing physiotherapist now. This experience was the start of my need to find out how it really was for visually impaired students learning a profession that had been accessible for visually impaired people for decades, and had a long history of success.
My research used a case study approach and I focused my exploration on the barriers and enablers in learning physiotherapy, both in the university and in the practice setting. My study was nationwide and overall, I interviewed 7 student physiotherapists with varying degrees of visual impairment. Their experiences varied, and there were many examples of really positive, student centered and holistic support. Physiotherapy educators were enthusiastic and motivated to offer proactive support, and to find solutions where challenges arose. They worked closely with the students to ensure they met the requirements of the profession. But there were also some very negative and challenging experiences, where students faced discrimination and difficulties learning their professions. As a physiotherapist, this saddened me. Physiotherapists are caring professionals who work closely with patients to problem solve, to maximise independence and function. It still puzzles me why the same principles were not universally applied to the visually impaired student physiotherapists in my study. The final chapter of my thesis allowed me to consider this and think about why this may be and this will be the focus of a paper in due course. However, I am confident that my being a physiotherapist, as well as a lecturer, was what enabled me to work collaboratively and successfully with students.
In the 10 years I was at that same institution I taught and supported six visually impaired physiotherapy students. I often hear how educators make huge impressions on their students, but I wonder if they know the impact they have made on me?
Helen Frank, Course Leader BSc (Hons) Physiotherapy, University of Worcester