This months VICTAR blog comes from Anna Roche who leads on post-16 transition work at Birmingham Local Authority Sensory Impairment team. Anna talks about her experience of setting up a new project which aims to improve access to work experience opportunities for young people with sensory impairment. Anna set up this project after attending our ESRC Festival of Social Science event last year.
“I am visiting teacher that supports young people with a vision loss across Birmingham, including school leavers, looking for their next steps in life. I have recently taken up this post and from my experience so far within the service and through meeting with Rachel Hewett who has conducted a Longitudinal Study on behalf of VICTAR, I have gained an insight into the challenges young people with a vision loss have in ultimately finding careers which match their potential.
A lot has changed for young people in the last decade – fewer want to continue in formal education and more want to get into work earlier, often via apprenticeships. For young people with a vision loss, the explosion of accessible technology available in the mainstream, i.e. smart phones, tablets, the improved ease of internet connection and cheap downloadable software resources, has meant that our school leavers with a vision loss have the tools to and means available to access work systems more easily. Coupled with the fact that business information is almost universally being managed electronically these days would surely mean that things are looking rosy for our young people seeking employment, right? Wrong. According to the RNIB ‘Employment Status and Sight Loss” report, February 2017: “There has been a significant decrease in the proportion of registered blind and partially sighted people of working age in any form of employment over the last decade from one in three in 2005 to around one in four in 2015.”
Some students we have are very adept at using the new technology; touch typing and managing their own access by enlarging educational texts independently on their devices. However, we do still have a lot of the old fashioned bulky magnifying equipment floating around the city being used by our students, and some students still rely on staff to photocopy or print text enlargements, even in secondary school, which doesn’t set them up well for progressing onto college or the workplace where the expectation is that access needs will be managed without assistant support.
Another issue that poses a barrier to young people with a vision loss getting into work is that often employers, very conscientious of health and safety regulations, are not leaping to offer opportunities, even for work experience. Less than 2% of the Apprenticeships on offer in Birmingham are with Disability Confident employers, which provide slim pickings.
Additionally, we know from surveys we have conducted that we need to help families have ambitious but realistic aspirations for their child with a vision loss as they move on from school. Parents also wanted more information to help their children make decisions about next steps after school and some parents also felt their children lacked confidence outside of the safety of the school environment in relation to managing and explaining their vision loss, especially in positive terms (e.g. I can see this much….., I use this equipment to help me…)
So, having identified key issues we need to address as: the need to improve the mainstream technology skills of our young people overall; improve our engagement and support of families; and improve, update and specialise the careers advice we give to our young people and create more work experience opportunities – we have set about trying to make a change in these areas.
This term we held a parents’ workshop to provide realistic inspiration by having a young speaker with a degenerative vision loss who had navigated through school and college to achieve success both in industry and personally. We asked her not to sugar-coat her experiences or the additional challenges that vision loss caused her to face, but to explain how she was able to overcome these and explain her strategies that have helped her not only achieve her goals, but sometimes just to keep going. We also incorporated time for the parents to chat and share experiences with each other, as some parents do not have any other parents of children with a vision loss in their social circle, and we know from feedback that parents found this to be therapeutic. We spent some time with the parents at the workshop planning how next year we can improve how we connect with them and resulting from this we have already booked in termly parents’ workshops for next year at John Lewis’ Community Room in central Birmingham. Each session will have a different focus, such as how to support their child with the job application process, etc. We are also planning a ‘Pathways’ event where FE providers will be invited to explain to parents and their children how they can support young people with a vision loss whether they choose to study as part of an academic course or an apprenticeship. As part of this event we are planning a joint parent/child life coaching session designed to prepare them for barriers they will face and give the problem solving skills to tackle these challenges successfully.
To address the lack of career advice available locally, we have looked to specialist charities to run sessions tailored to support those with vision loss navigate their way into the world of work. This month Dan from the charity Blind in Business ran a brilliant session called ‘Future Focus’ for teenagers which included mock interviews and exercises which really helped the students think about their upcoming challenges and how they can practically address these. We have booked another careers day with the charity Look UK for the Autumn Term and we will intend to make these a regular occurrence to ensure that careers advice and support is ongoing.
To increase work experience opportunities we have begun to make links with the Education and Skills Directorate of the council to build links which we hope will open some opportunities. There are many college, apprenticeship and job fairs happening around Birmingham and we intend to organise group visits where we will prep our young people to go and chat to colleges and employers and explain personally how they manage their vision loss, and the additional skills they have because of this, and hopefully inspire potential employers to become disability confident and provide opportunities.
To increase use of appropriate technology we had Ben from RNIB come and deliver the valuable ‘Legacy’ training to upskill our teams to know how to use the accessibility features and apps that support vision loss to capacity on tablet technology. We have just agreed a partnership with a local Apple supplier Jigsaw24 and they have agreed to do a great ‘bundle’ deal which includes the latest iPad, a keyboard case and Apple pencil (which students can use to take freehand notes or complete uploaded workbooks – and have these remotely marked by teachers without having to hand in or print work) at a greatly reduced price (please see their website) This bundle will encourage students to manage their equipment, access and practice touch typing without having masses of separate equipment to lug around school. With the right training to ensure the right texts and presentations are uploaded to the iPad efficiently, this will also save schools the time and resources previously used to print out materials.
Finally, at the start of September, members of our team are undertaking a bid writing course in order that we can start making serious applications for available funds that we can use to support our initiatives that will help our young people transition into adulthood. As well as local transition events, we also want to organise more events that build confidence and team working skills for our Birmingham students, e.g. adventure outings including residential activity breaks – which will be great for developing students’ independence, a keenness for challenging themselves and a hunger for working towards a sense of achievement, but also will provide great C.V. content.
We are starting to set the wheels in motion to improve how we prepare young people for adulthood – watch this space for future success stories and a change in the employment statistics for people with a vision loss!”
Anna Roche, Birmingham VI Service