Disabled Students’ Allowance: is it fit for purpose?

What is Disabled Students’ Allowance?

Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) is a non-means tested scheme for UK-based students, which aims to remove barriers to learning for students with disabilities. In the case of vision impairment, it can be used to fund things like mobility training around a campus, specialist equipment like Jaws and assistance in practical sessions.

In 2015 the UK Government announced that it was going to reform DSA, placing greater responsibility on Higher Education (HE) institutions (both practically and financially) for the non-medical support that disabled students receive. The rationale behind this was that it would give greater incentive for HE institutions to remove barriers to learning through inclusive practice, and that this in turn would improve student experience. For example, instead of using DSA funds to pay for staff to convert lecture material for it to be accessible for a student using a screenreader, institutions should ensure that published lecture material is provided to all students in an accessible format. Department for Business Innovation and Skills who had responsibility for this reform also argued that students with disabilities in HE should be able to make greater use of assistive technology, reducing the need for human support.

What does the research evidence say?

In this month’s blog I draw upon evidence from the Longitudinal Transitions Study to discuss how well DSA is working for student’s with vision impairment.

The first thing that I would like to emphasise is that DSA is absolutely essential for many students with vision impairment to be able to succeed on their courses. Many of the young people that we have spoken to simply would not have been able to access their courses if it weren’t for the support that DSA provides. For example, one participant reflected:

“It’s been very, very useful in terms of my equipment and my non-medical help, because without those things I couldn’t go to university really. I wouldn’t be able to access my course without this equipment that I put through DSA because I didn’t have it otherwise.”

However, DSA is not without problems. We recently worked with Thomas Pocklington Trust to produce a research briefing to outline to the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation ways in which the current scheme is not working for students with vision impairment. Some of the key issues identified include:

  • DSA assessors lacking the knowledge and skill set to assess students with vision impairment and to make appropriate support recommendations.
  • Frequent delays faced by students in receiving their allocated support from DSA, putting them at a massive disadvantage as they make the transition into HE.
  • Equipment provided through DSA not fit for intended purpose, even in the case of laptops where students contribute £200 towards its purchase.
  • Restrictions in purchasing mainstream equipment such as tablet computers, despite evidence demonstrating their effective role to help overcome challenges associated with vision impairment.
  • Students not being able to access the non-medical helper support allocated due to rigid qualification criteria for staff providing specialist support, and a shortage of trained professionals who can meet those criteria.

So, is it fit for purpose?

As outlined earlier, the UK Government asserted that it is possible to reduce the amount of human support that students with disabilities require if they make use of assistive technology. Certainly, our research evidence supports this, with many of the participants giving examples of the ways in which they overcame barriers to learning and participation through using technology. What is concerning, however, is that the amount of money available through DSA to fund technology has not changed (other than a small increase to reflect inflation) and instead there still exists a huge emphasis on human support.

Funding available through Disabled Student Allowance for a full-time course by year

2014-15 2018-19
Specialist equipment £5,212 for the whole course £5,529 for the whole course
Non-medical helper £20,725 a year £21,987 a year

Depending on the individual and the nature of their vision impairment or the type of course that they are studying, it may be that they will require a large amount of human support. However, the main point of concern I would like to raise is the lack of flexibility in the system. Many of the young people that we have spoken to reported not being to access certain equipment that would have enabled them to work more independently in HE due to the restricted budget for specialist equipment. Additionally, several participants shared their frustration of not being able to access mainstream technology (such as tablet computers) through DSA, despite the fact that (due to the inclusive design of this equipment) they could use it to overcome specific challenges that they faced as a result of their vision impairment.

This lack of flexibility in DSA guidance seems to go against its intended purpose. Department for Education state that the DSA scheme ‘is in place to provide the more specialist aspects of support’ (p23) – i.e. the very specific adjustments that individual requires that can’t be addressed through inclusive practice and reasonable adjustments. The problem being faced by students with vision impairment, is that whilst the role of DSA is supposed to be to address specific needs, the guidelines DSA works to are still very prescriptive. Consequently, students are having difficulties in accessing the type and balance of support that would suit them and their circumstances best.

As noted in our recent briefing, we urge the government to take action to address the challenges that students with vision impairment are facing in accessing the full range of support they need to be able to study and live independently in HE. DSA plays an absolutely vital role in helping students with vision impairment overcome barriers in participation on their courses, but at the same time, its own mechanisms can act as a further barrier to the student.

Rachel Hewett

P.S. If you are a young person with a vision impairment and are applying for university, or even at university already, we have produced some guidance resources here. Also, if you are a professional supporting students with vision impairment in higher education, you can find some guidance resources here.

We would love to hear from young people about their experiences of education, habilitation/mobility support, applying for and using DSA, or any other issue that is important them.

For further information, contact Thomas Pocklington Trust Children and Young People Managers

Tara Chattaway, tara.chattaway@pocklington-trust.org.uk 07854 372420

Laura Hughes, laura.hughes@pocklington-trust.org.uk 07970 232660

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Birmingham’s Sensory Support Tackling Adulthood Transition Challenges

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

Anna
Anna Roche, Birmingham VI Service

“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

Accessible equations

In this guest blog, Professor Dave Smith from University of Birmingham shares his experience of ensuring that mathematical content is accessible to students with vision impairment. Our longitudinal transitions study has highlighted how challenging it can be for VI students studying STEM in Higher Education, with academic staff often unsure of how best to provide support. 

david-smith
Professor Dave Smith, School of Mathematics, University of Birmingham

There is a divide in the academic world between those for whom equations and mathematical expressions are their primary tools, and everyone else! Pure and applied mathematicians, computer scientists, physicists and many computational biologists (for the purposes of this blog post I will refer to all of us as mathematicians for short) typically find that widely-used tools such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint are unsatisfying for the preparation of mathematics. Their main drawbacks are the combination of a clunky point-and-click interface with (to the experienced eye) substandard aesthetics.  The alternative system, still relatively known outside of quantitative disciplines, is the typesetting language LaTeX (pronounced ‘Lay-Tech’ or possibly ‘Lah-Tech’) which was mainly developed in the 1970s and 80s. LaTeX enables the production of professional-quality printed documents with equations that most mathematicians consider rather beautiful; it is no surprise therefore that the vast majority of us produce all of our lecture notes and other course materials (handouts, exercises, slides and even examinations) in LaTeX. Typically the implementation that is used is ‘PDFLaTeX’, which converts LaTeX ‘source code’ into a PDF file that can be viewed electronically or printed. LaTeX has undoubtedly revolutionised mathematical publishing, and has also influenced the development of HTML (hypertext markup language), the basis for the web.

One of the great appeals of PDFLaTeX is that it gives us complete control over the visual layout. However, therein lies a weakness – not everyone consumes lecture material visually, and not all who do see in the same way. The most powerful example of this diversity is the use of screenreaders by blind and visually-impaired students. Equations appearing in PDF files produced by LaTeX are completely unintelligible to a screenreader. A workaround for this difficulty (used with success in the School of Mathematics) involves providing the LaTeX source files so that the code itself can be interpreted – ‘backslashes, curly brackets and all’ by a screenreader. This is a workable solution – and perhaps the best that can be expected in a short timeframe – but wouldn’t it be preferable if the core set of notes were suitable to be adapted by students to their varying needs? Other examples of how materials may need to be ‘consumed’ differently include the use of large print by students with visual impairments, or the use of sans-serif fonts and coloured backgrounds by students with dyslexia. Special materials can be printed out on request, but wouldn’t it be better if students could simply enlarge text, or experiment with changing the font or background to see what works best for them? The issue of how we consume reading material is most acutely relevant to those with visual impairment, however across all of the academic community we now view content across a range of devices, from monitors to laptops to tablets and phones, all of which require text to be able to resize and reflow according to the dimensions of the screen. We wouldn’t expect the Guardian online (or indeed the Big Conversation blog) to comes as a downloadable PDF. It seems reasonable that students should have similar expections of course materials.

HTML-based materials by contrast provide an excellent and up-to-date way to deliver device-friendly, resizable and reformattable content, along with the other advantages of web-based materials (particularly interactivity). The University’s online learning environment Canvas is a user-friendly platform for colleagues unfamilar with HTML code to prepare webpages. But what about mathematics? The best solution I am aware of involves integrating the old and the new: LaTeX expressions – which can be included by enclosing within the symbols \( and \) – within an HTML web page. LaTeX expressions can then be interpreted into mathematics through the online service MathJax, a javascript engine developed by the American Mathematical Society and Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. MathJax can be included in a webpage by adding a code snippet to the start of the HTML file; in Canvas this is done automatically. The result is mathematical expressions that look beautiful but more importantly are then available as MathML for the use of screenreaders. Having prepared materials in this way one no longer needs to anticipate all of the possible needs of current or future students – the power is with the student to manipulate the content appropriate to their needs. An example Canvas-LaTeX page is available at this link.

For the lecturer, converting a set of LaTeX notes to ‘Canvas-LaTeX’ or ‘HTML-LaTeX’ is essentially an task of cutting-and-pasting and then modifying commands such as section headings and figures – something that can be accomplished in a few hours for a 20 credit lecture course. Therefore there is a great opportunity to bring our lecture notes into the 21st Century, retaining many of the advantages of LaTeX along with much greater accessibility. This change may require a shift in how we view course materials – our job is to provide content (text and equations), but we need to accept that our control over their precise visual appearance is a luxury which does not meet the needs of blind, visually-impaired or dyslexic students.

Professor Dave Smith, School of Mathematics

What role can assistive technology have in removing barriers to work and helping disabled people stay in work?

This was one of the questions posed by The Work and Pensions committee as part of their inquiry into the disability employment gap; prompted by the UK government’s aim to get one million more disabled people into work over the next 10 years. The committee were interested to learn more about the contribution made by the government funded ‘Access to Work’ scheme which aims to remove barriers to employment for people with disabilities, and how this scheme could be developed moving forward.

In February we had the opportunity to meet with Steve McCabe, local MP for Selly Oak in Birmingham, to present our response to this consultation. We took the opportunity to discuss with him the barriers which are faced by people with vision impairment seeking to participate in the labour market and importantly evidence for how these barriers might be overcome. We also welcomed the opportunity to learn more about his experience on the Work and Pensions committee and the ideas that he and colleagues have developed.

Improving employment outcomes for people with vision impairment has been a key research area at VICTAR over a number of years. For example, Network 1000 provided important estimates of employment rates for people with vision impairment while the ENABLER project developed a toolkit for specialist employment advisers to ascertain how close an individual with vision impairment is to being able to participate in the labour market, and what interventions might be needed.

Most recently our Longitudinal Transitions Study has been investigating the post-16 transitions experiences of young people with a vision impairment as they have left compulsory education and progressed to the labour market. Our secondary data analysis of the UK Labour Force Survey emphasises how important this is, with estimates that 42.8% of young people with vision impairment aged 16-24 are NEET (in comparison to 21.7% of young people in the general population).

Work and Pensions Select Committee Inquiry
Work and Pensions Select Committee response

In our response to the Work and Pensions committee we highlighted that the use of technology such as screen-readers as used by individuals with severe vision impairment requires an extensive period of training and consolidation for the person to be able to develop strategies to use it effectively in the workplace. Therefore the intervention of assistive technology is not enough on its own – individuals need opportunities to develop these skills to enable them to be competitive in the labour market and to advocate for the adjustments which they require.

We also highlighted that young adults with vision impairment have limited opportunities to access work experience opportunities to develop their CV when younger. We have found instead that these young people often look to voluntary opportunities to bridge this gap in their CVs. However, finding appropriate voluntary opportunities can be further complicated by a lack of access to appropriate assistive technology (which is not available through Access to Work).

Further, evidence shows that individuals with vision impairment benefit from using mainstream technology which have inbuilt accessibility options which enable them to use their devices as assistive tools. However, mainstream technology is often not funded by Access to Work as it is not viewed as specialist.

Our meeting with Steve McCabe led to the identification of several positive steps that could be taken forward. These include:

  • Recognising the importance of preparation for adulthood by helping young people with vision impairment to access assistive technology and develop their skills at an earlier stage.
  • Improving specialist training for assistive technology in schools to provide a long-term pathway which prepares young people with vision impairment for the workplace.
  • Developing more opportunities for work experience and voluntary work for young people with special educational needs and disabilities and incorporating this into Education Health and Care Plans.
  • Recognising the opportunity provided by mainstream technology in removing barriers for individuals with disabilities.

Rachel Hewett

Braille or computers? I’ll have both please

“Louis Braille invented his eponymous code nearly 200 years ago. The tactile reading and writing system has transformed the lives of many blind people. More recently, computers and the internet have introduced new opportunities for accessing precious information. If Louis Braille was alive today, he would embrace it all!”

On 4th January, World Braille Day marks Louis Braille’s birthday. Born in 1809, he invented the braille code, or ‘braille’. Braille is a tactile reading and writing system used by many people with severe vision impairments or blindness. A braille character is based upon a matrix of a six raised dots, historically embossed on paper. Different combinations of these dots represent an individual letter, letter combination or word. Louis Braille was blind himself and first proposed the idea while still at school. The braille code he developed has had a profound impact upon the education of people with vision impairment around the world.

4.1.1
Reading braille

In recent years the emergence of computer technology has raised questions about the future of braille. Some people wonder whether we need braille now that computers and mobile devices can provide speech output. Drawing upon some of the research into braille which has taken place in the Vision Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research (VICTAR), we argue that technology and braille are allies rather than competitors.

It is simplistic to consider braille and technology as having an uneasy relationship. In fact, the reverse is true – after all, braille’s success is closely linked to technological developments that have enabled braille production and writing. This includes braille writing frames, mechanical writing machines such as the Perkins brailler, braille embossers (which are essentially braille printers) and most recently, the refreshable braille display. These braille displays are linked to computers and present a line of braille characters which are refreshed as the user reads.

More braille is available today than ever before. Many products have braille embossed on their packaging (for example, visit Coop shops), and it is now a legal requirement to have braille labels on all medicine packaging (our own research underpins this international standard). This greater availability of braille reflects the improvements in national and international disability legislation, but improved technology has played a crucial role too. The internet means that huge volumes of electronic files are now easily available at any time. These can be accessed online, easily converted into braille and embossed or read using a refreshable braille display. In a recent blog, Amy Mason described how refreshable braille displays have “transformed the way that many of us use braille”.

However it is inaccurate to assume that braille has been the chosen literacy approach amongst blind people since its invention. The history of braille was documented by the late Dr Pamela Lorimer in her University of Birmingham PhD thesis. The adoption of braille was a slow process which involved debates and controversies over many decades, long after Louis Braille’s death. Professor Michael Tobin, Emeritus Professor within VICTAR, carried out research into braille reading for many years. In a recent article he notes how the debates about the braille code continue. He too questions the common assertion that computer technology will render braille obsolete. Instead he argues technology is making access to braille “easier, faster, and cheaper”. This has certainly been true of participants in our ongoing longitudinal transitions study who have benefited from using refreshable braille devices during their studies in higher education. While they do not use braille for all aspects of their studies, the participants highlighted how important their access to braille is in particular scenarios, such as following notes during a lecture or proof reading an essay.

As in many countries, in the UK teachers are required to have a specialist qualification to teach children with vision impairment, and this includes a requirement to know how to teach braille as a route to literacy – Birmingham University has a long established training programme (one of the biggest in the world). Even so, findings from some UK studies suggest considerable variation in approaches to the teaching of braille literacy, which led to our recent literature review. We found no evidence to support the view that technology has an adverse effect on the development of literacy through braille. However, we did find that there is limited information for teachers about how to teach braille literacy in mainstream schools. The review made several recommendations about braille teaching (e.g. in relation to the use of reading schemes, phonological instruction and the order of introducing braille letters) and since then more teaching resources have been developed. However, an area that remains problematic is the need to re-develop a standardised braille reading test (a previous test was developed in the 1990s at the University of Birmingham, but needs updating).

Our research highlights that the dangers to the future of braille are related to educational resources and approaches, not to the emergence of new technology. In the current climate where teaching services are being placed under a great deal of financial pressure, we must guard against braille teaching being neglected. Braille remains a hugely important route to literacy for blind people, and is a key method of accessing information independently, which complements other ‘technology literacies’.

If the brilliant Louis Braille was alive today he would be reading braille with skill and enthusiasm while at the same time surfing the web, marvelling at information he would literally have at his fingertips. His invention remains a potent symbol of disabled people’s independence and empowerment. But most importantly, braille works.

Graeme Douglas, Mike McLinden and Rachel Hewett

Engaging with the sector – ESRC Festival of Social Science

On 10th November VICTAR and VIEW collaborated to host a workshop entitled ‘Supporting young people with vision impairment through post-16 transition’. This event was arranged as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science.

Various professionals who have contributed to the Longitudinal Transitions Study and provided teaching support for the MQ programme were invited to attend the event, which was held at Impact Hub Birmingham. The purpose of the event was to present our findings from the ongoing longitudinal study and to discuss the appropriate response of the sector to these findings.

image1
The event was chaired by VICTAR co-director, Mike McLinden.

The afternoon commenced with a presentation from Graeme Douglas and Rachel Hewett (VICTAR) and Sue Keil (VIEW) who discussed some of the key findings from both the Longitudinal Transition Study and a RNIB Freedom of Information Request of Local Authority specialist services. The presentation focused on the role of specialist services in preparing young people with vision impairment for adulthood, whilst acknowledging the conflicting pressures which local authorities face due to a narrowing of the curriculum and budget constraints.

image2b
Sue Keil presenting findings from the RNIB Freedom of Information request

The second presentation came from Kay Wrench who reflected back on her thirty years’ experience working as a qualified teacher of children and young people with vision impairment (QTVI). She emphasised the importance of QTVIs using their time resource wisely, such as equipping schools to produce materials in alternative formats to allow the QTVI to focus on working with children and young people with vision impairment to develop important skills such as self-advocacy, mobility and assistive technology skills.

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Kay Wrench

Lucy Dixon from RNIB followed by sharing information about a sector wide campaign which is set to highlight dwindling specialist support services for children and young people with vision impairment, and to expose the negative impact that this has on young people with vision impairment being able to fulfill their potential and to live and work independently when adults. Further information about this campaign can be found on the RNIB website.

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Lucy Dixon

The second half of the afternoon allowed opportunity for discussion in small groups and for delegates to provide their thoughts and reflections on the issues raised. Those who attended contributed enthusiastically, drawing upon their wealth of experience working in both educational and voluntary sectors.

The afternoon was concluded by Rory Cobb from VIEW who drew together the main points of these discussions. The outcomes of these will be summarised and shared on the VIEW website for consideration by other QTVIs, and will also guide important discussions between VICTAR, VIEW and members of the steering group for the longitudinal transitions study over the coming months and years.

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We would like to thank ESRC for providing funding to support this event, Impact Hub Birmingham for hosting the event and the delegates who engaged with the workshop with such enthusiasm.

Rachel Hewett

Thank you to Rory Cobb and Sue Keil

On Friday the 20th October 2017 Rory and Sue both retired from RNIB – combined, they had contributed over 50 years of work to RNIB and the field of vison impairment education.  They have done this with great skill, openness, friendliness, good humour and passion. Thank you both, and very best wishes for a happy and healthy retirement!

Sue and Rory
Sue and Rory at their retirement celebration

I met Rory in 1994 when I first started working in the field – he advised us on a technology development project and was typically thoughtful and helpful. In the 2000s we worked more closely together on his MPhil – in which he researched assessment access. This was part of his sustained and successful efforts to gain fair access to public examinations for students with vision impairment.  We struck up a friendship and through those discussions lay some of the seeds of our theoretical thinking about vision impairment education: balancing social adjustments (inclusive practice) on one hand and developing children’s agency and independence on the other. As a programme and regional tutor, Rory has offered wonderful support to the Mandatory Qualification for Teachers of Children and Young People with Vision Impairments. In fact Rory’s development work on the programme has helped align it to new and changing government policies while maintaining a theoretical integrity with young people’s interests at its core.

I met Sue in the late 1990s, initially as a researcher and author on the influential RNIB Shaping the Future survey work which gathered the views of a large cohort of young people across the UK. At the same time Sue was a key RNIB contact for much of VICTARs research work, initially the ‘Steps to Independence‘ project (which has links to the emergence of the habitation specialist as a key professional in our field). Sue is a brilliant advocate for research as a vehicle to bring about positive change and to challenge inequality – this is both as a ‘user of research’ through exemplary briefing documents, and also as a ‘producer of research’. For example, Sue’s ‘state of the nation’ reports based on survey work with local authorities continue to be hugely important. More recently she has worked on significant research projects at both ends of the educational age range – the Great Ormond Street Hospital/UCL OPTIMUM project concerned with early development in blind or partially sighted infants, and the VICTAR Longitudinal Transitions Project concerned with Post-16 transition experiences.

We all work in a relatively small field, and as such we rely on collaboration and friendships. VICTAR and field generally have benefited greatly from Rory and Sue as individuals, but in recent years we have gained even more from them as a brilliant team.  Their complementary areas of expertise are amazing and have helped us glue together important strands of research and teacher training in the field of vision impairment education. This is also enhanced by a quality they share – both are superb spoken and written communicators. This has been clearly illustrated through their contributions to writing in our field.

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Sue and Rory and other members of the Longitudinal Transition Study steering group

Good luck next stage of your lives – I’m sure that will involve some continued working together here at the University and through your planned work with VIEW. I hope it will also involve some well-earned time to relax!

With very best wishes and thanks from all at the University of Birmingham.

Graeme Douglas