For the past couple of days I have noticed quite a few of my friends have shared on social media the story of a young man with a severe visual impairment who came to the UK as a refugee and moved into a council estate.
When thinking about these key demographics, you could definitely say that the odds have been stacked against him in life, but despite this he has just graduated from University of Cambridge with a First Class Law degree.
What has struck me is that when reporting this story, the media have focused so heavily on his visual impairment, even in the context of the other barriers that he has faced in life. This has led me to consider how many of the young people that I have been working with would respond to this message. Undoubtedly they would recognise the young man’s achievement, as they would for any other student. However, at the same time I know they would be frustrated at the perceptions being highlighted by the media reaction; that is so ‘extraordinary’ for a person with visual impairment to perform so highly.
As part of my research for the Longitudinal Transitions Study I have followed the experiences of almost 40 young people with visual impairment during higher education (HE). It is true to say that many of the young people have experienced considerable challenges in accessing their courses and university life in general. However it is important to note that in many cases these challenges should already have been overcome through HE institutions offering an inclusive learning experience.
HE institutions are required by the Equality Act to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled students to ensure that they are not at a disadvantage in comparison to their non-disabled peers. Importantly these adjustments should be ‘anticipatory’, thus requiring institutions to plan in advance to remove barriers, and not simply in response to challenges faced by a particular student. For example, in the case of a student with visual impairment often anticipatory adjustments can be as simple as ensuring that lecture notes are made available in advance of lectures in a format that is compatible with their assistive technology. Alternatively it may involve the institution making timetables available in advance which can enable a student with visual impairment to be taught routes to get to lectures independently and for reading lists to be provided in sufficient time to request accessible copies of textbooks.
Of course there are cases where the barriers faced can be more complex, such as the need to put in place adjustments to ensure that a student can take part in practical sessions or be able to use a particular piece of software. However, the experiences of the young people taking part in the Longitudinal Transitions Study testify that, providing the institution and student work together, such barriers can be overcome.
Lastly, and as we often remark in the Inclusive Curriculum Committee that I sit on, inclusive practice benefits the student population as a whole! Providing lecture notes in advance of lectures gives all students the option of reviewing slides before lectures and having copies of notes in front of them. Lecture capture means that all students can go back and revisit lectures while they prepare for their exam. Whilst well-structured virtual learning environments mean that all students can navigate online content more smoothly to identify the information that they need.
If you would like to know more about the experiences of our participants in higher education, please check out our summary report. Alternatively if you are a student with visual impairment preparing to go into higher education, you may be interested in these resources we developed with RNIB.