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.
In the latest report from the Longitudinal Transition Study, research participants – who are now aged between 19 and 22 – were asked to reflect back to their experiences of school and transition.
In this blog we talk about some of the things that the young people told us. What, in hindsight are the things they value about their experiences of school and the specialist support they received, and that helped them make a successful transition? And what are the things that didn’t go so well and could have been improved upon?
How well did school prepare young people for transition?
There were mixed views on how well the participants felt that they had been prepared for transition from school. Some observed that while at the time of transition they had felt well prepared, the reality of life outside school had been quite different to their expectations. Specialist support had been harder to access than they had anticipated and/or they had lacked important independent learning advocacy, and mobility skills.
The skills that young people needed for a successful transition
It was having those all important independence skills, along with the ability to self advocate, that were the key factors in whether a young person felt they were prepared for the challenges that many of them experienced following transition. It is also evident that the participants who left school without good independent learning and mobility and self advocacy skills were far less resilient and less able to cope than those who did have these skills.
“Not prepared at all! They don’t prepare you at all for university, school is a sheltered environment where A-levels are basically tick boxing and teachers are like just dictating to you what you need to know. The moment you get to uni, literally… you aren’t exactly a duck out of water, but you sit there…”
“They didn’t help with confidence or independence. They thought education was enough.”
“I was taught how to stand up for myself, I was taught how to assert myself, and I was taught to some extent what my rights were and that kind of thing, particularly at the school level…”
“[Mobility training]…was very helpful, it boosted my confidence, even now when I don’t know where I am going I do feel more confident because I know I can do it if I concentrate.”
The research also found that many participants had left school not knowing about their rights and the different types of support and funding available to them, or how to navigate this support. For example, Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) and the Access to Work scheme, or specialist careers advice. Positive accounts came from participants who had received specific transition support, e.g. through careers services or transition officers:
“I guess the one thing that I wasn’t really prepared for is that… I wasn’t really properly told how to apply for DSA straight away, so that was an issue in the first year, trying to get all of that sorted out, and it was hard to get processed. I didn’t know where to go to get the evidence I needed…”
“Very, very very prepared. I had support from Connexions people. They offered me help in terms of career pathways. That definitely helped, that’s why I chose the course I did at college.”
The role of education providers
It is the responsibility of education providers to ensure that as well as having good academic qualifications, students leave school equipped with the skills needed to make a successful transition to independent adulthood. This is made clear in the DfE’s ‘preparing for adulthood outcomes’ toolkit and the principles apply to post-school education providers too. Even confident young people with good independence and self advocacy skills have not been prepared for the lack of inclusive practice in some further and higher education institutions identified in this study.
What are we doing with all this evidence?
We have listened to what young people have told us about the information they need at the time of transition and with funding from DfE and the National Sensory Impairment Partnership (NatSIP) developed detailed guidance on going to university.
We are working with young people to create resources that can be used by VI services and schools to deliver transitions workshops for young people with VI, and to update RNIB’s current online transitions guidance and downloadable ‘Bridging the Gap’ guide for England.
Training for young people
We are sharing the research findings with professionals who support young people with VI so they understand the importance of teaching independence skills. For example, through the mandatory training for qualified teachers of children and young people with VI (QTVI), and through a ‘Learner Outcomes Framework’ which we developed with Brent sensory service and Positive Eye for NatSIP.
While starting university can be a really exciting time as you have the opportunity to move away from home, make new friends and study the course of your choice, for students with visual impairment it can also be a particularly daunting time. In this blog I draw on the shared experiences of the young people I have worked with to outline some top tips for preparing for university.
Give yourself plenty of time.
The application process for Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) can take a long time – particularly if suppliers need to source very specialist equipment. Make contact with the support service at your university in advance so you can start working together to outline any specific adjustments which the university may need to make.
Think about what you need.
Before meeting with a needs assessor for DSA spend some time thinking and researching about how you want to approach your studies at university: what support and equipment will you need in place to achieve this? Before meeting with the university support service consider what adjustments you might want and how best they can support you in your studies.
Talk to other students.
University can be very different from sixth form or college. Teaching often takes place in large lecture rooms and there is a particular focus on independent study. To get a better understanding of what university is like, talk to friends or family members who have already been, or ask the student representatives you meet at open days.
One of the main findings from our research is that universities view their students as adults, expecting them to take responsibility as such. It is inevitable that there will be some teething problems as you make the initial transition into university as staff learn how best to support you, and you learn more about the adjustments you need. However the onus is on you to let staff know if you are experiencing problems or if things aren’t quite as you would like them.
Embrace all aspects of university life.
One of the great things about university is the opportunity to meet new people and to get involved in different clubs and societies. Take advantage of Fresher’s events to learn more about what is on offer. Talk to your university about how they can support you with this. For example, some universities have volunteers who can act as sighted guides for Fresher’s events or to help facilitate people in attending societies.
Transition to Adulthood: Launch of End of Phase 2 report for the Longitudinal Transitions Study
We have just launched a new summary report to mark the end of phase 2 of the Longitudinal Transitions Study. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this research study, the project was first instigated by RNIB (Phase 1 2010-2012) due to concerns about the low percentages of young people with visual impairment (VI) in employment in the UK. Phase 2 of the study was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, and took place between 2012 and 2015.
The study has now been running for over 7 years and during this time we have been following the experiences of a group of 80 young people with VI through various pathways such as further education, higher education, gap years, apprenticeships and employment. As a research team we are really grateful to all of the participants who give up their time to talk with us and speak so honestly about their experiences.
Young people with visual impairment follow similar transition pathways to their peers, although for several of the participants it took them longer to reach their intended destination than expected.
The transition into higher education in particular proved extremely challenging for some, leading to us working with RNIB to develop some guidance resources.
Young people with visual impairment are leaving school with limited knowledge of important services such as Access to Work, and a limited understanding of the Equality Act and the reasonable adjustments which they can expect from employers.
Preparation for independence
As the participants have got older we found that many of them did not feel prepared to live independently
Some of the participants have a limited understanding of their visual impairment as well as a limited understanding of the process of registration of sight impairment and the associated benefits.
Whilst in education young people are not making use of low vision aids, often having previously had negative experiences.
The research identified mixed levels of support available to the young people when they prepared to make transitions. A Freedom of Information Request by RNIB identified a ‘postcode’ lottery of services available for children and young people with visual impairment from local authorities in England. We will continue to observe the evolution of transition services as local authorities respond to the 2014 SEND reforms.
Thinking more broadly, as a research team we have been focusing lately on the importance of young people with visual impairment being equipped with the resources they require to make successful transitions from one setting to another. This is something which we explored further in a recent journal article. As the Longitudinal Transitions Study progresses we will be investigating how well the young people have been prepared for the new environments they are in.
If you would like to read out more about the Longitudinal Transitions Study and our plans for Phase 3 of the study, you can find our project website here. In the meantime we would love to hear your thoughts about our Phase 2 findings.