Top Tips for Starting University

For the past seven years I have had the privilege of working with a group of young people with visual impairment, following the various transitions that they have made since leaving school. For over half this has included making the transition into university.

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.

Student working at computer

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.

Students at a university campus

Take responsibility.

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.

For further advice I recommend looking at our ‘Starting University’ guidance which can be found on the RNIB website.

If you have any additional advice you would like to share, please feel free to do so in the comments below!

Rachel Hewett

Let’s Grow Together: promoting the inclusion of children with disabilities in identifying appropriate assessment measures

In this month’s blog, Paul Lynch talks about his ESRC/DfID funded project ‘Let’s Grow Together’ which is looking at promoting greater inclusion of children with disabilities in ECD centres in rural Malawi.

Setting the Scene

Since 2014 the UN, through its Sustainable Development Goals, has begun to prioritise early childhood development seeking to ‘ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education’. There is overwhelming evidence showing that high-quality Early Child Development (ECD) programmes benefit all children’s development, life experiences and life chances. But in what contexts are young children with disabilities supported; and prepared for primary education?

Children with disabilities don’t always follow the same pathways as ‘typically’ developing children. They often need support and guidance that address the more practical skills needed for their daily environment; their situation compounded by social status, gender and health conditions – and yet they are often expected to comply with rules, routines and subject-based curricula. It is these complexities which form the basis of this current research project.

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The research

Let’s Grow Together is a collaborative project between University of Birmingham, University of Liverpool, Sightsavers, University of Malawi (Chancellor College), Arizona State University, Anthrologica, Association of Early Childhood Development Malawi, and Save the Children which builds upon previous research partnerships in Malawi. The project seeks to promote the inclusion of children with disabilities through the adaptation of assessment tools, as well as teaching curricula and teaching methods in a rural district of Southern Malawi.

The complexities

Currently, there are no reliable assessments to measure ‘school-readiness’ of children attending Community Based Child Care Centres (CBCCs) including children with disabilities in Malawi. This is a big problem when trying to measure emerging and developing pre-school skills of young children, particularly for those who will be entering primary school.

Early results indicate that a high proportion children in each of the ECD centres assessed (over half of 44 centres) are unable to perform the most basic pre-literacy ‘school-readiness’ tasks such as hold a book in the correct way or recognise 10 letters of the alphabet. When children are assessed on a pre-literacy task – such as holding a book correctly – this relies on the children having had exposure to print, pictures and books meaning that children who have little or no access to books won’t perform well in the assessment, including children with disabilities.

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Quality vs Outcomes

International organisations and national governments expect ‘high quality’ ECD, but there are issues around standards (e.g. set at an international, national or local level) and how they have been validated. So, there is a dilemma, should governments, like Malawi, enforce regulations that promote quality, but don’t have the resources to assure adequate inspection and monitoring. Or should the focus be on child outcomes and/or on other outcomes such as staff performance or on accessible and adequate resources that promote child development or levels of interaction and involvement of parents with staff?

All these aspects are very important for children with disabilities and their families but also for all children. This project hopes to respond to these important questions, ultimately having a strong impact on the development and learning of children with disabilities in Malawi and beyond.

Paul Lynch

VIEW Conference: 16th & 17th March 2017

The annual VIEW Conference was held in Birmingham with a great line up of presenters. VIEW is a professional membership association for Qualified Teachers of children and young people with vision impairment. Teachers from all around the UK were in attendance for the two day event, which included presentations from VICTAR’s Graeme Douglas and Mike McLinden.

This artwork was created by students at RNIB College Loughborough. The picture is of an eye against a background made up of old Braille pages. The outline of the eye is made up of black and white photos of staff and students’ eyes.  The pupil is made up of different coloured tactile collage segments. The iris is a concave mirror. It is going to be displayed at RNIB’s centre in Judd Street, London.

Reza Kiani presented on the topic ‘Association of autism with sensory impairments in young people and adults with autism’. In his presentation Reza highlighted that sensory issues are common in adults with intellectual disabilities. He also noted that there is a high chance of missing a sensory impairment and ASD in young people and adults with an intellectual disability if no objective tools are used. His take home message was to “always raise the concerns early on”.

Peter White BBC journalist gave a most interesting and thought provoking presentation of his lived experience of being blind, attending a specialist residential school for the blind and working in a predominantly sighted work place. Peter shared clips from a recent BBC radio broadcast, ‘Too Many Helping Hands’ (which also featured Graeme Douglas), including a clip from one young blind student who gave examples of ways in which the “inclusive” activities of the school she attended were not true of the “real world”.

Rachel Pilling and Yvonne Smith spoke about their study ‘Now they See it Now they Don’t’. This project has considered the benefits of traditional vision assessments in special schools, through consultation with teachers, parents and other stakeholders.

Naomi Dale provided an update on the Optimum VI project. This is a research study which aims to learn more about the early development of babies and young children with visual impairment, and also how different methods of early intervention and care might influence this early development. Much of the data was still under wraps, however what Naomi did share was the positive input from parents who have young children with congenital vision impairments involved in the research. The outcomes will be available in the public arena shortly.

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Mike McLinden presents on: “‘Access to Learning-Learning to Access’ – Analysing the distinctive role of specialist teachers of children and young people with vision impairments”

Mike McLinden addressed the topic of what is the role of the QTVI. This included consideration of the new training standards, new policy context and our historical understanding of what specialist teachers should do. As a vehicle for this discussion he drew upon a model developed by VICTAR: the ‘Access to learning and learning to access’ model.

Graeme Douglas presented with Nikki Chowdry from the Department for Education on the topic “Preparing for Adulthood”. Their presentation addressed the role of the QTVIs in the context of the new Code of Practice, and drew upon various research activities within VICTAR, including the Longitudinal Transitions Study. The audience gave interesting thoughts and reflections on the opportunities and challenges offered by the new SEND legislation.

Threaded through the conference along with the main presentations above, were a series of workshops that delegates could select from. The two day professional conference was facilitated well by Rory Cobb and Suzy McDonald. It was Suzy’s final conference, after many years of true commitment to the field of vision impairment. Rory and the delegates thanked Suzy for all her work for the sector over the years.

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VIEW Chair – Rory Cobb

Jane Thistlethwaite

Transition to Adulthood: Launch of End of Phase 2 report for the Longitudinal Transitions Study

Transition to Adulthood

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.

You can get a full overview of our findings from the summary report (including an alternative version in MS Word), but here’s a brief overview:

Experience of transitions

  • 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.
  • In contrast, braille is highly valued by those young people who have learned it, as is accessible mainstream technology.

Support available to young people

  • 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.

Rachel Hewett