Preparing for university for students with vision impairment

Post date: 
Tuesday, 11 July 2017
Photo of Lauren in a cafe

Staff from RNIB College Loughborough and ex-students Lauren and Bilal share their tips on how young people with vision impairment (VI) can prepare for higher education.

Lauren: “Preparing for higher education can be super scary. Whether you're moving into residential accommodation or staying at home, there are some big changes heading your way. New students, new staff, new buildings – you get the idea.
“But, how do I know you can get through it? About a year ago, I was in the same position as you. UCAS and student finance were my enemies. If you aren't at that point yet, don't worry – just remember to write down all your passwords and other information when you are.
“So, here are some ideas to help you prepare for university.”

Researching potential universities

Lauren: “So, you know what you want to study and you've chosen a course. Fantastic! Now what? Make friends with Google and compile a list of universities that offer your degree choice. Be sure to read an overview of the degree each one offers – they may have the same name, but be very different.
“While you're at it, check out if they have any information on supporting students with disabilities. If you can’t find anything, don't rule them out just yet. Pick a few that look promising and take it from there.”
Bilal: “Do a Google search of other VI organisations within the local area. This may come in handy if you want to attend any leisure activities that local societies are running.”

Attending open days

College staff: “It’s important you attend any open days and welcome days – they help you get to know people before the start of term.”

Lauren: “When you arrange to attend an open day, tell them in advance about any disabilities you have. This was hard for me – I was convinced that once they found out I was blind, I would have no chance of getting an interview, let alone being accepted onto the course. Looking back at that now makes me laugh; talk about total rubbish!

“It also pays to set up a meeting with the disability support team (different unis have different names for this, so calling student services might be your best port of call). If you can, have someone else come with you – not only to be your eyes, but because there's a load of information to take in and two brains are better than one.
“Ask every question you can think of, particularly when it comes to support. For example, how would you be supported in class? Is mobility training offered at all? What about getting around campus? It might help to write questions down in advance – that way your brain won't fail when nerves kick in.”
Bilal: “It’s always best to talk to the university’s disability adviser to find out what support is available. Some halls of residence also have assistants to provide support to new students. Find out if your halls provide such a service. This can also be useful when trying to use the washing machine, microwave or oven for the first time.
“Also, speak to the students’ union about activities they can provide and make accessible for you (they have a duty to do this under the Equality Act 2010).”

Attending an interview

Lauren: “If one of the universities you've applied for invites you for an interview, you will be notified by letter or email. At which point I just want to say, ‘well done!’ They should provide you with an overview of what to expect, such as times, if you'll be in a group or if there’s a practical assessment (my uni had me write an essay as part of my interview process).

“I'm going to guess you've already had the ‘appropriate clothing’ talk, but just in case – just dress smart and you'll be fine. As for having VI, don't worry. They may ask a few more questions (they may have not met someone with VI before either), but you're in an interview which can only mean one thing – they like what they've read! So just be honest.

“If you're using public transport, check train times in advance and leave plenty of time to get there. I missed a connecting train and it was a nightmare! If possible bring cash – taxis may be life savers, but they aren't cheap.”

Accepting an offer

Lauren: “You survived the interview process and you've received an offer - congratulations! What do you do? Well... first off, there are two kinds – conditional and unconditional. This means that either your place is subject to you achieving your predicted grades (conditional) or you've got a place regardless (unconditional). Being given a place regardless is rare.
“Before accepting anything, make sure you look at the uni in detail. A list of good versus bad points might help. Look at transport links home and to the shops. Support is also a big one. Go with your instincts as much as possible.
“You'll probably also have to attend a meeting to discuss what you will need in terms of support. Pretty please be totally honest – if you need help with cooking and other household stuff, say so!”

Before you start

Bilal: “Every course has someone that takes charge of all disability-related issues. It’s useful if you familiarise yourself with the person for your course. Some universities allow you to start a week earlier, check if your university offers this as an option. This can help you to familiarise yourself with your surroundings before other students arrive.

“Try and organise mobility assistance before the start of your course. This will give you a good knowledge of the local area and a head start when you begin university. It also helps to take away a bit of stress and anxiety.”

College staff: “It’s important you have mobility sessions to learn your routes and help you be as independent as possible. Talk to your mobility trainer about problems you’re facing with routes or confidence so you get the right support. Sessions will be done at your pace on what is important to you.”

Starting university

Lauren: “This is it! It’s OK to feel nervous, but honestly it won't last long – just take your time and remember to breathe. Unpack as soon as you can and try to keep as much of your stuff as possible in your room. The kitchen may feel big, but by the time everyone's unpacked, you’ll realise it's not that big at all. Be prepared to budget and quickly forget any ideas of student loans making you rich!
“Good support systems outside of uni are a must. Friends, family, whoever you have – hold on to them. Finding a local cab company also helped me feel less trapped. Friends will come in their own sweet time, there’s no rush – mine took a while but I wouldn't change them for the world.”

College staff: “Move out of your comfort zone. If you don’t talk to people first, they aren’t likely to approach you. Talk to your tutors and tell them if things aren’t in your format (and keep telling them if you need to). If you’re going to a residential university, it’s important not to stay in your room – be confident and socialise with others!”

Bilal: “Make sure you know your timetable. The university’s disability support service will usually rely on you to keep them updated with your current timetable, so it’s important you let them know about all changes as failure to do this will lead to you having no support.
“Online shopping is becoming increasingly popular and easy, and Tesco has a very accessible website that works great with JAWS. This may be something you want to consider for groceries – although I think it’s better to actually go shopping (the fresh air is good for you!)”
Lauren: “One more thing, you can do this! Just remember, be yourself and enjoy. Wishing you all the best.”

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