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Graduate Helen describes how she studied while living with sight loss

Eight people stood in a line. One of them is wearing graduation robes.

Helen Russell joined by her family.

A Swansea grandmother with sight loss has graduated from The Open University (OU) in Wales with a BSc (Hons) in Criminology and Psychology.

Helen Russell, who has cone dystrophy, works at the Ministry of Justice and began studying in 2015. She chose this degree through her work in law courts, and was encouraged by her colleagues to think about the OU.

“I was looking for answers and a better understanding of human nature, personality and links to criminology,’ says Helen. ‘The course has taught me to be more inquisitive, not to take things at face value, and not to judge.”

Finding the courage

Although Helen is now a proud graduate, she admits that she was initially worried about registering for her course.

“It took many attempted calls before I found the courage to make that call for real,’ she explains. ‘I didn’t think ‘people like me’ could study to degree level and found every excuse not to proceed.

“Whether it was allaying my fears of the examination, reasonable adjustments or offering extra time with tutors should I need it, the OU were reassuring all the way through.”

The Open University are experts in supported part time distance learning, meaning that you can choose where and when to study so that it fits around your life.

Helen was eligible for Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). Through this she was given a laptop with ZoomText, which allowed her to enlarge text on the screen and read it out. As she needed to use 36pt font, she was also given a supply of paper and printer ink, often having to print several sheets to review her work.

“The OU were so supportive from the outset,’ she says. ‘They guided me though the DSA application, informed each tutor in advance and were thorough in their guidance. I spoke over the telephone at first, then provided medical evidence, my CVI registration number and a letter from the GP. The process was seamless.”

Helen Russell using equipment from DSA.

Celebrating in Scotland

As well as the support she received to study, Helen found that The Open University’s flexibility suited her circumstances. Reflecting on her six years of study, she says she would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

Although she is from south-west Wales, Helen chose to graduate at an OU ceremony in Scotland so that she could be joined by her family.

“I travelled to Glasgow as my grandchildren wanted to see Nana graduating,” she recalls. “It was by far the proudest day of my life.”

“We’re thrilled to hear about Helen’s fantastic experience of studying with the Open University,” said RNIB Cymru Director Ansley Workman. “It is proof that, with the right support and accessibility provision, sight loss is no barrier to success. We wish Helen all the best and look forward to hearing more graduation stories from blind and partially sighted students.”

For more information about studying at university, visit

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