Surviving education as a blind or visually impaired student- By Holly Tuke

This time of year always reminds me of my own journey in education, right from the start of primary school and all the way through to university. I remember the anxious wait for my GCSE and A level results, and the mix of emotions of moving onto the next chapters of my life. I often find myself reflecting on my time in education around this time of year.

I attended mainstream school, and then went onto university.
My time in education was a bit of a rollercoaster, but I got through it and came out with the grades I worked so hard for. I guess that you could say that both the good and bad experiences really set me up for life, and helped shape me into the person I am now.

People are often shocked when I tell them that I went through mainstream education and university, but there’s no reason why blind and visually impaired students can’t do this.

There’s no doubt about it, education is challenging, possibly even more so if you have a vision impairment or any other disability. We all find it tough and that’s okay, it’s completely natural, so know that you’re not alone.

Your disability shouldn’t hold you back from achieving. With the right adjustment, adaptions and support, you can succeed and get the grades you want just like your sighted peers.

There were many times when I felt like my vision impairment would stop me from getting the grades I wanted, or from getting my degree, but I jumped over the hurdles and got through the challenges.

I learnt some valuable tips and lessons about surviving education as a blind or visually impaired student, so I want to share some of them with you.

Remember that there is support available

Support is available to you, no matter what stage of education you’re in. This may include support from Teaching Assistants, QTVI (Qualified Teacher of vision impairment), or from your teachers or tutors. Don’t forget that your friends and family will always be there to offer support whenever you need it.
Specialist assistive technology and equipment can also support you in all aspects of your learning as well.

Be honest with others about how they can help you

Throughout my time in education, especially during my three years at university, I was often asked “how can we help you?”
People genuinely wanted to help in any way they could, and make things accessible for me.
If you’re talking to someone about how they can help or assist you, then tell them exactly what you need. Similarly, if you don’t need any help then tell them that. Always be honest.
Asking for help doesn’t take away your independence, it often adds to it!

Always speak up

If something isn’t going right or not working for you, then it is so important to speak up and make other people aware of the situation.
Talking to your parents, a teacher you trust, speaking to your Teaching Assistant, or asking your friends for advice can often help. Never bottle things up or feel bad for advocating for yourself.
If something isn’t accessible or you’re struggling, then there are people that can help you. They genuinely want to help, so always remember that.

Make use of Assistive Technology and equipment

I may be biased here as I love all things assistive tech, but I also know how much of a difference it can make.
I couldn’t have got through education without the technology I used, it made some of the most difficult tasks a lot easier. As a blind person, technology enables me to do so many things.
You may feel different to your sighted peers when using the software and equipment, but think about the benefits of using it, and how it can enrich your learning.

Never feel bad for asking for materials in an accessible format

If you need presentations, documents, books, diagrams or other materials in accessible formats then that’s okay. Having materials in an accessible format makes a huge difference, so never be afraid to ask for it. Accessibility is key!

Stay organised

You probably hear this all the time, but organisation really is key.
Staying organised helps you manage your workload, helps you get that ‘work life balance’ and means that you can pace yourself if you need to.
Everyone has their own ways of staying organised, so find a way that works for you and stick to it. It could be putting things in the calendar app on your phone, or making use of braille or large print, whatever works best for you.

Learn those ‘blindness skills’

Learning skills such as using a cane, independent living skills, braille and assistive technology sets you up for the future.
Learning skills relating to your vision impairment can be a bit of a whirlwind and a journey in itself, you may wonder why you have to do it whilst all your friends aren’t, but think about the positive aspects such as how it will be beneficial for your future.
You may think it isn’t fair, but you will look back on it in years to come and be so glad you took the opportunity and stuck with it.

Remember the following saying: those who mind don’t matter, those who matter don’t mind

It’s almost a given that you will meet people that don’t understand your vision impairment, people who treat you differently because of it, but you will also meet people that love you for who you are and love your vision impairment just as much as they love you. Those positive, loyal and caring people are the ones that you need in your life, so hold onto them.

When I was younger, I came across people that didn’t want to be friends with me because I’m blind, although that hurt at the time, they weren’t worth it. I found my people and I am now surrounded by the most amazing and supportive group of friends.

You will come across people that will try and get you down, people will judge, make silly comments, but focus your energy on those that matter.

Find your true self

Education is often centred around academia, whilst that is the main aspect and the main thing that gets you those all important grades, your time in education is so much more than lessons and homework.
As well as learning the curriculum, you’ll also learn a lot about yourself. You will grow as a person and develop into an amazing young adult.

Take care of yourself

We all feel the pressure and stress at times, and there are moments when it might get too much. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, then take a step back and prioritise yourself. You are the most important thing.
Remember that point about organisation? If you stay organised and on top of everything, then you can take some time for yourself and maintain that work life balance.
Do the things you enjoy. Take some time out to spend some quality time with your friends and make memories you’ll treasure for years to come.

And finally, the most important thing? Never be anyone but yourself!

I hope those tips and life lesson or two thrown into the mix have been useful.
Education might be tough, but it will also be rewarding. Keep your head held high, and be proud of yourself.

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