Kasia talks about how the quality of access support varies greatly from university to university, and the impact this has on being able to live the life you choose.
Education is said to be “a stepping stone” towards one’s career. Unfortunately, to a disabled person, it often becomes more of a slippery stone. There are a few university rankings that are widely available, with those from the Guardian and the Times being the most often quoted. Sadly, there is no ranking system available that would rate quality of support available to student with access needs. Far too often disabled students choose a university where it is guaranteed they will receive appropriate support rather than a university with better teaching that can also offer better chances of employment. The quality of access support varies greatly from university to university.
I myself experienced different levels of support. They varied from very poor to excellent.
The quality of support I received was very poor
A few years ago, I started a Postgraduate course at one of London’s universities. I was still sighted at that time. I then returned a year later as a student with a visual impairment having been diagnosed with a brain tumour too late to prevent my sight loss.
I had to cope with sight impairment while learning access technology and new ways of studying. I used to rely heavily on my visual memory. The quality of support I received was very poor. It was limited to assigning me support workers. I kept getting the same people despite expressing my dissatisfaction. I was told by a Disability Support Officer (DSO) on one occasion that a support worker is my eyes and I should know how to use a search engine. Later on, I was told that the DSO was making faces and rolled her eyes whilst talking to me.
In order to complete my studies, I had to submit a final dissertation. My supervisor contacted the Disability Department and asked for someone to transcribe audio recordings. I was assigned one person but when I asked for an additional transcriber, I was told that a meeting was required to establish my support needs, as unfortunately, they were not aware. That was despite them being told directly by my supervisor what I required.
I ended up making a formal complaint against the DSO. This improved the quality of her work slightly but unfortunately not for long. The whole experience was very difficult and challenging.
I consider graduating from that university with a good grade to be the greatest achievement of my life.
More recently I tried to do a Human Resources course at a local college of further education. The course has a CIPD (Charted Institute of Personnel and Development) accreditation. The whole course consists of three levels with the most advanced being at a postgraduate level. I did all that was required of me to be assigned to the right group. I submitted a case study and filled in all the necessary forms. It all took time and effort. I was initially told by their DSO that I will be given access to electronic copies of books that I would require. However, later on I was told something completely different. On the top of that, the course leader informed me that she had never had a student that required learning materials electronically. She had students with sight impairment who were able to access large print. I certainly wasn’t made feel welcome. Instead I felt discouraged and disheartened by the whole process and the attitude of the staff in the college. Suffice to say, I decided not to go ahead with the course.
I will never willingly put myself in this situation again
A few years later I did another course at a different university. It was a private university. The experience couldn’t have been more different. They were fantastic. They just couldn’t do enough. All that despite the fact that I wasn’t entitled to Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) funding. They had a designated librarian who I could contact for any book I required. She would then write to a respective publisher in order to obtain electronic copies of books. They organised orientation walks for me in the campus. They were always there for me whenever I required any support. They were absolutely brilliant!
At the end of September this year I’m starting a PG Diploma in Media, Campaigning and Social Change at the University of Westminster. I attended an open day this Summer. Everything has been made as accessible to me as possible. This includes the application process. The course leader put me in touch with a current student who also has a sight impairment. The student couldn’t be happier with the level of support he received.
It is important to know what to expect. During my first course after my eye sight had deteriorated, I didn’t know what support I was entitled to. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what to ask for. It certainly helps to know what access technology is available out there. You then know what to ask for. Events such as Sight Village that are organised in a few major cities in the UK are worth visiting. Attending various events is always beneficial if not to find out about access technology, then to learn about everything else. You just never know.
There is no doubt that there should be equal access to education for everyone. Society can lose out on a lot of talent.
We know there is still work to do until all disabled people enjoy equality and fairness, with digital and assistive technology playing a huge part in this. We all need to work together to change society for the better.
There’s something everyone can do to be a Disability Gamechanger so get involved in the campaign today to end this inequality.