“You shouldn’t have to fight this hard just to get an education”
Progressing through college and into the early stages of a career can be difficult for any young person, but what if that young person also has to contend with an uphill battle throughout this journey because they are blind or partially sighted (BPS)?
Earlier this year we supported a student who faced a number of struggles during their studies at school and college.
Daniel* has a rare eye condition which primarily affects his distance sight and causes fluctuations in his near sight. It is a condition which can deteriorate over time and requires regular monitoring.
The fight begins
Daniel’s challenges with education started at secondary school. He had to continually battle just to be able to access his learning. He would have to explain about his vision impairment, how it impacted him and ask for the appropriate adaptions over and over again. This is an experience many BPS learners go through, and it can be draining and stressful. At times when Daniel was struggling to get his teachers to adapt class materials, he gave up asking because he was so tired of having to do it.
The turning point came when Daniel’s mum, Anna, presented a letter of complaint to the school principal in large print, to help illustrate Daniel’s struggles.
The principal gave Anna her contact information and asked her to contact them every time Daniel failed to receive his class materials in the right format. Anna replied: “I’ll be phoning you every day then!”.
Anna contacted the principal each day, for two weeks, because Daniel’s class materials continued to be inaccessible. After this, things began to change. Teachers realised they had to adapt his class materials or be held to account.
This had a crucial impact on Daniel’s remaining time at the school. He was now able to concentrate on learning rather than fighting just to access it.
“When you’re getting that support and you start to feel more comfortable in what you’re doing, that stress is gone. It allows you to concentrate on what you should be focusing on”, Daniel.
New college, same problems
In 2018, Daniel started a course in accountancy.
Again, Daniel faced challenges accessing his studies and had to continually reiterate to teaching staff his support requirements even though they had been made aware of them when he enrolled. After three months the college finally met with Daniel to put a support plan in place. But the same issues continued.
Daniel and his mum observed a lack of clear procedure and poor communication amongst the staff involved. There was very little involvement from the college’s disability support, Anna said:
“The teachers were left on their own. There was no ownership [from the disability/learning support team] whatsoever”.
Making learning accessible is the responsibility of everyone involved in educating a student. It is crucial all staff have the knowledge and support to do this. Daniel and Anna believe a lack of guidance and support for teaching staff at the college played a key role in the problems.
“If the teachers do not feel supported and do not know where to turn for help, they can end up struggling and then put the blame for the situation on the student”, Anna.
As Daniel’s studies progressed and the problems persisted, his teachers became resistant to meeting his support needs.
“The teachers were so dismissive. Instead of accepting what they were doing wrong, they would rather push it back to the student. It became quite nasty.
“It actually felt like it was too much work for them. They tried to make it as difficult as possible, be as awkward as possible, so in the end you go ’it is not worth it’ and you give in”, Daniel.
Thomas Pocklington Trust has created practical guidance to help colleges make learning accessible.
The exams for Daniel’s accountancy course were administered by external exam boards. Daniel was unable to sit his first exam because the college did not inform the exam board of his access requirements. He had to re-take it later in the year.
He continued to experience problems after the exam board was made aware of his requirements. The exam platform was incompatible with the assistive technology Daniel (and many other BPS people) use.
Due to these accessibility issues, the exam board told Daniel he must use a reader/scribe. He argued that this wasn’t a reasonable adjustment as he is not accustomed to this type of support and it would put him at a disadvantage.
Daniel’s exams were delayed which led to his course modules overlapping, forcing him to juggle multiple modules at the same time, increasing his workload and putting him under stress.
“With all the mess ups with my exams, at times I felt like I might as well leave the apprenticeship, things were just so ridiculous.
“It started to make me re-think whether a career in accounts was possible for me”, Daniel.
The time and energy to fight
Daniel’s studies took twice as long for him to complete than other students due to the continual issues he faced. Throughout this time Daniel’s mum, played a vital role in fighting his case and trying to engage with the college and exam boards to get him the support he needed.
Anna spoke about the amount of time and energy it takes to fight for a young person’s education when the school or college is not meeting its obligations:
“It’s tiring. It really gets you down, to the point where you actually feel like giving up”.
Anna spent hours compiling correspondence, gathering information, making phone calls and writing letters. She felt she had to do this so Daniel could focus on his studies, she said:
“If you’re working and trying to educate yourself, that is enough, let alone having to send over 150 emails. You need to concentrate on work and your exams”.
Finally being heard
For things to improve, it took the involvement of a more senior member of college staff, who was reviewing the case through the college’s complaints process. This individual recognised the failings of the college, was willing to hold them accountable and take action to resolve the issues. Until this point, the college had responded dismissively to Daniel and Anna’s multiple complaints.
“When I received the reply, because it came from a level of understanding and accepting that Daniel had been mistreated, I read it, and I cried.
“I was relieved that finally someone got it. Daniel was believed and understood. They accepted their deficiencies and what he had gone through”, Anna.
The college has said that they will be changing their procedures as a result.
Daniel has completed his course, passing with a 95% grade. Despite the issues he had to overcome, he feels positive about the future. He has secured a new job, working in accountancy and hopes to study for the next level of his accountancy qualification. He is concerned, however, about the inaccessibility of the exam process.
“I’d like to say the experience hasn’t dragged me down, but this kind of situation will affect you. It was a terrible two years. But I’m looking forward to my new job and hoping that it will be different”.
Daniel and Anna’s advice
“If the support isn’t good enough you have to speak up. If the work isn’t accessible, pass it back to the teacher and tell them that it needs to be in the correct size, colour, etc. Don’t accept it. Don’t struggle on because it’s easier than speaking up”, Daniel.
“Nag, nag some more, and when you feel you’ve not nagged enough, keep on nagging until they get sick of you”, Anna.
Anna believes that colleges can be hesitant to reach out for support, her advice for them is to:
“You don’t have to do it alone, they [sight loss organisations] are there to help”.
If you are a student, parent/carer or education professional who would like our support, please get in touch! You can contact us at email@example.com, or call us on 0203 757 8040.
*Names have been changed as they did not want to prejudice their relationship with the college going forward.
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