Student Support Service 1st birthday: Q&A with Alex Henderson
Alex Henderson is the newest member of the Student Support Service team and was previously TPT’s Communications Intern. Alex has a genetic condition called cone dystrophy which developed when he was around nine years old.
We caught up with him to find out a bit more about him, his time in education and his new role at Thomas Pocklington Trust.
What was your experience of going to college?
Throughout my time at secondary school, I was always trying to hide my disability from the other students; I just wanted to fit in, even if it meant that my education suffered as a result. The truth is, I cared more about it than any of my friends or classmates did; college was different.
Looking back on my time at college puts a big smile on my face as it was one of the best periods of my life so far. College was a big turning point for me; I discovered that I was more academic than I had previously given myself credit for. I enjoyed the greater independence and responsibility, and I had a big circle of friends.
My support at Sixth Form was excellent; I had support workers who would take notes and help me in class if needed. They didn’t always sit next to me, which helped me feel less self-conscious about it. I still received my class materials in enlarged print on A3 paper and received special arrangements for exams such as having a separate room, extra time, and a support worker.
I think it helped that my college already knew about my vision impairment and what support I needed. However, the most crucial factor was the change in my mindset; things changed when I dropped my negative thinking about my vision impairment and realised that everyone needs support of some kind to get to where they want to go.
What was your experience of university?
I have good memories from my time at university; I had a lot of fun, made some great friends, and grew as a person. The university supported me well with my studies; I had a notetaker for all my lectures, optional extra time for assignments, and special arrangements for exams. Most of our course work was provided to us in electronic format via the Blackboard platform (no more A3 enlargements!). Working in electronic format really helped me as it meant that I could modify the materials myself rather than struggling with enlarged photocopies.
I had grown more comfortable with using assistive technology and was using the Zoomtext magnification software on my computer. I also had a range of other helpful equipment such as a CCTV device which I used to read printed materials. This equipment, along with my computer were provided thanks to Disabled Students’ Allowance.
In the end, I achieved a 1st in my degree, a result that I was not expecting but am very proud of. I would not have been able to get that result if I did not have the right support along the way.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I really enjoy the feeling I get when I know I have helped a student to overcome a challenge they have been facing. It is very satisfying to know I am making a positive impact on peoples’ lives.
Why do you think your role is important?
Education is such a crucial factor in allowing people to reach their full potential and live their best possible life. This can be especially true if, like me, you have a vision impairment. Unfortunately, there are many barriers and challenges blind and partially sighted students face in their education. That is why our service exists; to provide support to help ensure students have the chance to get to where they want to be.
What tips do you have for other blind and partially sighted people?
Embrace your vision impairment as much as you can!
As soon as I stopped seeing my disability as a problem, everything became easier, it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t have to hide, feel embarrassed or trapped. I was able to start exploring my options fully, finding the best support for me, pursue the life I wanted.
Get the best support and equipment
I know from my own experience I spent a lot of time not using the support and technology that was available to me because I just wanted to fit in. I used to just ‘make do’ with solutions that were not the best fit for my needs, such as making text sizes larger in Windows, when I could have been using magnification software like Zoomtext. This is something I often see from students I support, and I understand. However, I cannot emphasise enough how important getting the right support during your studies is; it can be an absolute game-changer! There is so much great assistive technology and support out there that can help with any problem.
Don’t take anything off the table
I believe that when it comes to education and life in general, nothing is impossible – challenges are there to be overcome. Growing up I had a pretty narrow view of what was possible for me as someone who had a vision impairment, I tended to focus on all the things I couldn’t do or thought I couldn’t do. But none of that was true. I used to think my disability created problems that were like brick walls, I couldn’t get through them. One of the things I learnt through my studies, is that challenges are more like gates, you just have to figure out how to open them. Don’t rule anything out, you might be surprised at what is possible.
The Student Support line will soon be manned two day per week. Why is this important?
I am very excited about this – it will provide an opportunity to support students when they need us most. I get a real buzz out of helping people to overcome their challenges, and it is much easier to do this when you can speak with them. There were plenty of times during my educational journey where I would have benefited from a service like ours, especially knowing that I could pick up the phone and have a chat with someone who understood what I was experiencing.
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