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Advocating for Yourself and Overcoming the Challenges of STEMM Study
Maymunah, 20, has Coats disease with no useful vision in one eye and limited central vision in the other. She began studying Psychology at the University of Birmingham in 2020.
When deciding what to study at university, Maymunah did not let the fact Psychology is a STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) subject, stop her from following her passion.
Here she shares her story of how she approached the unique and ordinary challenges of STEMM study.
The jump to university
When Maymunah arrived at university, the biggest difference she noticed was the way she accessed support. The one-to-one support she left behind at school and college was replaced with a need to be more proactive.
She already had the experience of advocating for herself during her time at college, a skill which came in very useful at university.
“You have to stand up for yourself and your rights. Make sure things are accessible for you and tell people what support you need”.
Self-advocacy is communicating what support you need in your education to your school, college or university.
Universities have a legal duty to provide the support you need in your studies, but this will not always happen. Preparing yourself for those moments where you don’t receive the right support, will help you with your confidence further down the road.
“Self-advocating at college was good practice for overcoming challenges at university. The step up was a shock but not too much of a shock. It is still quite scary but as you gain more experience, your confidence grows”.
Maymunah suggests as practice, to ask your support worker(s) at school or college to step back until you tell them what support you need and how you want it delivered.
Maymunah studied Psychology at school and college so knew how course content would be delivered and the type of content she would need support accessing. In preparation for the start of her university studies, she took steps to put support in place to meet the higher workload and complex content expected when studying Psychology at degree level.
“Trying to get Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) sorted was a big thing. My QTVI at college was very helpful because she sat down with me and wrote a plan of stuff I use currently and equipment I could benefit from at university”.
Through working with her Qualified Teacher of Children and Young People with Vision Impairment (QTVI), she was well prepared for discussing her support needs with her DSA needs assessor.
Due to the evidence required in Psychology coursework, Maymunah and her QTVI identified studying a STEMM subject at university would require a greater reliance on maths and reading of journal articles.
“When I expressed interest in studying Psychology, my QTVI said I can expect to be doing a lot of maths, equations, tables, and graphs but that conversation did not go much further. My QTVI knew that any challenges around maths on my course would not stop me because I have always been quite driven”.
She believes that although there will always be challenges you cannot prepare for, with the right planning, your passion for the subject will drive you the rest of the way. It is better to study a subject you love, despite the challenges, than to study a less interesting subject because it will feel easier.
Having the difficult conversations
At the start of each term, Maymunah emailed her module leaders to remind them of her access needs, but on occasion, she would need to arrange additional support to address new challenges.
“Having conversations when these challenges arose was really important. Letting people know what you are struggling with is the first step to sorting things out. The issue won’t go away and will get worse if you don’t tell anyone”.
She recalls her experience with SPSS. This is a widely used statistical software which has a history of poor accessibility for blind and partially sighted users, especially those using screen readers.
The one-to-one support she received in her first year to use SPSS did not prepare her for the larger statistical outputs it produced in her second year. Her limited vision meant she got tired of trying to interpret and analyse the key areas of these larger outputs.
In light of this, she took the important step and reached out to her module lead. They turned out to have experience supporting blind and partially sighted students to access data in alternative formats.
“Instead of having to interpret these massive outputs in SPSS, the module lead condensed the information so she would only give me the areas I really needed to look at. She put all the tables into Word documents which made it accessible with my screen reader and magnification”.
“Even though there will be those who will not understand your needs, if you keep speaking out, you will find someone who does. In the end, the access challenges were overcome because I had those conversations and now, I am doing really well in Psychology”.
Maymunah’s top reading tips
During her studies, Maymunah often faced documents which were long or inaccessible. She shares her top tips for navigating this reading.
- Request reading materials for lectures be uploaded to a digital platform in advance of the lecture.
- Prioritise what you read. Be selective in your reading list, you do not need to read everything. Focus on essential reading and on topics you did not understand in your lectures.
- When searching for journal articles, read the journal’s abstract to guide you to sections of importance to help find key points more effectively.
- Reach out to your university’s Digitisation Team or Library services if the reading you need to access is in an inaccessible format. You can ask for headings to be added to help you navigate the text.
- If you need text in an accessible format faster than a digitisation team can produce, it is a good idea to have your own conversion software. This kind of software can be provided through DSA.
You can do it
When asked what advice she would give others considering studying STEMM at university, Maymunah said:
“Don’t let the fact it’s a science and there is a lot of maths put you off. With the right initiative, mindset and support network you can achieve great things”.
Rowan Stansfield recently completed her degree in Costume Construction at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Rowan is visually impaired, with a passion for sewing and clothes design. Read her story.Find out more about 'Rowan’s Story: Learning a Craft'