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Alex’s Story: Accessibility at College
“Colleges need to ask their students what they need and then provide it”
Alex Ulysses is in her final year of Sports and Exercise Science level 3 at Bromley College in south-east London. Alex is also a member of Thomas Pocklington Trust’s Young Voices volunteering group. This is her advice.
At college, Alex experienced a lack of access to technology when she started and repeatedly had to battle with inaccessible learning materials and exams throughout her course.
She has the sight conditions Aniridia which, makes her highly sensitive to bright light, as well as Nystagmus, Glaucoma and short term memory issues. She can see neither close detail nor distance – so needs alternative formats for content shown on whiteboards, online learning and handouts.
We caught up with Alex to find out about her experiences as a blind/partially sighted student in a mainstream college.
She explains that her first hurdle was getting the accessible technology she needed. This was not set up when she started and took four months to be resolved. This put her behind other students in her classes right from the start.
As there was no device for her when she started, she brought an old and slow laptop with her that she had used in her secondary school. It took the IT staff two months to properly download the app that she had on her device onto the tutors’ computers. This was essential for her to see what was being shown on the interactive board. This put her back in her lessons right from the start.
Her tutors, who had previously worked with two vision impaired students, printed out PowerPoints for the beginning of each lesson so she had a copy of what her classmates could see on the interactive whiteboard. But these thick piles of paper were often in the wrong order or were missing sections.
When the device finally got set up she found she still could not connect due to no actual internet in the classroom. Her Learning Support Assistant (LSA) would have to run to the IT department to get them to install some sort of internet in the room each time. Obviously, she missed parts of the class while this was being installed.
After a year and a quarter into her course, at the start of 2021, the college provided Alex with a touch screen laptop. Alex said:
“This was easy and quick to set up and everything’s working perfectly now. I just wish everything was like this at the start of my college year and not towards the end where I’d be leaving in around 5-6 months”.
But then came the second lockdown! And that’s where the inaccessible virtual lessons started.
She often has to attend lectures on Zoom. Learning materials presented in these sessions are not accessible to her – nor are they sent to her in advance. This means she does not have the same opportunity to read the content as the other students.
For Alex to be able to see the learning materials – they need to be in large font text on A4 paper. Repeatedly she has to ask for this. This has loaded additional stress to her – especially when one of her exam papers didn’t arrive in this format.
The college believed that if they just enlarge the paper size to A3, it will enlarge the font enough for her. It didn’t. she said:
“The font still looked tiny. People think if we enlarge the paper, the print will enlarge. For a visually impaired person it’ll look just the same.
“I did not manage to finish the exam. There was a lot of strain on my eyes because of the small print. I developed a headache half an hour into the exam which meant I was unable to fully complete it”.
Teachers at her college have taught partially sighted students before – so are more aware than many colleges. Yet, it took a long time to ensure she could receive material on large paper in a large font.
Technical issues continued this year when the rooms changed for her lectures. It took a month to get Alex’s device connected to her tutors’ computer again.
When asked what she would like college to change she said:
“If they know a vision impaired student is coming to the college, make sure all of their assistive tech is set up in advance.
“Ask the student what they need, ie large size print or braille, and then provide these resources in the format they need. Ask them from the start without the student having to tell them repeatedly that they need this.
“It adds so much additional stress to visually impaired students to not know if they will have materials in a format they can read – especially at exam time!”.
She also suggested more awareness among classmates on how they can help. She said:
“If they see a vision impaired student struggling without support, ask them if they need a hand. It would help to make friends and stop the vision impaired student always relying on the teacher”.
“The exam situation and technical problems made me feel like giving up. But I kept going because I really wanted to study and learn. I worry the exam incident is going to happen again which puts a whole load of extra stress onto me.
“But I’m going to push myself to keep going. I don’t want my visual impairment and short-term memory to hold me back from chasing my dreams”.
If you are a blind or partially sighted student with experience of attending college, we would love to hear from you! You can contact us by visiting our Student Support Service homepage.
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Our webinar discussed the pros and cons of various education technology as well as the assistive technology now available to help students orientate themselves around campus or a new town.Find out more about 'Accessible Technology for Students Webinar'