Learning in Later Life

“The student support team at the University of Winchester were so helpful when I applied to university. They proactively emailed me months before I was due to start my course. They offered to meet to discuss how they could support me and arranged a tour of the campus. It was a very positive experience.”

Paul is a mature student studying a computer science degree at the University of Winchester. He shares his experiences of studying in later life and how the university supported him to succeed.

Before starting university in 2019, he worked as a software developer and as a project manager for large FTSE 100 companies. He then went on to be self-employed working as a freelance consultant.

Paul has Macular dystrophy – a genetic eye condition affecting the central vision.  He was first diagnosed with it in one of his eyes at 11 years old.

He said: “All through school and early in career my vision was normal. I could drive, read and write, and recognise faces easily. I didn’t need any adjustment at that point.”

It wasn’t until in later life that Paul’s competent eye started to deteriorate.

He said: “I was registered as partially sighted until 2003, but then I was told my good eye was deteriorating and I shouldn’t drive. When I was told I could no longer drive, it was a bit of relief.

“However, I carried on working. I started to apply for vacancies in London so I could commute by train rather than driving.”

At this point his sight was slowly changing, but he was scared to admit what was happening and so kept it a secret and continued to freelance as a consultant.

He said “I had people reporting into me and I was managing large scale projects and budgets. I thought If I told people this and that it was taking me a very long time to read, they would think ‘let’s not renew his contract because there are other people that could do the job better’.

“As my sight started to change more, it was harder to recognise colleagues in the corridor and in meetings, and harder to see power point presentations. I was keeping this all to myself which wasn’t healthy.

“This is when I began to think major adjustments needed to happen in my life. At that point I saw a role at Macular Society on the telephone line which I thought would suit my needs more.”

Support at University of Winchester

This is Paul’s first experience of studying at university. He reflects on what made him think about doing a degree later in his life.

He said: “I started thinking about university when I went to my daughter in law’s graduation. I saw they offered a computer science degree which really sparked my interest.”

Paul is now about to finish his second year at university, and praises Winchester for providing so much support for him.

“The lecturers always send all the reading materials and slides in advance of any lectures. They set up an RNIB BookShare account for me, they ask lecturers for reading lists in advance of modules starting and then they create reading lists on Bookshare and download the books to my account.

The university library staff trained me on how to use their systems and offered to scan books/journals that can’t be sourced in accessible softcopy format.”


Assistive technology

To complete his work, Paul uses a mixture of screen magnification and text to speech. In lectures he uses audio note taker, which he was hesitant about to begin with but now describes it as his ‘best friend’, adding: “I use that with every lecture which makes such a huge difference.”

Because of Covid-19, Paul’s assessments so far have all been essay based. He may need to take exams in his final year, but there are procedures in place to help him with this.

He said, “If and when I have exams there is agreement in place between myself and the university. I will get extra time, I’ll be able to them on a computer and I will get regular rest breaks. The idea is to put you on a level playing field with any other student.”


How Covid-19 affected studying

Paul was in his first year of university when the pandemic hit but has adjusted well to studying remotely.

“In terms of learning I have found it easier. At home I’ve got a big wide screen monitor, I control any glare from light. I can follow Teams lectures more by using magnification software.”

But he does miss the social interactions with his course mates. “I’m lucky enough to live close to the university, so I can just commute every day, but I have preferred working at home. I do miss people and the social side when you can just go get a coffee with friends.”


What’s next after university?

Paul now has the bug for learning and would love to stay on at university.

“I was so nervous about going to university. I chose computer science as I did it in my career; I thought I had a head start with it. But now it would be great to choose something completely different like Ancient History or Archaeology. I now feel like I have the confidence to reach out of my comfort zone.”

Advice for any blind or partially sighted person thinking about university

Paul’s advice for any blind and partially sighted person thinking about going to university is: “For any person who is visually impaired, don’t let that be the reason you don’t do it – definitely do it.

“You won’t be the only person there with a disability, the university will have experience, and there is lots of support that can be put in place. It’s an adventure: it can be scary, but it can also be thrilling.

“Overall, it’s been such a positive experience, there have been some scary times, but I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone thinking about going to university.”

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