Mainstream colleges can be daunted by the prospect of supporting blind students

2 May 2021, 6:00

Childhood vision impairment is very rare, so colleges are often inexperienced in best practice around supporting blind students, writes Caireen Sutherland

Throughout education, it is vital that young people with vision impairment have the right specialist support in place. Although getting the right support for students with vision impairment at any stage of education is important, it can be fraught with challenges.

And having worked with many colleges and lecturers, I know that many settings will have never supported a student with vision impairment before – which can make the task feel like a daunting, overwhelming and confusing prospect.

It is particularly fraught during times of transition between different stages of education, such as from secondary school into further education.

‘High churn of learners leaving’

A longitudinal research project by the Royal National Institute of Blind People and the Visual Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research at the University of Birmingham looked at the experiences of students as they moved from school to further and higher education.

Some key themes emerged – a high ‘churn’ of learners who leave the education system was identified as a significant problem, and gaps in the use of suitable assistive technology were highlighted.

Crucially, it was also found that not all participants had the range of skills deemed important for independent learning, such as everyday living, mobility, social and self-advocacy skills.

These issues could well be exacerbated by the low number of students with visual impairment within FE. Childhood vision impairment is a low-incidence disability.

Based on World Health Organization international classification, only two in every 1,000 children and young people have a vision impairment.

During school years, a young person may have an education health and care plan (EHCP) which outlines the specialist support they require.

‘Importance of having a properly qualified teacher’

A key component is input from a qualified teacher of vision impairment (QTVI) and potentially a habilitation officer, who provides vital support in terms of mobility, independence and self-advocacy skills.

A QTVI’s role is varied, but they can support with functional vision assessments, link in with other professionals, help with required equipment and teach specialist skills (Braille, for example).

As a QTVI myself, I know how important it is that blind and partially sighted students continue to be supported into further education. But I also know that, at this stage of education, input can vary.

Some students may have an EHCP and the college will have hopefully been involved in the transition process and be aware of the students’ needs.

However, sometimes students move to FE with no EHCP. Sometimes the amount of available QTVI time varies. At the same time, there is a change in expectations on the student in terms of independent learning and course formats which can cause significant challenges for them.

To prevent these challenges, all students with vision impairment should have access to the necessary specialist support, such as from a QTVI and a habilitation specialist.

A learning provider can also think about how courses are delivered, by making information and resources accessible and ensuring students have the right equipment to access their course.

There is a wide range of guides and online information and advice that can support both students and colleges to make the most of their FE experience.

For example, Thomas Pocklington Trust (TPT) in partnership with RNIB, has created new guidance for further education providers. The guide, which contains helpful tips and checklists for colleges, is also useful for students and families.

It is important that they have the opportunity to tell learning providers what works for them

At FE, more than any other stage of education, students should be involved in their own learning experience.

The impact of inadequate support at this point in a young person’s educational journey can be very damaging to their ongoing academic success, wellbeing and future prospects.

It is important that they have the opportunity to tell learning providers what works for them and what doesn’t, and what they need to be in place in order to access their chosen course and succeed.

Students with vision impairment have the same ability, aspirations and potential as their peers. They just need the right support to achieve it.

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