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Perspectives on My Education

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from <http://www.Disabilities.AFreePress.com> (UK), and is dated February 21, 2005.

My name is Anela Naz and I am 26 years old. I was born with Glaucoma and lost all my sight (due to retinal detachments, failed corneas, etc.) by the time I was 19. I now wear cosmetic shells on both eyes, which are provided by the National Artificial Eye Clinic. My eye condition, and my race (I am Asian) have caused a few problems throughout life, but I have overcome these with the support of my family and the various organizations that support people with visual impairments. Experiences at School I attended a specialist school in Bristol until the age of 11 and then went on to repeat Year 6 in a mainstream primary school. I found the experiences in both schools beneficial, particularly in terms of helping me to develop my character and personality. The transfer from one school to the other was a shock to my system at first and took some time to adapt to. I consider it fair to say that attending a specialist school largely reduced my confidence in terms of explaining my needs. As it wasn't so imperative to articulate my needs I didn't learn to speak up and ask for what I wanted. At mainstream school I learnt to speak up for myself and I learnt how to deal with the upsetting comments of other students. For me a positive effect of this was that it helped me develop self-awareness and become more confident and resilient. I found secondary education comfortable as a blind student, due to sufficient facilities/aids and support. But support greatly decreased when I started attending college. The college could not afford to give me a full-time general assistant and the transcription of my lecture materials was slow and often failed to arrive on time. I was delighted to pass my A levels with only about 50% of the notes that all the other students had for revision! Considerations in Higher Education I took 2 years out before deciding to enroll on a computing course at the City of Bristol College. The college had a learning development service for students with special needs and it was the helpful staff of this department who advised me about courses, universities, etc. I knew that I wanted to study English. I had learnt that this was the most convenient subject to study in terms of obtaining books and other relevant materials (most old texts are available on the internet). I also enjoy reading books in braille and hope to embark on a career in journalism in the future. I knew that I wanted to stay at home with my family so I applied to do a BA in English locally at the University of the West of England (UWE) and received an unconditional offer. UWE Facilities I arranged a meeting with the disability coordinator at UWE before sending in my UCAS form and was pleased with the response I got during this meeting. Some of the services that were outlined at this point included library services (extended book loans, specialist equipment such as an embosser and scanner, etc.), extra time in examinations, and the facility for examination papers to be adapted to suit my needs (the university produces its own exam papers and can convert them into braille or electronic files, etc.). Disabled Students' Allowances During the summer prior to the academic year of 2001, I applied to my Local Education Authority for my Disabled Student Allowances (DSA), which were released to me before the academic year due to special circumstances. A technical assessment was arranged with the RNIB (UWE does them too now) to identify my needs and a report was drawn up within 3 weeks. I then proceeded to place orders for my equipment which included a laptop and screen reading speech software (JAWS), an embosser, a scanner, a cassette player and Dictaphone, a printer, etc. All of the equipment was in my possession by around mid-August and technicians from the relevant organizations were sent out to give me training. My DSA funded all of this and I get to keep my equipment now that I have completed the entire 3-year course! My DSA's were split into 3 parts--equipment, maintenance and non-medical fees. The last of the 3 was issued every year of the course and was used to pay readers, note takers, guides, etc. Advance Planning In preparation for the start of the academic year, I had to chase reading lists for my modules to get hold of books, timetables to organize transport, module handbooks, etc. This task became much easier each year as I was already well acquainted with the lecturers and had their contact details (the process was much slower in my first year and went into term time). By doing this I could do as much advance reading as possible (braille takes so long to read) and put in orders for books with the libraries. Major problems arose if all formats of specific library books were already out on loan because the voluntary transcription services could not afford to transcribe books that were previously done. The most convenient books were those found on the internet as I could then use my laptop and read them in Microsoft Word with my screen reader. Course materials like handouts were either made available to me by lecturers on floppy disk or email, or typed or scanned by my general assistant provided by the university's disability resource centre. (She also speed typed lecture notes, read for me when researching for assignments and acted as my guide). I was told that I could ask for extensions with assessments due to extenuating circumstances, but am glad to report that I never ever used them. Lecturers were made aware of my needs by my personal tutor and the faculty disability coordinator which included reading any visual materials used in lectures and notifying me in advance when lectures were cancelled/rescheduled. I formed friendships with many of the students on my course, particularly those who were in my seminar groups (they were smaller than lectures) and lived local to me (I lived a 5 minute walk from the campus). We often met up for lunch and used the time between lectures to read course materials (this was convenient when some books weren't available in any alternative format due to high demands, funding or copyright laws). As I don't drink or go to clubs, I tended not to participate in the students' union social activities. However, we did arrange evening dinners in nice restaurants or home gatherings whenever we had some time (this inevitably decreased as the course demands increased!). Limitations Unfortunately, there were still day-to-day issues that I had to deal with which could not be avoided. Although the canteen staff read menus to me so that I could make my choices, the canteen layout was rather cramped and often scatty due to chairs being moved from their original places. As I am completely blind and do not like dogs, I chose to use a human guide as I don't feel confident enough yet to use a long cane to get around in a rather large building alone. The doors were heavy and swinging for fire safety which made it difficult for 2 people to walk through together. Although I prefer stairs to lifts, those with gaps between them and those that spiral are always awkward. I needed to be much more forward thinking than the other students and order/read books well in advance of lectures concentrating on them, but most of my friends said this encouraged them to work at a better pace too. Transport often failed to arrive on time which was a bother during exams (it was not easy copying other students' lecture notes either as my general assistant had to interpret someone else's scrawl!). In Conclusion Overall, my degree experience was better than I expected thanks to the willingness and determination of all the staff involved with me. Without their cooperation I'm sure things would have been a lot more complicated, but the struggles were worth the time and effort and the future will hopefully be a bit easier. Anela can be contacted on Anela.Naz@btopenworld.com If you have a story that you would like to publish, or you wish to comment on this story, please contact the Editor, John Perry, at perryjohn1962@yahoo.co.uk or visit: http://www.jkpenterprises.co.uk

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