Elin: Studying at the Open University
I’m Elin, a visually impaired blogger and Open University student. I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa when I was six years old and I was registered as blind/severely sight impaired when I was twelve.
I wouldn’t call myself a geek but I’ve always loved education, I’m always attracted to the prospect of learning new things but when it came to making the decision about university in my last year of sixth form a couple of years ago, the idea didn’t appeal to me as much as I thought it would. I filled out my UCAS form with the mindset that I was going to study journalism at uni but when it came to submitting my application, I had second thoughts and i decided that it wasn’t for me. Instead, I worked for a sight loss charity for a year after leaving sixth form, an experience which I loved. The thought of university was still in the back of my mind during that time but I was still quite skeptical about the idea, I wasn’t sure if uni life would be for me so I then decided to look into what courses were available at The Open University and after a few months of researching, I finally decided to apply to study a BA (Hons) degree in Arts & Humanities with my specialist subject being creative writing, a course which I’ve been studying since February this year.
I knew that studying with The Open University was the best option for me at that time but I had never heard of a visually impaired person’s experience of studying with them so I did feel quite unsure at times. However, it’s proved to be a great experience so far and I thought I’d share my perspective of studying a distance learning course as a VIP with you since it’s not something that is often talked about.
Disabled Students' Allowance (DSA)
One of the things I was told to do before getting started with my first module was to apply for Disabled Students allowance which I’m sure many will know is a scheme that provides disabled students with the support they need whether it be technology, help with travel costs or a support worker. Some of my friends had experience of applying for DSA so I had an idea of what the process consisted of.
I filled out all the forms with the help of my mum since i didn’t find them very accessible and once I had sent them all off with the necessary evidence, I was invited to have an assessment in order to talk about my study needs.
Although it was quite a long process, I was lucky in the sense that I received everything I needed in order to complete my studies, it’s definitely a vital service.
When I registered for my first module with the university, I notified them of my vision impairment and they directed me to the disability needs form which they have on their website. I completed it and waited a few weeks until one of the disability advisors contacted me. She was really helpful and reassured me that the university would do everything they could to support my needs and to make sure that I had the most pleasant study experience. We talked through my preferred method of accessing materials and how I’d like any correspondence to be sent to me.
My tutor also called me a couple of weeks before the module began and she also reassured me that she’d provide support in any way she could. She also said that one of her other students was also visually impaired and although everyone’s needs are different, she had an idea of how to support the study needs of an individual living with sight loss.
Tutors change for every module but I’m lucky in the sense that my first tutor is very helpful and is always on the other end of the phone or contactable by email if I need to ask anything or if I need any help. I also know that my current tutor will also be teaching another module I’ll be studying later in the course which can only be a good thing as she’ll be familiar with my needs.
When the disability advisor from The Open University contacted me, I was asked what my preferred format was in terms of accessing materials. I said that audio is now my preferred method and she then made sure that I had all the daisy formats of the set texts available to me on the module website which I’m finding to be extremely useful.
All module materials are sent out to students before their module begins but I can’t access these materials for obvious reasons, but I’m lucky in the sense that all module and assignment books are also provided on the website and this is how I access all the materials I need. I did find it a struggle to begin with as it was quite difficult to navigate to the chapters or information I needed using my screen reader but after accessing the materials on a weekly basis, I’m now finding it to be a much easier process.
All my work is completed electronically and I'm finding the technology I have to be extremely useful. I use VoiceOver on my mac and Dolphin SuperNova in order to access all materials and documents and I can work effectively that way.
The Open University offer two types of tutorials, they are conducted online and face-to-face every so often. I haven’t been able to go to a face-to-face tutorial as of yet but I’m hoping I will be able to soon. However, I have taken part in some online tutorials and although my screen reader doesn’t work effectively with some of the features, I have still been able to participate and learn a little something from them.
PowerPoints are often what we work from in the tutorials and I’m lucky in the sense that my tutor sends me the slideshow and any handouts a couple of days before the tutorial itself, this allows me to read through the work before taking part in the tutorial and it makes the process so much easier. I've always found that asking for work or materials to be sent to me beforehand has proven to be extremely useful for me when it comes to studying and it's definitely something that I think can be beneficial for all VI students.
All assignments are submitted through an online system, something I’ve found to be really accessible for me personally. The feedback I receive from my tutor is also put back onto the system for collection and is fully accessible with my screen reader. If a document or any kind of feedback isn’t accessible then I will typically just let my tutor know and the changes I need can be made.
I definitely think that studying with The Open University was the right thing for me to do. It is proving to be challenging at times but I know it’ll be worth it in the long run. The support I’ve received so far has been great and I know that if I require any further support, all I have to do is ask. I must admit that I wasn’t particularly sure of what to expect when I started my studies and although I’ve come across a few challenges when accessing some materials with my screen reader, I’m lucky that I’ve managed to work around that and despite all the long, hard and stressful hours of study, it’s all proving to be a great experience so far.
I’m hoping to document my experience of studying on my blog as time goes on as I think it’s important to highlight the different methods of studying and how it can be made accessible for visually impaired people.
Elin is the creator and writer of the blog My Blurred World .