I’m Claire and I have been visually impaired from birth. I have about 10% vision with a small visual field and can see shapes and colours. I studied Languages and Philosophy as an undergraduate (including an Erasmus year abroad in Salamanca, Spain which was lots of fun) and then did a Masters in Translation and Interpreting. I now work as a technical translator for a software company. In my spare time, I enjoy the thrill of rock-climbing (both indoor and outdoor), discovering places and meeting new people.
Going to uni in different countries has helped me adapt to environments, find my bearings, develop skills and knowledge that prepared me for the future, all with a nice group of friends. Here are some tips that have helped me along the way, I hope you’ll find them useful too.
1) Get in touch with the office for students with disabilities as soon as possible
Universities often have a service or office for students with disabilities which can help you with accessing textbooks in different formats, using software and tools to access course materials and organize testing and exam accommodations like extra time or test papers in adapted formats.
These offices can also get in touch with your lecturers to inform them that they will have a visually impaired student in their class. However, I think it is important not to rely only on these specific services but also to get in touch directly with lecturers and other staff as early as possible to obtain reading lists. Make sure that you have enough time to find books you can access or have them transcribed in alternative formats, you don’t want this extra stress on top of meeting new people or late nights during your first few weeks at uni!
2) Get to know your lecturers and other library or academic staff
Disabled Students services can be very useful in setting things up, but it’s also really important to get to know course lecturers so you can ask them for help on accessing course materials and PowerPoint slides before or after lectures. Also, don’t forget other staff in your department as they can sometimes help you out with filling in forms or information on class changes. I wouldn’t have been able to make it through my studies without wonderful support from university librarians who contacted publishers on my behalf to obtain electronic copies of textbooks or scanned in book chapters for me, sometimes at the last minute!
3) Develop study skills that suit you, learn different tools and software
Studying at university is very different from anything you will have done before, from the amount of contact hours to coping with huge reading lists and managing your time effectively. Along with these skills (that other students also learn) you might, as a visually impaired student, have to think about other aspects. What kind of technology will be most useful to you? I had to learn to use electronic copies of textbooks in Word or PDF format, journal articles and some paper-based resources that I could access through a video magnification system. Switching to more auditory methods takes time, as text is read out in a more linear fashion which makes skipping around in a text and skim reading very difficult. If you are at the beginning of this process, start in small steps, take lots of breaks and try using different speech synthesizers, voices and languages. Don’t forget to take notes while you read, as it will help you keep focused and engaged with the text. You could use a separate document in Word or Notepad so not to get your own comments and ideas mixed up with the original text. I learnt how to use software called Kurzweil 1000 which includes document reading, highlighting and note-taking features with many built-in language dictionaries including German, French, Italian and Spanish and a thesaurus. I also found it useful to mark important passages with a specific character like an asterisk (*).
Learning how to use both free assistive technology software (like the Windows Magnifier which I could use on computers around campus or the NVDA screen reader installed on a USB pen drive) and commercial software (like Jaws or ZoomText) is very useful as they all have strengths and weaknesses in different situations and programmes.
4) Find help with getting around campus and the local town
One of the main issues for me was the idea of living in a completely unknown environment, understanding where different locations were in relation to my accommodation on campus and how to get to town from the university either by walking or public transport. I was lucky to have a mobility instructor who showed me a lot of these things during a few quiet days before Freshers Week. If you don’t have a mobility instructor, try asking help from a volunteer organisation or an older fellow student from your department. At the start of term, other sighted students asked me directions to various places!
5) Get involved in other activities, socialise and have fun
University isn’t all about studying: getting involved in student societies, clubs and making friends is also a big part of the experience. Try being upfront about your disability when you meet people for the first time otherwise it may lead to misunderstandings like not recognising people. It can be useful to explain your disability with simple phrases like “I can’t see things at a distance, only things that are very close to me”; others can relate to this - they don’t need to know medical details, just how having low or no vision affects you and the way you do things. Most students are open-minded, friendly and happy to help when they can. Don’t forget you can also help them by talking through a difficult text, a complicated theory or by suggesting a pizza and movie night!