What university is like when your eyes don't work well

I have been in and out of hospitals more times than I can remember, having eye tests and trying to find ways to improve my ability to see. It was not that I am blind, but rather I can't see as much detail and as far as other people.

But my eye problems never stopped my parents believing I could be independent.

In the classroom, I had to sit near the board and use magnifying tools supplied by the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI). Around the age of 10, I started learning touch-typing and braille.

A laptop supplied by the Department of Education in my final year of primary school was a big help, given the delayed focus in my vision which often left me behind in finishing class work.

At the age of 14, I got contact lenses which improved my peripheral vision, though I was still left with a very low-level of sight. Best of all, my glasses were no longer an object of fascination and people stopped asking, "Whoa! How do you see through those?"

Secondary school presented a new social challenge. The comfort zone I once had – with classmates who knew me – was gone. I had to introduce myself all over again, and that was tough.

The laptop and assistant caught people's attention at first, but a new device I used called Opti Verso seemed to garner even more stares.

The Department of Education issued specially enlarged exam papers for more practical subjects like maths, music and construction studies, while I could do others on a school computer.

College was something I looked forward to, as using a laptop to enlarge and do my work would attract less attention there. Unfortunately, only a few colleges in the Disability Access Route to Education (Dare) scheme offered media or journalism courses. I knew the scheme would give me the chance to go on using Department of Education equipment, so I tried to find a place at one of the colleges where it applied.

Unfortunately I was unsuccessful but then I found Griffith College. I was eligible for their courses, but the Dare scheme had not been rolled out there yet.

Left with a tough decision, I followed my hunger for journalism. Now, towards the end of my second year in college, I use my own laptop for coursework, my college's disability office assists me, and most lectures available as pdfs.

I am sometimes asked about accessing help for blind and visually impaired students, and the truth is that not enough information is readily available. That's why I'm trying to raise awareness and have written about my own experience for the first time.

Assistive technology like Ash Technologies' low-vision aids, or products like Dragon Dictate and built-in accessibility software on our smartphones, prove there are always new ways to help improve the way we live.

Then there's the NCBI. "The NCBI works with students who are blind or vision impaired on a one-to-one basis to discover what difficulties the student might have and how they can be addressed," says spokesperson Fionnuala Murphy.

"The services that students might want to avail themselves of include: mobility training, independent living skills, counselling, careers advice, library, and technology solutions."

For many students who are visually impaired or blind, the NCBI, Ahead and Dare provide help to excel. Most colleges also have their own disability office too, to help academically and to support our independence.

Hearing stories from blind author and thrill-seeker Mark Pollock and visually impaired journalist Jason Kennedy from the Irish Independent about new medical procedures are inspiring and make me feel optimistic about the future.

(Source: TheGuardian)


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