Barriers faced by students with a Visual Impairment at Universities – Cindy’s Story

After enrolment on the course, it took until the course began to establish who would be funding my DSA support as it could have been either NHS social Care Bursaries or Student Finance England.  This I found to be very stressful as it was not even clear if my support would be funded for some time due to the level of the course. There was never any explanation as to how the support would be provided, it was left for me to sort out.

There have been times when my sighted guide has not turned up to support me, as my support is often changed due to the changes in the way the university employ support workers.  Not one of the sighted guides have any VI specific training and often do or say silly things, and more often than not don’t know how to guide correctly.

It has taken a year to have information sent to me in an accessible format prior to lectures, and as I am about to start a new year, it is highly unlikely accessible materials will be arranged for some time.  I am not able to access the university library systems at all, it is inaccessible and is not compatible with my assistive technology. If I want journals or books, I must ask the Librarian to access them and send them to me which takes so much longer than a sighted person.  I am also unable to access any materials i.e. lecture notes on the university website at all.  It has taken all year for the university to arrange the library staff to send all documents to me in an accessible format.

The computer systems are the biggest challenge, they are not accessible and considering most of the course is accessed through the university websites, this is a huge problem.  Also, the support offered is constantly being cut and changed, I certainly do not know who is doing what and to be honest, I do not believe the staff do either.  It is all just so inconsistent and unorganised.

I have support with proof reading, but this is something I have had to fight for and is never consistent, I never know who to send it to or who is going to proof read.  Consistency would really help me as I keep having to explain what I require and what to look out for, this is not only frustrating but time consuming too.

I had to submit my portfolio in print, which was a complete nightmare from start to finish as I am unable to see it and it needs to be signed with a pen in various places at many different times.

I have had to put up with negative comments on my placement regarding support, this at one point made me so upset, I cried at work, which was humiliating.

I was marked down on an assignment because it was in italics inappropriately and I had not realised as I could not see it.

I am about to be found a placement, but accessibility, such as Jaws software and a support worker to drive me to client visits, has become a real issue.  I am currently trying to resolve this, but, I am not even sure who I should be liaising with at the university.  I feel I am going around in circles.

Because there are so many people involved in support, I am never quite sure who does what and who I should be speaking to with the difficulties I face.

I finally received my DSA support from NHS Bursaries and they are an absolute nightmare!  I am not sure what the university should fund or provide and what should be from NHS Bursaries.  It is again lack of organisation, information and the information being inaccessible is the main challenge with DSA.  They also take too long refunding expenses and the process is completely inaccessible.    They expect me to complete forms in paper format and I am unable to do them electronically and also because the expenses are delayed this had a detrimental effect on my cash-flow and any support workers I may use, are not getting payed on time which again is a significant barrier which can result in them seeking work elsewhere, this poses problems for me on all levels as I prefer to have continuity.

Disabled student allowance does not cover social activities, so I would not be able to get to and from these activities without a sighted guide, so I am unable to access these.

I am just so used to having to fight for existence and if I was not so organised and motivated, and had such good support at home, it would just be far too stressful to continue the course.

I could go on and on, there have been so many challenges and although many of the university staff try hard to help, the system, structures, cut backs and accessibility make support and the course very frustrating and challenging.


In light of my university experience, I would suggest as follows:

  1. A meeting with all staff that are involved in the support package should be arranged and everything possible set in place prior to the start date. This would make the student feel at ease, comfortable and empowered to start their university life.
  1. One point of contact – This person should be able to see the whole picture rather than just fragments, they should be able to understand the possible needs of a student with VI, be able to deal with adjustments or any other issues that may arise.
  1. Support staff to be consistent – It is so important to have consistent support staff, it enables you to build a rapport and they understand your needs. Having inconsistent support staff puts you at a disadvantage, it costs time, and having to repeat yourself time and time again can be very exhausting.
  1. Inaccessible websites – University websites are not accessible, for students with a VI to feel fully included and to have access to all material as a sighted person, this needs to be implemented
  1. Resources – Lecturers are fully informed regarding their students with VI and make reasonable adjustments so that all information is given to the student in a timely manner, prior to lectures and in an accessible format
  1. Sighted Guides – All sighted guides are provided with the correct training to guide and communicate effectively with a person with a VI.
  1. Student Union – Anyone involved or working in the student union should also have the skills and training to guide and effectively communication with a person with a VI, which will enable them to include all students in their social activities.
  1. DSA should be able to support students with social activities, therefore enabling all students to experience university life.
About the author

Daniel Williams, the director of Visualise Training Consultancy