Barriers faced by university students with visual impairments – Kerry’s story

About Me

When you think about students it is likely that the image that comes to mind is of the younger person (18 – 22 years old), recently having finished their A Levels and now embarking on the next stage of their academic development.  If that is your idea of a student, prepare to have you pre-conceptions destroyed, my name is Kerry Levins, I am 46 years old and have been Registered Severely Visually Impaired for the last 18 years. Upon Leaving School at the age of 18 I had two ambitions in life, the first was to be an Officer in the Army, the other was to be a Barrister.  I achieved the first having been commissioned from the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in 1991. I then served in a variety of units and locations around the world for the next 10 years, being exposed to the root cause of my eventual sight loss in the process.

On Leaving I worked in IT for the next 15 years or so and adapted to my sight loss as best I could during that time.  Following a change in circumstances in 2014/15 I decided I had had enough of making money doing something that I had never intended to do so I quit my role as an IT Service Management Consultant and decide to follow my dreams; that is to qualify and practice as a Barrister.  The first academic requirement is a Law Degree or any degree plus a Graduate Diploma in Law (Common Professional Examination).

This posed a problem in that a full time Law Degree would take 3 or 4 years and I have never been the most patient person in the world. As such I applied to the Bar Standards Board for a Certificate of Academic Standing which, taking Military and Commercial Experience into Account I was awarded, I then applied to LAWCABS (the Legal equivalent of UCAS) for a place on the Graduate Diploma in Law at both Brighton University and the University of East Sussex.  I secured support from Blind Veterans UK and the Snowdon Trust to fund the course fees. I was offered a place at both institutions and accepted the place at Brighton University as the Timetable was more compact.  At this point the University’s Student Support Organisation kicked in and leads in to the questions posed below.

  • Did you get the correct support within your DSA assessment? What was the impact of this?

I began the DSA process in early August 2016 very soon after the university confirming my place.  At the Assessment it was established that I required support with Transportation to and from University and assistance with Computer Hardware, although as an Apple User it took some persuasion to convince SFE that this was not only appropriate but necessary.  Because of the extended period pf persuasion required I did not receive my Computer until the course was almost over but the University provided me with a Loan unit until SFE / DSA came through.

  • Did you find it difficult to access student socials run by student unions? If so what were the barriers and how do you think this could be changed?

Being a Mature Student and being on a course populated by persons older that the average University we did not tend to attend Regular Student Union Events but if the desire was established we would organise an event ourselves, accordingly there were no barriers other than those you would face in any social environment.

  • Did you find other students or staff were more hesitant to communicate with you due to your VI?

The students on my course were invariably accepting and while the staff were initially a little unsure of the best approach, a little coaching on my part soon ensured that there were no ongoing issues.  Lectures normally recorded and all materials made available electronically.

  • What barriers did you face in accessing information at university?

I use KNFB Reader to access information through my iPhone and iPad, if you’re not familiar with it, it is a “Paid For” App that uses Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to process and “read“ either PDF documents or can be used for handouts by photographing the document, it tells you when the document is aligned and orientation of the text is irrelevant upside down / sideways are overcome, it manages all with ease.  In using this App the only thing I would advise is to use a different voice (accent) for different subject areas within your course of study, from experience it makes remembering easier.

The other thing I would mention is that all of the major Publishers will provide free electronic copies of texts through university libraries, this reduces the cost of textbooks significantly, if your library has a hard copy of a book, the publisher will probably allow you a personal copy of it electronically, then just use KNFB Reader or your chosen screen reader to access it!  The only other advice I would offer is structure your file system well, it may take a little bit of time to set up but it is worth it in the long run.

My final word on the subject is this, The only person stopping you from achieving what you want to achieve is you, you can do anything you set your mind to, make the most of the support that is available if it isn’t there and you feel you need it, ask for it and don’t forget to get extra time for assignments and exams.  There is also loads of help out there with funding so make sure you seek it out.  Remember, if you don’t ask you WON’T get.

If your university would like to become more inclusive towards students with visual impairments, take a look at Senclude who deliver a range of services that focus on inclusion, support, training and consultancy in the following areas:

Visual Impairment Awareness
Assistive Technology Training
Inclusive Practice & Managed Process Development
Disabled Students Allowance (DSA)
Non-Medical Help (NMH)
Dyslexia etc. (SpLD) & Autism

Here’s the Senclude website link in full if needed: (opens in new tab)

About the author

Daniel Williams, the director of Visualise Training Consultancy