The opportunities available for those visually impaired
Eye Health Tiri Hughes, 16, from Devon, has been registered as sight impaired since the age of 7. She has multiple eye conditions including double elevator palsy, neurological conduction delay, nystagmus, astigmatism and photophobia.
As a child her vision did not concern her; she enjoyed primary school and the sense of being slightly different from other children. Things changed as her eyesight slowly got worse, and by the time she was starting secondary school she found that she faced many barriers.
Accessibility and inclusion
The ongoing deterioration in her sight meant that when Tiri needed to revise she could no longer read her old handwritten notes. A lack of understanding of the technicalities of producing accessible formats meant her course materials were often simply blown up to poor quality A3.
Tiri said: ‘Accessing text books was a nightmare. It’s not like being sighted where you can go to the bookshop to buy one. Most of mine had to be transcribed and I didn’t get some of them until close to my exams. My mum would stay up until 2am to enlarge books for me.’
It was difficult for staff and other students to understand that Tiri could not see the same things she used to. Assumptions were made about her intelligence, and those teachers who did want to help did not know enough about accessibility to make a difference.
Tiri also found herself excluded from sports at school, although at the time she was competing at national disability swimming and gymnastics events and had gained a place on the GB disability gymnastics squad. Instead at school she was often told to keep score while her peers played games, despite not having sufficient vision to see if anyone scored.
Studying at a specialist college
Through her own hard work and determination, and with the support of her family, Tiri excelled in her exams, gaining 10 A* and 1 B at GCSE. The struggles she had experienced convinced her that she wanted to take her A levels at a specialist provider where her needs would be fully met, so she applied to the Royal National College for the Blind (RNC). She is now studying for A levels in maths, chemistry, biology and psychology and is ambitious for her future.
‘My aim is to go university at either Oxford or Cardiff to study Medicine. I would like to go into an area like diagnostic genetics, psychiatry or oncology. I am extremely motivated and have already started looking at accommodation, funding to support me and a personal statement. The living skills I have gained at RNC have given me the confidence that I could make the transition and live more independently.
I also want to continue with sport as it gives me a break from my studies. I am focussing a lot on my gymnastics, it’s given me an opportunity to travel and make lots of new friends. RNC has been really supportive. I use the sports academy coaches for 1:2:1 sessions and the facilities are brilliant to improve my strength and conditioning. There are also students here that are national athletes in other sports so it’s a great place to train.’
Tiri’s confidence now extends beyond sport and her studies, and she has found a vocation as a campaigner. ‘I have definitely become self-assured, and socially more confident. I have been chosen to be the Chair of the Student Representative Group. It’s great that I can represent the student voice and they trust me to support them while at College
‘I now enjoy public speaking, where previously I would shy away from attention. I was presented with the Guide Dogs Young Persons Achievement award in December 2015 which is a real honour and something I am very proud of.’
Campaigning for choice in education
Tiri’s experiences have also made her passionate about the importance of specialist education: ‘It’s great when you walk into a classroom and a teacher has all the work prepared in a variety of formats so you can just start the lesson. It’s helped me learn a lot quicker. I have a lot more time to spend with friends because I’m not spending as much time trying to make my work accessible.’
Many young people with a visual impairment or other special educational needs (SEN) have to fight for funding to secure a place at a specialist college like RNC. This is particularly frustrating when, like Tiri, they have a low incidence condition which means there is no expert support available in their local area. Tiri and her mother worked hard to make their case, gathering expert witness statements and experiencing many sleepless nights. Yet under the Children and Families Act, which became law in 2014, young people with SEN have the right to choose their school or college
‘I am passionate about it and feel like I can actually make a change. I have spoken at the House of Commons on the Children and Families Act, at Vision 2020 and at National Association of Specialist College events, to campaign that specialist education should be a right, not a fight.’
After years of struggling to be heard, Tiri is now ready to take on the world: ‘With my GCSE grades and now being at RNC I feel like I can do anything, and that I have proved people wrong that told me I couldn’t do things. RNC has given me the confidence to believe that I can achieve and I think I’m doing pretty well so far.’
RNC offers a wide ranging curriculum, from A levels to vocational training and foundation courses. All students study IT to develop the skills they will need in higher education or employment. Expert training includes everyday independence skills, from personal banking to cooking, and mobility skills such as the use of public transport and road crossings. With a wide range of social activities, creative arts and sports available students are able to build their confidence in a completely inclusive environment, helping to prepare them for life beyond college.