Welcome to VI-Able Solutions

Welcome to VI-Able Solutions – my new project which is all about solutions.

Whenever we face problems in life, we’re usually lucky enough to find a solution. This blog will record many of the solutions I’ve encountered in my daily life as a visually impaired person. Therefore, my blog posts will contain three sections: ‘Context’, ‘The Problem’, and ‘The Solution.’ Whether you’re disabled or simply seeking solutions, I hope this blog will be useful to you.

Context

I’ve been blind since birth and I had a wonderful childhood. I grew up on a farm in Yorkshire with lots of animals and siblings! After attending the small village primary school, I went onto a girls’ grammar school. I hated it there and couldn’t wait to start at a boarding school for the visually impaired, where I studied A Levels.

I had a fantastic time at boarding school and made friends I will keep for life. I studied English Literature, Psychology and German, and it was through this that I got to visit a school for the blind in Germany. Although I’d only spent two weeks there, I loved it so much that I decided I wanted to live there for a year! After much preparation, persuading and planning, I found myself on a plane to Frankfurt. I lived abroad for almost a year – teaching English, soaking up the culture, eating vast amounts of cake and ice cream, and having the most rewarding time of my life.

I returned somewhat reluctantly to England in 2011. In the September of that year, I began my Creative Writing degree. It’s taken me 4 years to complete but I was delighted to find out that I’d been awarded a 1st class degree.

A big change to my life came in 2013 when I was matched with my beautiful guide dog. I’d been on the waiting list for what felt like forever, so I couldn’t believe it when it was finally my turn to be entrusted with a dog. I’ve had him for 2 years now and he’s surpassed all expectations of how much I thought a guide dog could help me. Clever, affectionate and loyal, he keeps me on the straight and narrow!

I now live in the South West of England with my guide dog and my boyfriend, who also happens to be visually impaired.

The Problem

My problem has been that I had the bright idea for this project when I was in the final stages of my degree. I had my dissertation to write and was itching to get to the keyboard and start this blog. However, I managed to overcome my distraction and this project now has my full attention.

The Solution

Solutions are incredibly important. Problems often make us feel negative – frustrated, angry, hopeless … these emotions will probably be familiar to you when you’re faced with some sort of issue. For me, I feel great about finding a solution! You feel empowered, happy, and so much lighter as a result.

I’m part of groups which discuss visual impairment; many of these groups are for parents who have recently discovered that their child can’t see properly. They worry that their child’s life will be problematic and that the future will be difficult. I want to show you how life with a visual impairment is about finding ways forward and seeking solutions.

The general perception of us visually impaired folk is that our lives must be unimaginably difficult and that we must struggle to do everything. The aim of my blog is to correct this perception. I won’t deny that we face challenges, but don’t we all? It’s through our difficult experiences that we come by some brilliant solutions.

I’ll finish by saying that I’m lucky to have had patient, dedicated and loving people in my life who have spent hours helping me solve problems in one way or another. Whether they were frantically stabbing birthday cards with a needle to create some sort of braille message, following me on routes until I could set out on my own, or simply being there to listen to me put the world to rights, I owe them a lot of hugs and thank yous. If it weren’t for them, I couldn’t go forward with this project.

Adding the Festive Touch

Context

 

I love Christmas. The smell of the Christmas tree, wood fires, mince pies, and the dinner cooking … the spicy taste of mulled wine … the sounds of carol singers, Christmas choirs, paper rustling and bells jingling. A happy Christmas is when we hear from people we haven’t been in contact with for a while, and when we can spend time with the people we love.

 

The Problem

 

Christmas is a busy time. Shops are crowded and there’s lots to be done in the run up to the 25th. With so many cards and presents under the tree, it can be hard for a visually impaired person to work out which presents are for them and who has sent cards. In this post we take a look at how you can put tactile sparkle into a visually impaired person’s Christmas.

 

The Solution

 

I’ll start with cards. The majority of people who can’t see well aren’t able to read standard Christmas cards. I’m lucky in that my friends usually try to find one with a tactile picture on the front so I can identify the card. However, it’s even better if I can read the message inside. You can buy talking or musical Christmas cards from good card shops; you can even get record your own cards. I know from experience that these tend to be more expensive than your standard card so it depends on your budget. One year, my parents attached a record your own gift tag to my present. It made for a nice personalised touch.

 

If you know someone who’s a braille reader, there are several ways to give them a card with a braille message inside. Clinton Cards sell braille Christmas cards. The quality of the braille isn’t great but they have improved; a few years ago, their range was embossed with the message: ‘With best festive fishes for the season.’ Guide Dogs for the Blind sells one braille card design which can be found here:

http://www.dogalogue.com/Product.aspx?ProductID=c4c80bac-9ae8-4a17-9a12-e36e9486bc0f Nowadays, there are websites which allow you to create a personalised braille card. Sites such as Braille Tactile Greeting Cards

http://www.tactilecards.co.uk/

and Braille Cards

http://www.braillecards.co.uk/

allow you to create personalised cards which can be sent to and read by a braille reader.

My friend looks up the braille alphabet online and brailles my cards herself by using a needle to raise the dots; another friend sewed a braille message in beads onto fabric. If you wanted to try any of these creative ideas, a Google search will bring up the alphabet for you.

 

Next, let’s turn to presents. Making things tactile doesn’t have to be time consuming; simply attaching an elastic band or a piece of sellotape can help someone with a visual impairment identify their present. Different textures of wrapping paper, bows, ribbons and tags can also assist with this venture. A fun fact to end this section: if you are giving someone a braille book, you might want to consider how you wrap it. I have always loved feeling the presents under the tree in the run up to Christmas day. One year, I found a present that felt like a book and was able to feel braille through the paper. I’m ashamed to say that I read the title of the book and spoiled the surprise for Christmas day. My advice is to put an extra layer of paper between the braille and the outer wrappings so that it can’t be read by nosy present feelers!

 

The tree too can be turned into a feast of enjoyment for someone who can’t see anything at all. The decorations are a lot of fun to touch, particularly if you buy those with different textures, smells and sounds attached to them. When I was a child my parents bought (and probably regretted buying!) musical Christmas lights. These played carols in time with the flashing lights and I loved them.

 

With my festive tips exhausted, it only remains for me to wish you all a merry tactile Christmas, and I hope that 2016 will be filled with solutions for us all.

Solutions to End the Awkward

Context

 

This post is inspired by the disability charity Scope’s #EndTheAwkward campaign and my good friend Jennie’s response to it. Check out her post for her solutions on ending awkwardness:

http://jenniegoodrum.co.uk/2015/12/07/endtheawkward-1-do-you-know-how-old-you-are/

 

So what is this #EndTheAwkward campaign? It was set up by Scope to collect together and find ways to resolve those awkward moments that disabled people face in their daily lives. I think it’s a fantastic initiative because it allows people with different impairments to be honest about the things they find difficult. A lot of positives have come out of this campaign – positives that will hopefully help to make the world a better place.

 

The Problem

 

Disabled people experience a lot of awkward moments. From being talked to in the 3rd person (the ‘Does he take sugar?’ syndrome), to the cringey comments that are all too often made about a person’s differences, those of us with disabilities often find ourselves in some squirmy situations. I want to tell you about some of the awkward

experiences I’ve had as a visually impaired person and how we can end the awkward.

 

The Solution

 

1.

‘So what do you think, Ben?’

‘I’m not Ben.’

 

The mix up. This has often happened to me when I’ve been at a party or anywhere else where there are lots of people to talk to. I identify people by their voice but not everyone sounds distinctive, especially if you don’t know the person well. Believe me, it’s embarrassing when you call someone by the wrong name. I’m fairly used to feeling stupid about it but it would be nice if it was a little less awkward…

 

The solution – When talking to someone who can’t see well, tell them who you are.

 

2.

‘Yeah, I think it’s great. Sorry, I’m talking too much, aren’t I? So what do you think? … Ben? … Oh.’

 

Us blind people just love talking to thin air … NOT! I’ve often laughed at myself for this but in truth, it’s usually to disguise my awkwardness. I try not to imagine what others must think as they watch me talk to myself! When you can’t see, things get really confusing if you can’t work out if someone’s coming or going and it gets hellishly confusing with groups of people. The flip side of this awkward situation is that I end up not talking to a person who’s been standing next to me for ages. I know there must be lots of times when people have thought ‘Why isn’t she talking to me?’

Perhaps because I can’t see you, mate.

 

The solution – Simple. When talking to someone who can’t see well, tell them where you are. This doesn’t mean you have to stay with the person all the time, any excuse will do. Saying ‘I’m just going to get a drink / grab my phone / go and say hi to Ben’ is much better than walking off and leaving them to converse with empty space.

 

3.

‘Is there somewhere for me to sit?’

‘Yeah, there’s a chair just here.’

‘Where?’

‘There, to the right a bit.’

‘Where?’

‘No, now go left. Straight in front of you.’

 

I get this a lot – the awkward trying to find things scenario. Having to feel around for something when you can’t see it isn’t fun, especially if I get things mixed up because I’m not being given clear instructions; on more than one occasion, I’ve almost ended up on someone’s lap because I’ve found a chair which turned out to be occupied. I imagine it’s pretty annoying for the person trying to help me as well, I can almost hear them thinking ‘Why doesn’t she know what here and there mean?’

 

The solution – ‘Here’ and ‘there’ are vague words to use with someone who can’t see because they’re not likely to know exactly where you’re referring to. Instead, try to give more specific instructions:

‘Take a few steps forward and then turn left.’

‘Your drink’s just in front of you.’

When you’re with someone who can’t see well, always tell them where things are – it makes everyone’s life easier!

 

4.

‘You need to go left a bit.’

‘Thanks, I know where I’m go-‘

‘No, left a bit. Left, left!’

‘Let go of-‘

‘More left!’

 

I get this a lot and I know I’m not the only one. There are lots of well-meaning folk who want to help, so they wade straight in and offer the benefit of their wisdom. Of course, they can see and I can’t, therefore I have no idea of where I’m going and the person feels that I need immediate rescue. And just to make sure I get the message, they’ll grab me and pull me in the right direction – or at least, where they think I want to go. I find this so awkward that I can’t stay calm in this situation. You see, the person who is trying to help doesn’t know where I’m wanting to go because they haven’t asked me. They’re taking me to where they think I want to go, which isn’t necessarily where I actually want to be. This means that sometimes they’re sending me in the wrong direction. It’s disorientating and it can take me a while to get my bearings again. Not only that – do you know how humiliating it is to be grabbed unexpectedly? Take it from me, being grabbed by a complete stranger is not a pleasant experience. It’s nice that there are so many people who are willing to help. If only they knew how to.

 

The solution – If you see someone who looks like they might need help, always ask before stepping in. That way, the person has chance to explain what kind of help they need and how you can be of assistance. By taking the time to ask first, your goodwill won’t go to waste.

 

To sum up then.

When you’re with someone with a visual impairment, tell them who you are, where you are, and where other things are. If you think they need help, always ask first. By doing these simple things, you’re helping to end the awkward.

It’s OK to Make Mistakes … Even As Disabled People

Context

 

I’m sitting at a table in a posh hotel. It’s the first evening of a conference and I’m eating a 3 course meal with the other attendees. Having eaten my soup and roll, I’ve had a surreptitious feel around the table to make sure I can find my cutlery and that my napkin is to hand. By the time I’ve polished off a plate of roast chicken, I’ve found my glass of water and prevented it from being taken away by well-meaning waiters. My plate disappears and pudding arrives. I’m not sure where it has been placed so I reach for my water and have a subtle feel of the space. No, still no pudding. Never mind. I pick up my water glass and tip it forward to take a sip. And that’s when my nose sinks through the frothy cream on top of my pudding glass!

 

The Problem

 

Being part of a minority group isn’t always easy. I grew up being the only blind person in my secondary school so that I was referred to as ‘the one with the white stick.’ Although many of us with disabilities are used to being different, it does make you stand out. It was a lot harder for me to giggle with my friends in class because I always caught the teachers’ or my classroom assistants’ attention. Being different also makes our actions much more noticeable; there was only one person at that dinner table who tried to drink their dessert! However, no one can go through life without making mistakes, so let’s look at how to deal with our errors in a way that’s beneficial for all concerned.

 

The Solution

 

I’ll begin by looking at ways to try and address awkwardness. Sometimes we do things that are inevitably embarrassing and you just want to disappear. Getting people mixed up, talking to people who aren’t there any more, or talking about them when they’re right next to you are common errors for people with a visual impairment. I would say that the way to dampen the awkwardness is to laugh if you can. Laughing at yourself is good at breaking tension and gives others permission to laugh with you rather than at you. However at times where a laugh seems like too great a step, a simple smile will do. Everyone makes mistakes and we all do stupid things at times and by acknowledging that, we’re showing that we’re human.

 

This thing about us being human – it’s an important point. Although we’re often labelled with such big words as ‘inspirational’ and are often talked about as if we are some kind of miracle, we are in fact human beings living our ordinary lives. We may be the first person with a disability someone has met, yet we have good days as well as times when we’re in a rush, tired or hungry. With so much attention being placed on us because of our differences, it’s important that we be nice to ourselves. It’s perfectly acceptable to take breaks; we can politely excuse ourselves from interaction with others if we feel like being alone. Similarly, if we’re going out to spend quality time with friends or family, there’s no reason why we should be deprived of that. Being kind to yourself means thinking about what you want and achieving that in a way that causes the least amount of stress for yourself.

 

So what about when we do things wrong? There’s been times when I’ve sent out an email that’s abrupt or I’ve snapped at someone because I wasn’t in the mood for another interrogation of my daily activities. If you’re anything like me, you go away and beat yourself up about it. This is healthy to some degree – we should feel some remorse for our wrongdoings, after all. But when you’re spending the evening thinking about something you didn’t do right that morning (or even the day before – I’m sure I’m not the only one!), it’s time to let go. We have to find a way to move on. For me, the best way of doing this is to try and learn from my mistake; this naturally involves thinking about what I’d do differently if this situation arose again. When I recognised that my email had been too abrupt, I sent a follow up message in which I apologised for my tone. I couldn’t stop thinking back over my email until I’d thought of a way of rephrasing what I was trying to say that sounded more polite. Obviously I couldn’t rewrite or resend the email but I could try to prevent myself from making the same mistake again. Perhaps that’s just me – nevertheless, we have to find ways of giving ourselves the peace of mind to move forward from the things we do wrong.

 

To sum up, there are 3 important things you should remember about making mistakes: smile, move on, and remember you’re only human!

Easy and Instant Glam Hair

 

Laura wearing hairpiece

Laura wearing hairpiece

Profile

 

Laura is 30 years old and has been visually impaired since birth. She loves to experience life with her guide dog, Hester. Her passions are fashion, beauty, sport, motor sport and music. She’s an ex-GB youth athlete and dressage rider. She’s got lots to her name including London 2012 Paralympic Torchbearer and more. She says: “Being visually impaired really doesn’t stop you in life.”

Laura’s fashion and beauty page can be found at:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/RealEyes-Fashion-Beauty/1609986882608418

Hester’s supporting Guide Dogs page is:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Guide-Dog-Hester/409569232459339

 

Context

 

For a visually impaired lady it can be really difficult to make your hair look glam and different. In fact I’d say make-up application is a lot easier to master.

 

The Problem

 

Personally the same old look gets a tad boring, however I understand for some it’s easy to stay in their comfort zone. But how about when you get invited out? Maybe a hot date, meal with friends, night out or a party. With the Christmas and New Year party season upon us, there’s a solution for all…

 

The Solution

 

HotHair.co.uk provides a wide variety of instant updos; these include glamorous clip-in pony tails, wrap around hair pieces, hair extensions, 3/4 wigs and full wigs – they even do clip-in fringes. All of these items come in a wide variety of colours which can be closely matched to your hair colour.

 

I recently attended an awards ceremony and needed an easy and instant look. It was a case of me styling the front (my choice) and then tying my remaining hair into a pony, before clipping the Tousler Ponytail onto my own pony. In seconds it gave me volume, extra length and waves. Watch my video to see just how easy HotHair products are:

http://youtu.be/W848zEn8BhA

I received a lot of positive comments about the HotHair product, most people thought it was my natural hair!

You can view their range at www.hothair.co.uk

 

If you’d like your colour matching, get someone to take a photo of your hair from the back and then email it to the HotHair team explaining that you are visually impaired and could they colour match to your chosen product. They are really helpful.

 

Please check out my Facebook page for more fashion and beauty tips like this.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/RealEyes-Fashion-Beauty/1609986882608418

It’s Ok to Make Mistakes… Even With Disabled People

Context

 

I recently went to a conference where everyone who approached me wanted to talk about my guide dog. They weren’t subtle about it; their conversation opener was always:

‘Can I say hello to your dog?’

Eager to get talking to new people, my reply was to ask:

‘What’s your name? Where have you come from?’

In return, they asked me for my dog’s name, what breed he was, and how long I’d had him for. And after that, they went away and I never saw them again. However, I overheard some of those people saying things to their friends like:

‘I feel awful, I just talked about the dog. I didn’t even ask about her. I should’ve known better.’

Perhaps this is the reason they never came back for another chat. This post takes a look at how to handle these types of mistakes.

 

The Problem

 

As disabled people, we are a minority group. Some of us aren’t educated with our peers, a lot of us find it impossible to get a job, and so when we’re out and about, the public just don’t know what to do with us! After all, we’re only featured in the media when we’ve done something ‘INSPIRATIONAL’ – either that or when the government are making yet another cut to our vital financial lifeline. I dream of a world where we can be treated like your average member of the public but in reality, we’d be naive to expect everyone to know how to behave towards people with disabilities. Regardless of whether you have a disability or not, we all make mistakes. So, what is the solution for this?

 

The Solution

 

Let’s begin by looking at what we mean when we talk about disabled people. The general perception is that we’re vulnerable, fragile, and incapable of doing a lot of things that your average person can do. It is this perceived weakness that leads to the belief that disabled people are easily offended; I once worked with someone who was afraid to say words like ‘look’ and ‘see’ because she thought this would upset me. It’s incredibly difficult to talk to someone if you can’t use common expressions of the English language. I mean, the poor woman was reduced to saying:

‘Do you feel what I mean?’

I couldn’t keep a straight face and reassured her that using sight-related words didn’t bother me in the slightest. You see (OOPS, see what I did there?) we disabled people have to fight for our rights on a daily basis and find ways to adapt to challenging situations. You can take it from me: disabled people have far greater concerns than how the English language is used. The only way to offend someone with a disability is by deliberately going out of your way to cause upset.

 

Of course, it’s best to Try and be mindful of how you speak to people with disabilities but be reassured that an awkwardly phrased question will annoy me at worst. In fact, most people’s questions make me laugh:

http://www.throughscarlettseyes.com/lovely-smile-creative-writing-piece-megan-paul/

I’m only offended if people actively avoid trying to understand about disability. If you get to know us well enough, you’ll learn that we’re capable of doing as much as, if not more than the average person. You’ll learn that people with disabilities have their strengths and weaknesses, their good days and bad days; we even make mistakes ourselves! We’re no different to your average person and I can promise that we’re a good bunch of people to get to know.

 

Now, mistakes. It’s important to remember that our mistakes don’t define us. Let me give you an example. When my boyfriend and I became friends, he suggested that we go for a walk in the park together. It was a great way for us to get to know each other better; we chatted away, laughing and listening and generally not really concentrating on where we were walking. We barely noticed that we’d come to a bridge with knee-high bollards on either side to prevent cyclists from going too fast across it. He accidentally walked me into one of these bollards. Although I told him that it was ok and that my knee didn’t hurt too much, he was horrified. We walked on and I picked a new topic of conversation. He apologised, we moved on; our friendship grew stronger and we got together a month later. Imagine if things had been different. If I hadn’t accepted his action as a mistake, I’d have lost out on a loving relationship. Think back to when you first met someone who is now a good friend to you. You’re likely to find that you behaved differently towards that person in the early days than you do now that you know them. When you approach someone, even if they have a disability, don’t be afraid of making mistakes. People who are worth knowing will give you a second chance.

 

From experience, I know that people often worry about making mistakes around helping someone with a disability. Should I help? Should I not? And am I helping in the right way? If questions like these go through your head when you see a disabled person, you’ll probably be relieved to hear that as a rule, people with disabilities are good at asking for help when they need it. Most disabled people are also happy to explain what kind of help they need and what you can do to assist them. Ask the disabled person if they’d like help and await their response – that’s all it takes.

 

I hope this post has shown you how making mistakes with disabled people isn’t as easy as you feared. And if you do something wrong, what is a mistake anyway? It’s not worth being afraid of, that’s for sure.

When Things Aren’t Going Well at School

Context

I’ve had mixed experiences of my time in education. Having started out at a small village primary school, I then moved onto an all girls’ grammar. I studied my A Levels at New College Worcester, a school for visually impaired pupils. Then, after my gap year in Germany, I went to study creative writing at a small university.

On reflection I’d say that I was lucky with my primary school; there was a maximum of 30 pupils in the whole school and this atmosphere gave me my best experience of mainstream education. Every pupil had a part in the plays which we performed every year. The teachers encouraged me to do everything my peers did, so I was expected to move confidently around a stage and to don various costumes in our productions. In lessons too I did everything alongside my classmates; I wrote my work in braille as they were handwriting in their books, I was making tactile collages when they were painting, and I was expected to kick a ball about and take part in our P.E lessons. Our school was one big family and so I grew up unaware that I was any different to my peers.

This changed when I went to the grammar school. I remember having my tour of the place and asking the teacher:

‘Do you have any other disabled people here?’

‘Disabled people,’ she said. ‘Of course not, we’re a grammar school.’

It was this attitude that presented me with lots of problems in my time there. The school is one of the best in its county because it only takes the brightest girls. I’d had to sit the 11 Plus exams alongside my class and although I’d passed the tests, there were teachers at the grammar school who voiced their opinion that I should have been placed in a specialist institution. I had a difficult time there and we had to work hard to try and find ways of making things more bearable for me. The extent of my problems and the solutions we fought to put in place will be the focus of this post.

University was similar to my grammar school experience – the main difference being that as an adult, you’re expected to sort things out for yourself rather than relying on an advocate. The support for disabled students was lacking but my course lecturers did their best to fill in the gaps. At the end of 4 years I felt as if I’d come out with 2 degrees: a BA Hons in Creative Writing and a BA LIFE in Self-advocacy. Of course, self-representation isn’t something you can be formally recognised for but it’s an all-important skill and something I’d like to explore in a later post.

Undoubtedly the most magical part of my educational experience was when I started at the boarding school for pupils with a visual impairment. I say magical – honestly, it was like going to Hogwarts! From being one of the least popular girls at the grammar, I soon made lots of friends and was voted in as Head Girl in my 2nd year of being at New College. We cooked together, helped each other with our classwork, and made friendships which time and distance can’t tarnish. This should demonstrate that it is possible to have positive experiences of being in education; sometimes you have to fight for them.

The Problem

Everyone has the right to an education. What a shame the right doesn’t extend to having a good education. People have different experiences of what their schooling was like; when asked to talk about what they remember of their school days, they present us with a whole mixture of memories. From best friends to teachers they hated, the life-changing class trip and their thoughts on school food, this demonstrates how experiences of school go far beyond being in the classroom. Young people tend to feel that school is their world because they don’t usually spend much time elsewhere. This is how I felt; I was unhappy at my secondary school which made it hard for me to be happy with my life.

Education is just as (if not more) crucial for people with disabilities. They are likely to need more support to learn on a level playing field with their peers and consequently school is the place where they must learn to ask for what they need. Being disabled can mean that you have to challenge teachers, who often know less about disability than the disabled person does. School is also the first place where you make friends and create a social life for yourself; failing to do this can make school a lonely and difficult place. Growing up isn’t easy for most people and having additional needs makes the process more complicated.

Before I go onto talk about some solutions for these sorts of problems, I should tell you how my difficulties came about. I had friends for my first 2 years of secondary school but there were a few factors that changed the relationships with my peers and even my teachers too. We’ll start with the teachers; I’ve already explained about their general attitude to having a disabled pupil in their grammar school. There were some teachers who would ignore me in their lessons, expecting my classroom assistant to teach me everything I needed to know. I remember an English lesson when I had put my hand up to ask for help. Despite the teacher’s assurances that ‘I’ll be there in a minute,’ I was left sitting at my desk without help for the hour’s lesson.

Things were definitely at their worst in my year 11. I was heading off to my Maths lesson and had dropped into my teaching assistants’ office to collect my braille books. I was surprised to find my Maths teacher waiting for me.

‘I’m afraid you can’t come into the lesson today,’ he said. ‘We’re interviewing for a new Maths teacher and each candidate will be teaching the year 11 classes for part of the lesson.’

‘So why can’t I come to Maths?’ I asked.

‘We feel that your presence would unbalance the situation.’

‘I could just sit in the corner and get on with my work,’ I suggested.

‘Unfortunately, we feel that your presence in the room could make the situation unfair for … some candidates.’

So I spent my Maths lesson drinking cups of tea with my classroom assistant, who tried to make me feel better about being so disabled and different that I wasn’t allowed into my own Maths lesson.

I’ll tell you the next part of this story because it demonstrates how teachers’ attitudes can be problematic all the way up the hierarchy. I met with the deputy head teacher a few days later. As he blustered about having not been there on the day of the interviews and how he hadn’t had anything to do with what had gone on, I told him that I felt I had been discriminated against.

‘I have a meeting in 5 minutes,’ he said.

‘It’s unacceptable to prevent me from attending my own Maths class,’ I said, ‘especially as this is my GCSE year. It’s discrimination.’

He opened the door for me. ‘Well, blind people do get ignored in our society and they do get discriminated against,’ he said.

So there we have the attitude of my teachers.

In the same way that children are influenced by their parents, I have learnt that pupils are influenced by their teachers. In any case, the girls in my year were quick to pick up on the fact that most of my teachers acted as if I were a general inconvenience to them; I certainly wasn’t given respect. They treated me differently from my classmates and so even my friends began to see that I wasn’t quite the same as they were. As girls grow into teenagers, they become interested in boys, make up, magazines and fashion – all things I had no interest in. At the end of my 2nd year at the school (year 8), the school introduced a vertical form system. Whereas previously we had been placed in tutor groups according to our year, this new system meant that there would be 4 members of each year group in a form. The idea is for the older ones to help the younger years, but in reality everyone tended to sit around in year group huddles and not much socialising went on. My circle of friends shrank to 3 girls in my year and when we grew apart, I found myself isolated.

So as you see, school isn’t always a pleasant experience. However, recognising that the educational system can be harder for disabled pupils to navigate allows us to take a proactive approach. Teachers, professionals, parents, and the pupil themselves should be communicating on a regular basis to discuss a pupil’s progress and areas for improvement. Although the pupil is expected to work in school, the school should also be working to include pupils with disabilities in all aspects of the curriculum. Here are the solutions that were suggested to try to integrate me into my grammar school environment.

The Solution

I was fortunate to have a team of creative people working to find ways forward for me. Specialist teachers of the visually impaired, educational psychologists, my classroom assistants, and my parents met with my teachers as frequently as the school would permit. It’s worth noting here that one member of staff involved in those meetings was the SENCO, the school’s Special Educational Needs’ Coordinator. All schools are required to have a SENCO and although they may have things to learn about disability, they need to be made aware of a pupil’s needs. I was sometimes present at these meetings too although I couldn’t afford to miss many lessons. This team would then sit around the table and turn their attention to the issues I was having at school.

Their first concern was about how I had failed to integrate into my new form group and so they enlisted the help of my tutor. They suggested that the tutor could help introduce me to people in the group by having me sit with a different girl each day. Although this was a good idea, my tutor pointed out that it wouldn’t be fair on the others in the group if I had to keep moving places all the time. However, I wasn’t the only person who had found it difficult to make friends in the new form and so the creative team proposed that everyone in the form should swap places each day; this way, we would be sitting with a different person for that day and we’d soon get to know each other. The next morning, my tutor spoke to his new form:

‘I have a challenge for you this week,’ he said, ‘The challenge is to sit with a different person every day. It’s to help you get to know each other.’

His announcement was met with groans; none of us liked being out of our comfort zone. Unfortunately, the challenge didn’t catch on and having proposed the idea, our tutor left us to it. After a few months, I agreed to move to a new tutor group so that I could have a fresh start. Things didn’t improve friendship wise but my new tutor encouraged the girls in her form to say their names as they spoke. This meant that I came to learn everyone’s names quickly which made me feel more included in the group. Moving people around and getting them to introduce themselves by name are great ways to bring groups together.

As the team’s meetings continued, it soon became apparent that there was an underlying cause of my difficulties. Teachers and pupils alike were generally unaware of how to treat someone with a disability so most people would be ignorant of my needs or avoid me altogether. My teachers of the visually impaired wanted to run some awareness raising sessions to help people feel more comfortable around me. The school were reluctant to do this, their view being that it was difficult to squeeze such a session in their fast-paced educational time table. However, some awareness raising sessions were run in an assembly (for a quarter of the school) and in a lesson for the youngest girls. Awareness raising sessions are a great idea if they’re run in the right way; in my experience, they’re most beneficial for people who are in close proximity to a person with a disability. My teachers of the visually impaired did their best but I believe it would have been more effective had they been able to speak to the whole school or at least to the girls in my year.

I’ve said that the responsibility shouldn’t fall entirely on the pupil when they are struggling at school, yet they do have a part to play in their own success. In my experience, the pupil needs to be open about their needs and as honest about their experiences as they can; their problems won’t be solved if they keep it all bottled up. This means recognising when they should ask for help. However, the pupil needs a lot of support from those around them to keep going when things are tough. This support is by no means limited to teachers. At secondary school, my best friends were other visually impaired teenagers who lived all over the country; they were a great support to me and the understanding peer group I needed. My parents were forever driving me around so I could spend time with them to break up my lonely weeks of school. As parents, you can give your child small boosts to get them through. I remember Mum saying at the start of some school days: ‘I’ll make a cake for when you get home’, or ‘We’ll have something nice for tea.’

Having something to look forward to can help a bad day seem more bearable.

In spite of the awful time I was having, it had been agreed that I would complete my GCSEs at the grammar school before going to New College Worcester. By the time my summer holidays had flown by and year 10 turned into year 11, I was dreading every day at school. I would lie in bed worrying about how I was going to spend my breaktimes and what I would be expected to do in lessons. I worked hard in class to take my mind off things but I always felt that I wasn’t as good as the other girls. I hated lessons which required group work because I could never find anyone to work with and would spend the time sitting around on my own. Every day was exhausting. However, the team of staff were still having meetings. When it became clear that school was getting worse for me, the educational psychologist stepped up to the platform. She knew I only had a few months to go until the exams and suggested part-time schooling. As the school environment wasn’t going to change, she reasoned that I should have more time out of school to conserve the much-needed energy I would need for the exam period. At first, this didn’t seem like a favourable plan; surely I’d be even more behind with my work. Wouldn’t I miss something important if I wasn’t in the lessons? The team of staff did some research into centres where pupils can go if they find it hard to attend school. Although tuition is given at the centres, there were concerns that the educational programme might not be suitable for a person with a visual impairment.

In the end, it was decided that I would do part of my work at home. I went into school 3 days a week and for the other 2 days, my teachers gave me work for me to do at home. I loved it. It was great to be able to work at my own pace for a change and I felt much more relaxed surrounded by home comforts. I could take breaks when I liked and I was surprised to find that I received good marks for the work I did in my own time. For me, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t in the lessons with my peers. My part-time school programme taught me a lot about self-discipline and study skills so that I started at New College Worcester with a work ethic to be proud of.

Part-time schooling is a last resort solution. Integrating pupils with disabilities into classes, raising awareness of their needs, and encouraging them to ask for help are much more favourable than removing the pupil from their peers altogether. School is about the education you receive but it’s also integral to creating the person you become. Therefore, pupils with additional needs must learn to work and play alongside their peers. With good communication between the pupil and all those involved in their schooling, they have a good chance of getting the support they need and leaving school having achieved as much (if not more) than their peers.

Buying Gifts for Difficult People

Context

My Creative Writing degree gave me the idea for this approach to present buying. We were taught that it’s essential for the writer to know the characters they’re writing about. There are all sorts of character profile tables on the internet; the writer can fill in details such as weight, height, and psychological characteristics to ensure that they will know their character before they begin to write.

The Problem

Although it’s nice to give our loved ones gifts, it’s far from easy. People you know well are usually the ones you buy for first because you have the perfect present in mind. And then there are those people who say ‘I don’t know’ when you ask them what they’d like for a birthday or Christmas present. For years now, my dad has received socks or Maltesers for his every Christmas and birthday. These are his favourite things but he must be bored of me giving him the same present every year. Whether you’re wondering what to put on your Christmas / birthday list or agonising over what to get your friends, this table might help you.

The Solution

The idea is to sit down with the table I have created below and fill in as much information about the person you are buying for as you can. I’ve kept the table simple so that you can recreate it in whatever format suits you best. There may be details you don’t know and might want to ask the person, or you may find that some things aren’t relevant. From obvious details such as their age and gender to questions about their interests and favourite things, I hope this table will help you generate some gift ideas.

Age:

Gender:

Hobbies and interests:

Things they wear:

Favourite colour:

Favourite food:

Favourite drink:

Favourite clothes / jewellery / perfume:

Favourite author:

Favourite band / singer:

Favourite programmes:

Favourite films:

Favourite shops / restaurants:

Things they don’t like / things to avoid: