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Case Study – Early Years (FD) and Visual Difficulties

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The following case study is taken from the DART Project.  Focusing on engineering & the built environment, the aim of the DART project was to enhance the experience of disabled students, by enabling institutions, faculties, departments, and individual members of staff to assess their current level of learning and teaching provision as it affects disabled students, and by offering clear guidance on how to make such provision more accessible http://dart.lboro.ac.uk/MICHAEL_000.htm (information accessed and extracted January 2007)

 

DART Project

Student Case Study: MICHAEL
Degree Programme: Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE)
Year/ Level of Study: 1 year Full-time
Type of Institution:  Campus based (Urban)
Disability: Blindness
Case study methodology: Interviews with student, student’s support worker and with an academic tutor
Learning & Teaching Contexts:  Various (including lectures, class discussions, group work, placements)
Specific Issues Key Terms Physical environment, orientation, locating information, using the internet, feedback and the benefits of disclosure
 
This case study focuses on the experience of Michael, a full-time PGCE student from the Department of Education at an urban campus-based university. It was developed on the basis of an extensive interview with Michael and his support worker followed by a further discussion with one of his academic tutors. As well as detailing Michael’s experiences, the Case Study incorporates perspectives provided by his support worker and tutor.
 
Moreover, as part of the course Michael has undertaken practical teacher training at the university where he is studying his PGCE. Therefore, when considering Michaels experiences of different learning and teaching situations, Michael will give his perspective, not only as a disabled student, but also as a disabled lecturer.
 
NOTE: Michael has consented to his name being used in the Case Study. To safeguard the anonymity of his support worker and academic tutor, they will be referred to as SW and AT respectively throughout this Case Study.
 

INTRODUCTION

 
Michael is a full-time mature student, studying a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). Michael was born with glaucoma and lost his sight following a corneal graft operation. By this stage of his life Michael had completed his education and was working as a qualified solicitor which he continued to do successfully, for several years after he became blind. Michael’s decision to return to education, this time as a disabled student, came when he decided he wanted a new challenge in life.
 
During the academic day, Michael receives assistance from a support worker (he has 2 who assist him on different days) to help him find his way around campus and the different learning environments e.g. classrooms, work placements etc; also to help him source material from the library and, very occasionally, to take notes in classes. Michael travels to university independently using a taxi.
 

PREVIOUS EDUCATION

 
Michael followed a conventional route through education, studying O Levels and A Levels before completing a BA in Law at university. He then went on to work as a trainee solicitor for 2 years before taking his law finals in 1974 and qualifying as a solicitor. Michael then practised as a solicitor from 1974 until the beginning of 2002. Michael lost his sight in 1985 following a corneal graft operation but continued to practice as a solicitor for the next 17 years.
 

TRANSITION TO HIGHER EDUCATION

 
After 28 years as a solicitor, Michael decided it was time for a change. Circumstances had changed in that Michael’s wife had passed away and his children were grown up, he no longer had as many financial commitments to meet, and he wanted a new challenge.  Based on enjoyment of communicating with people, discussions with friends, family and other professionals, combined with a lot of thought, Michael decided to have a go at doing a PGCE, with the view of becoming a lecturer. In preparation for this, Michael undertook a year long IT course developing skills that he considers to have been invaluable to his PGCE studies.
 
Although Michael’s disability didn’t influence his decision, the practicalities of undertaking a PGCE with his disability were an obvious consideration for him. Michael took the view that if he could get the necessary support from the local authority in terms of enabling technology, funding for a support worker and travel expenses, then he’d be able to have a go. Prior to starting his PGCE Michael had 2 major concerns: the first was geographical; how would he find his way around the university, (Michael calls it environmental impact – how he’s going to impact on the new environment and how it’s going to impact on him) where seemingly benign environments for non disabled students can be hostile for blind students; secondly, how he would cope with all the reading involved. Through a local authority grant (Disabled Students Allowance), Michael was allocated funding for a support worker to assist him whilst on campus and teacher training placements, also a voice synthesizer software package called JAWS that allows printed material to be read to him.
 

THE STUDENT’S EXPERIENCE

Learning and Teaching Experience
 
Michael has experienced several barriers whilst undertaking his PGCE. Michael was willing to be open about his disability and ask for assistance when needed, which was an important part of his institution identifying and removing barriers to his learning. Michael’s approach to the whole teaching and learning experience is best summed up in his own words:
 
“If you ask – you get! In my situation you cannot sit and wait for the world to come to you. You cannot say “I’ve got a disability, please feel sorry for me” – you can’t. So at the end of the day you’re out there. When you acquire your PGCE, when you go for a job, it’s all very nice having a disability but people will look at you and say “Can this person do the job?” It’s the same situation in college when you’re learning. You’ve got to go out there and ask for what you want and I went out and I asked people for information and asked them to help me and they did”. 
 
The following highlight some of Michael’s relevant experiences.
 
Lectures
 
Michael feels that, as a student, having the opportunity to introduce your disability to lecturers and fellow students at the start of a course is very important. At the start of his PGCE studies Michael told his lecturers and fellow students about his background and his disability. By demystifying his disability and treating it lightly, Michael put fellow students at ease straight away. Because Michael can’t see the class room or fellow students, orientating himself can be a problem e.g. talking to someone but looking in the wrong direction. Michael asks fellow students to let him know if he is doing this.
 
During lectures Michael is unable to take notes. Therefore he relies on handouts from the lecturer, which he later scans into his computer so that they can be read out to him when revising. He also sometimes gets notes from fellow students. Very occasionally, he asks his support worker to take notes.
 
In his capacity as a trainee lecturer, aided by a support worker, Michael teaches a fairly small class of students and, if not writing down lots of notes, he asks them to sit in a semi circle. He explains to the class about his disability, to put the students at ease, and asks them to tell him if he is not facing the right way when speaking to them. Michael keeps a point of focus when lecturing by keeping his hands on a desk to stop himself losing track of his position. One difficulty he faces, especially with new students, is getting to know who they are. Michael does this with vocal recognition and asks students to say their name out loud when they come into the classroom until he becomes familiar with them.
 
Generally, Michael does not use OHPs or PowerPoint presentations to accompany his lessons, preferring to give out handouts he has prepared earlier. His lessons tend to be interactive: he asks students to write on the chalk board and then read out what they’ve written. He also asks students to tell him out loud the things they are doing. Because Michael can not read notes, he has to learn his lectures as an actor would learn a script. He occasionally uses a vocal pocket memo, but generally he relies upon his memory. Michael’s loss of vision occurred later in life and so, unconsciously, he uses body language when talking – as a non disabled lecturer would – i.e. nodding and smiling when students answer questions. Again this helps to put students at ease.
 
Group Work
 
Provided Michael has been given the opportunity to introduce his disability at the start of term, group work is not a problem. At the start of his PGCE, one lecturer asked students to give a five minute talk about themselves. Michael used this opportunity to introduce his disability saying: “I can’t see, but I can walk and talk and am an ordinary person with a disability” – which helped break the ice. Therefore, when group work occurs, Michael simply tells students what he needs them to do to assist him, such as reading out instructions, which allows him to take an active part.
 
As a trainee lecturer Michael uses group work a lot and frequently divides the class into small groups of 2,3 or 4, swapping group members around, so that cliques don’t form. He believes group work promotes cooperation between students, gets students motivated and also aids cooperation with the lecturer. The support worker lets Michael know if someone in a group is not participating, which prompts Michael to go over and investigate. At the end of the group exercise, all group members have to do a presentation. In this way, Michael ensures everyone has participated. If Michael is marking the presentations, his support worker will help by telling him about students’ body language i.e. if they’re smiling or reading from notes etc.
 
Class Discussions
 
As with group work, class discussions do not present a problem for Michael. In terms of orientation, the class usually sits in a semi circle and the lecturer may begin by asking individual opinions which then become a general discussion. Michael feels very comfortable with voicing his opinion in these situations.
 
As a trainee lecturer, class discussions can be a little difficult to get started in that Michael can not see where everyone is sitting and so may ask a student for their opinion but be looking at the wrong person. Also, the more confident students will join in automatically, but with the quieter ones it is more difficult. This is why Michael believes group work is such an important teaching method as it enables ‘team spirit’ to develop between the group. In this way, as term progresses and ‘team spirit’ grows, class discussions become more animated. In these situations, although it would be easier for Michael to ask students to always sit in the same place he prefers not to impose a rigid structure on the class. Instead students sit where they want – usually in a semi circle – and Michael’s attitude is that the worst that can happen is that he uses the wrong name, but that this isn’t the end of the world.
 
Research Using the Library
 
Michael does not use the library for research, preferring to work at home instead. Here, he scans books into his PC and then plays them back – through the JAWS voice-synthesizer – while making notes. Although this takes twice as long as reading the book, it enables Michael to learn the subject matter more thoroughly. Because Michael can not browse the library shelves, he relies on tutors to advise him which texts to read as well as the course recommended reading list.
 
Carrying out research on the internet is a slow and difficult process for Michael. He has recently acquired some speech software that allows web pages to be read to him, but Michael finds this is somewhat difficult to use. Once he has finished his PGCE, Michael intends to spend some time getting more proficient with this software. Michael has been fortunate in that one of his support workers is an ex-PGCE student, and consequently has a good grasp of the subject area, allowing him to find information for Michael on the internet. Michael says that, without this help, tasks would have taken him much longer to complete. Michael feels that if tutors had given out specific website addresses, this would have been of major assistance to him. He would have been able to save them in his ‘Favourites’ list and access them as and when he wanted.
 
Work Placements
 
Michael has to undertake teaching practice as part of his PGCE course and getting used to new teaching environments can be very challenging. If Michael feels anxious in his teaching environments, he feels this will affect the standard of his teaching and may also leave the students feeling anxious. When faced with a work placement, accompanied by a support worker, Michael checks out the situation in advance so he is aware of the pitfalls of the new environment. Having a support worker present during work placement was valuable as a reasonable adjustment. This ensured that Michael had a full chance to participate in this learning experience and was less worried about working in an unfamiliar physical environment. If in future, Michael has a base class room (he always teaches in the same classroom) he would need help at first, until he became accustomed to the new environment. However, he also believes that he would ultimately be able to teach unaided in this environment.
 
Assessment / Examinations
 
In terms of assessments on his PGCE, Michael has to submit assignments rather than sit examinations. To date, he has not encountered any problems doing this. Tutors both write down comments and also either tell Michael what they have said or e-mail their comments to him. So long as comments are given to Michael in typed script, his PC with the JAWS software application is able to read them back to him. Had Michael been required to sit examinations, he does not feel that these would be problematic so long as he was provided with a PC and appropriate technology that could read out the questions to him, along with some extra time.
 
As a trainee lecturer, Michael has set students two assignments as part of his teacher training and has asked them to e-mail their work to him. Michael’s PC reads the assignments to him and he either writes comments in italic on the actual assignment or he makes notes on a pocket memo as he proceeds through each section. He then types out a comments page and e-mails it back to students. As part of the marking system, the university has a pro-forma marking sheet including tick boxes. Michael has had this adapted so that he can provide all the information required by the course moderators.
 
Meeting Deadlines
 
Meeting deadlines has not been a problem for Michael. He had one extended deadline at the beginning of his course but has otherwise handed everything else in on time. He attributes the cause of this extension as being that he had been out of education for 30 years, rather than to his disability. In respect of meeting deadlines, Michael has found it beneficial that he has been given assignments well in advance of their due date. Had significant research been needed for a piece of work, which tutors wanted completing within a week, Michael believes that the tutors would have had to make some adjustments to accommodate his disability. 
 
Impact on Learning and Academic Progress
 
Specific tasks, involving accessing information, have been amongst the most difficult for Michael because of his disability. Consequently, it has been in this area that Michael feels that he has needed the most help and that his education has potentially suffered to the greatest extent. This is possibly the only area where Michael believes that the tutors could have offered more help. If lecturers recommend reading a book for a specific subject, but don’t give page numbers, it takes Michael a long time to locate the information. If page numbers were specified, Michael’s support worker could get the book and read out the relevant pages, thus saving Michael vast quantities of time. While finding pages and accessing them is a difficult thing for Michael to do with his disability, scanning pages into his PC, and having them read back to him, is not.
 
Despite this Michael has nothing but praise for his two PGCE tutors and says they have both been “excellent”. When OHPs have been used, he has always been given copies of the material. The tutors have always made sure lecture notes have been in typed script, feedback has always been typed up properly, and when he needed extra time for an assignment there was no problem. In other words, when he has needed help, Michael has been able to ask for it. His tutors have listened and understood his needs.
 
What is of paramount importance to Michael is to be treated as an individual. In his own words: 
 
“I think disability is a personal thing. Each person has their own problems, their own hang ups and their own way of dealing with it…. You can make general adjustments for them but you’ve got to act on one premise. Whatever disability – whether they’re a wheelchair user, hard of hearing, autistic etc. – each person has their own problems and you must treat them in that respect”.
 
As a lecturer, Michael will have to rely on himself as the main class resource i.e. he won’t be able to use visual aids as much to help him, but he will provide his classes with handouts. He also feels that there will be a lot of student involvement in his lectures – in other words the students will be doing a lot of the work themselves rather than just listening to him talk. This, he believes, will help to keep the students motivated and interested. If a class shows signs of being bored and unresponsive, Michael is not afraid to stop and change things, allowing students a short break before starting again. 
 
Because Michael is studying part time, his contact with the university is in the form of tutors, the library and the disability office – all of which he says are excellent. Michael prefers working on his own and so does not mind his lack of access to the library. Meanwhile, the staff in the disability office are present as and when he needs them. Also, Michael has been greatly helped by his two support workers who he also describes as “excellent”.
 

SUPPORT WORKER’S PERSPECTIVE

 
Michael has two support workers helping him on different days whilst on campus, and he has developed a very good working relationship with both. The support worker (SW), who accompanied Michael to the interview, says Michael communicates very well with her and lets her know exactly what he needs. Because of this, she feels that it is easy for her to assist him. Moreover, SW echoes many of the points made by Michael, but also highlights some additional difficulties. For instance, SW feels that, at first, students may be too nervous to tell Michael if he is facing the wrong way when speaking to them. But because SW is there, looking at them, smiling and nodding when they answer questions and telling Michael when he is facing the wrong way, this puts students at ease and shows them that Michael indeed welcomes assistance with his orientation.
 
Group work and class discussions can be problematic in terms of the acoustics of the classrooms where SW and Michael are based. At the moment Michael is teaching in very large classrooms with relatively small numbers of students. Some of the students speak very quietly, especially when English isn’t their first language. Usually, when a student speaks, Michael knows which way to face. However, if acoustics are poor and students speak quietly, SW feels it is very difficult for Michael to know which way to face.
 
In general, SW also feels that tutors should be more understanding towards disabled students and in particular should recognise the extra time and effort it takes a disabled student to do the same activities as a non disabled student. Additionally, she concurs with Michael that tutors could give more specific instructions (e.g. page numbers for books and website addresses). Such steps would have saved Michael a lot of time and made it easier for SW to assist him.
 

ACADEMIC TUTOR’S PERSPECTIVE

 
According to Michael’s Academic Tutor (AT), Michael was very good at putting her at ease from the beginning. However, the AT is also conscious that other students, requiring support, may not have Michael’s ability to do this; therefore, considering and understanding the individual’s perspective, motivations and outlook is important. In this particular case, this was made more significant by the fact that the AT had little experience of teaching students with visual impairments. This meant that the interactions with Michael represented a learning experience for her, as well as for Michael. On reflection, the AT believes that she missed an opportunity to ask Michael how she could have helped to meet his needs more effectively, in order to improve the experiences of her future students. Consequently, AT suggests that tutors, who may find themselves in the same position, should ask the student in advance what support they may require.
 
AT gained some useful insights from working with Michael, especially concerning observation reports. Firstly, with visually impaired students, observation reports must be typed up and e-mailed; however, students also like to have feedback immediately if possible. Although AT didn’t do this at the time, on reflection, this could be achieved by bringing a laptop to the observation and typing up comments instead of hand writing them. A disc could then have been left with Michael or e-mailed to him – AT feels this would not cause any extra inconvenience and would have facilitated Michael’s independence. AT suggests that tutors should always try to think of ways they can give visually impaired students feedback electronically (rather than handwritten), in all situations where feedback is required. Moreover, AT believes that the university has a similar responsibility to ensure that all documents are provided in electronic as well as hard copy. 
 
Despite being one of Michael’s main tutors, AT met Michael after the course had commenced and, consequently, was unaware of his background. AT describes how the following scenario (in her own words) had quite an influence on her: “One day I found myself walking to the classroom with Michael. We were on a floor where there were many pictures from the same famous artist and I found myself describing the pictures to Michael as I thought he might be interested. However, as I spoke these words I suddenly realised that I did not know if Michael had once been able to see – I’d presumed so just by Michael’s ‘way of being’, but suddenly wondered if I was being unwittingly offensive. Other questions also sprang to mind: How was I going to describe the pictures? Why had I thought Michael might appreciate knowing of something that he couldn’t observe? Could Michael see a little – shades or outlines for example? I realized then, that I did not know enough about Michael and I felt embarrassed that I had mentioned the paintings at all. Despite my clumsy approach, Michael reacted politely and in a matter of fact way told me that he knew the artist and had purchased one of the paintings himself in the past. I felt very relieved at his reaction and in fact this then opened up a conversation about Michael’s disability that I found very helpful.” Therefore, AT suggests that it is helpful to have a conversation with the student as early as possible to find out a bit more about them and how their disability affects them.  
 

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

 
A number of good practice points emerge from this case study. 
 
  • On a more general level, tutors with blind or visually impaired students might wish to consider the following:
  • Do not assume that all students with visual impairments have the same study support needs.
  • Always talk to the student, rather than to the support worker in the teaching environment. Be aware that talking to the support worker may provoke any number of negative reactions in the student: for instance, it could create the potential situation where the student loses self-confidence or feels mildly insulted.
  • Make time to talk to disabled students in private to find out how the disability affects them, and what sort of support they may need
  • When speaking to prospective disabled students, make sure they are also in touch with the university disability office. The support – provision of support worker, enabling technology and help with travelling expenses – Michael received from his Local Education Authority (via the disability office) was invaluable to Michael throughout his course.
  • As a teacher of disabled students, you may wish to make yourself aware of the wider support than can be provided for your teaching through your university’s Disability Services.
  • Be aware that the enabling technology available for visually impaired students is not always easy to use. Its usage may involve a far greater time commitment by the student (e.g. Michael scans in books which are then read back to him by his voice synthesizer software package while he makes notes, in order to glean information.
 
In terms of more specific learning and teaching issues, academic tutors might consider the following actions when teaching blind / visually impaired students
 
  • Ensure that you have knowledge of the layout of the room before the lecture, and so can pre-empt any issues with room layout or any particular difficulties with acoustics
  • Provide handouts to accompany lectures as well as providing copies of all OHPs / PowerPoint presentations used
  • In Group Work, make sure a fellow group member reads out written instructions so that visually impaired students understand the task in hand
  • In Class discussions, if possible ask the class / group to sit in a semi circle position. This makes it easier for a blind / visually impaired student to participate as they may be unable to see who is speaking and rely on their hearing to orientate themselves towards the rest of the class
  • If taking the class / group out of its normal environment e.g. for field trips / work placements, allow visually impaired students to visit the new environment beforehand (preferably accompanied by a support worker) so that they can get used to the new physical features in advance
  • When asking students to carry out research, be aware of the extra time it takes blind / visually impaired students to find information. Consider giving out more specific information (e.g. useful web addresses and or page numbers for relevant chapters in books) to help with research. This could amount to a significant time saving
  • Give out assignment briefs well in advance of the final deadline, thereby allowing   students plenty of time to plan, locate information and carry out the work
  • Make sure you give assignment feedback in an accessible format (i.e. typed). Handwritten comments can not be scanned into a PC
 
In the final analysis, this case study highlights the benefits to disabled students of disclosing their disability. Michael adopted a very effective communication strategy right at the beginning of his course with fellow students and tutors. He made light of his disability, setting people at ease, and told them that he would sometimes ask them for help. This enabled Michael to overcome the difficulties he encountered and get the help he needed efficiently and effectively. In addition, for students and tutors who had never experienced working with a visually impaired colleague the insight and experience Michael gave them, in terms of increased awareness, understanding and empathy, proved most valuable.
 

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