Disability history month: what access means to me as a blind student
The idea of access may seem simple on the surface—society should be structured in a way which provides equality for all, however this is not always the case. Of course, access is a human right, but one thing that often isn’t discussed is how disabled access is hugely dependent on a person’s disability. I can only speak from my own experience, so I’m going to explain what access means to me as a blind person, both in terms of being a student but also in wider society.
I’m registered blind due to being born with anophthalmia in my left eye, meaning it didn’t develop at all and I have to wear a prosthetic, and microphthalmia in my right eye which means my eye didn’t develop fully. For me, this means that the only vision I have is light perception, colours and shadows in my right eye. Many people don’t realise that being blind doesn’t automatically mean a person sees nothing. The majority of blind people do actually have some useful vision, although this differs for everyone. My idea of useful vision is also very different to what yours may be, because if a fully sighted person suddenly ended up with my level of vision, they would probably feel as though they were completely blind.
I also want to point out that blindness doesn’t equate to darkness. I have no vision in my left eye (due to not having an actual eye) so the sense just isn’t there. For me, I don’t see darkness or black because technically that would still be seeing something. Although, this is just how I see things and I don’t speak for all blind people, and that goes for anyone discussing any disability, we all experience things differently.
Access as a blind student: what do I need?
- I use a laptop with a ScreenReader and braille display, meaning that all text on the screen is converted to speech and braille. I use this in lectures and when doing assignments, so anything used in lectures has to be available electronically.
- Pictures or other visual information such as diagrams has to either be modified or described in order for me to be able to access the information.
- I rely on eBooks and online resources. Being blind also makes it near impossible to skim read, so finding relevant information in books and journals can be quite time consuming.
- I use a long cane to get around, so I have mobility training to enable me to learn routes and find the rooms I need. Although the small amount of sight I have is useful to orientate myself, it isn’t enough to help me get around, so I mainly rely on memory. This is particularly difficult at the minute, as Covid means that the layouts of buildings and rooms are likely to have changed, and I can’t see the signs to follow the instructions.
Wider society: how can you help to make things more accessible for blind people?
- When meeting a blind person for the first time, introduce yourself. After a few times we’ll probably remember who you are and if we don’t, it’s usually easy enough to work it out from the conversation. Never ask ‘who do you think this is?’ We don’t want to play a game of guess who and it can be really embarrassing if we get it wrong.
- Use alt text on your social media images. Apps such as facebook, twitter and instagram have a setting which lets you type a description of any photo you’re posting. This description is only visible to those who come across your post whilst using a ScreenReader, so it helps visually impaired people to understand what’s in the photo without interfeering with how your post looks, as it won’t be visible to the rest of your sighted followers.
- If you move something which we might need, tell us so we know where it’s gone. This also stands if you’re going to walk away mid conversation, tell us, otherwise chances are we’ll be left talking to ourselves.
- Help can be great, but only if we want/need it. If you see a blind person (or any other disabled person) and think they’re struggling, ask if there’s anything you can help with. We might say no, or we might explain what we’d like you to do. You should respect the answer either way, we know ourselves best and what might look like a struggle to you is sometimes just our way of doing things.
- Never be afraid to ask a question. Some people will be more open and comfortable discussing their disability than others, but as long as your question isn’t invasive you can probably ask it. I’d always rather someone ask me something so I have the chance to educate and explain, rather than leaving them to make an assumption which can often be inaccurate.
Things are definitely improving, and I think we’re slowly moving towards a more accessible and inclusive society. However, there’s still a long way to go and we can only continue to move forward if we have more understanding, education and acceptance.
This article by Sophie Paul is part of our UK Disability History Month campaign. UK Disability History Month (UKDHM) is an annual event creating a platform to focus on the history of disabled persons' struggle for equality and human rights.
Visit our Disability History Month Campaign page to find out more.