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Blind student forced to withdraw from university due to ‘lack of support’

A blind university student felt forced into withdrawing from his course after he claims that “institutional failures” in disability support left him unable to partake in his studies.

19-year-old Daniel Swain had been looking forward to beginning his undergraduate degree in Philosophy at the prestigious University of Sheffield last September, but reported that within a few months of starting his course “everything went wrong”.

The first-year student from East Yorkshire, who had been a straight-A student at both school and college, said that his initial experience at the university had been positive – as the Disability and Dyslexia Support Service (DDSS) had helped him to draft a comprehensive Learning Support Plan (LSP) which would have helped him engage with his course.

Yorkshire Live reports, however, that Daniel said that this was where his university experience began to unravel, due to his LSP not being circulated to any of his lecturers and was therefore not acted upon, leaving him unable to participate in taught lessons.

Daniel stated: “We sent the LSP to the Philosophy department in good time at the start of September, which is a few weeks before the course started, but I found out that the steps outlined in the LSP weren’t being taken, the things it recommended they weren’t doing.

Daniel has been left feeling let down by the University and wants to make sure this does not happen to other students

“Obviously I emailed them and found out that they had overlooked the LSP, it wasn’t circulated to the lecturers in time.”

The LSP informed members of staff in the Philosophy department that they had a duty to ensure that Daniel’s access to learning materials was not compromised due to his disability, which included making sure that teaching materials – including books and other texts – were in a format that could be used by Daniel’s screen reader.

As a registered blind person, Daniel relies on the tech to ‘read’ for him – by feeding books and other written mediums into the software so that it can be read out much in the same way as an audiobook.

But by the time Daniel’s course had started, some essential reading materials were not accessible in this way, so Daniel quickly fell behind with his required reading and this had a knock-on effect during his lectures as he felt unprepared for his teaching sessions.

“I felt less able to participate in lectures and seminars because I’d been less able to prepare for them due to the issues that had come before”, Daniel said.

He added: “And what led to me withdrawing was I felt that I wasn’t getting the same experience as the other students on the course, so I thought the best thing for me to do was to drop out.”

Daniel said that the delay in getting the LSP to his lecturers was the “catalyst” for all the problems that followed, as the department had not been able to double-check that all teaching materials were available in an accessible format and Daniel said that the department and wider University’s approach to fixing the issues were “reactive” when it should have been proactively prepared.

And Daniel said that he was made aware by the University that there was no mandatory Equality, Diversity and Inclusion training for staff until November 2020 – which meant that there was a lack of understanding about the importance of acting on LSP’s.

Daniel said: “Under the equality act reasonable adjustments have to be proactive and not reactive, but their approach was reactive.”

Teaching staff in the Department of Philosophy had even admitted to Daniel that they were ill-equipped to welcome a blind student and, in an email seen by YorkshireLive, one member of staff told Daniel “clearly we weren’t ready for a student like you”.

But Daniel said that the problems are “so much wider than the Department of Philosophy”, as it is the University’s responsibility as a whole to ensure that disabled students are not disadvantaged during their studies.

He said: “Going to uni with a disability is hard enough, it’s so hard because you’re moving to a place you’ve never been to before, you’ve got to try and make friends and live independently and then you’re having to deal with the fact that you can’t actually access your learning or teaching, that you can’t actually do your course it just makes it so much harder.”

He added: “That’s why I decided to withdraw because it was really getting to me, I was really struggling with my mental health but people generally tend to say ‘don’t let your disability define you’ but it’s just another example of how these organisations are not supporting me properly.

“I always say there’s no greater barrier you’ll ever face than disability, that’s why it’s so important to make the changes but it’s really hard having a disability and you are at a natural disadvantage so I wish that people would make my life so much easier.”

Daniel has since struggled with feelings of depression, as the experience has left him feeling that he would be unable to go back to university – even if it was a different institution.

He said: “I’ve had people ask why not go to another university, but I had wanted to study at the University of Sheffield; I wanted to study that course at that university, I didn’t want to to go to a different uni.

“And even if I did now, I still wouldn’t have the confidence that the support I need would be in place so, at the moment, no I wouldn’t go back it’s just pretty tough.”

A spokesperson for the University of Sheffield said: “We are very sorry that a Learning Support Plan was not fully implemented by a students’ department at the start of the last academic year.

“We are working proactively with our Students’ Union to improve our disability support and producing extensive guidance on implementing Learning Support Plans and the recommendations they make.

“We continue our commitment to addressing barriers to participation to ensure we provide inclusive curricula, learning and teaching environments. Further information on disability inclusion can be found at: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/inclusion/disability.”

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