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Student Case Studies: Physical and Sensory Impairments

Look at these scenarios illustrating how a student’s needs can be impacted by their university experience.

Taylor

Taylor is a second year Education Studies student who uses an electric wheelchair for mobility.

Read Taylor’s case study

Taylor’s course involves a mixture of taught lectures, more interactive seminars and tutorials and one to one meetings with tutors. Taylor uses an electric wheelchair for mobility and requires daily personal care. Taylor lives on campus in one of the University’s accessible student rooms and has had several adaptations made prior to coming to University.  

Taylor is a well-motivated student with a strong interest in education and has well developed study skills. They intend to undertake a postgraduate teaching qualification on completion of their degree.

Though Taylor is now quite happy on their course, their first year was difficult for them at times and at one point Taylor had considered leaving the course due to some of the barriers that they were facing. The transition into University had been particularly hard, despite the fact that Taylor’s access needs and funding support had been put in place before their arrival and Taylor was happy with their accommodation and choice of University.

An initial concern for Taylor was travel between lectures and other taught sessions. Though timetabling had been considered to ensure sufficient time was given for travel between sessions, sometimes classes were on different levels of a building, so in order to use accessible lifts Taylor often found themself having to detach from the wider student group when travelling between sessions. It wasn’t always obvious to others in the group that this was happening and how this was impacting Taylor but the effect on Taylor’s integration and feeling of otherness was real.

During the first year of the course, Taylor also found themself sometimes late for teaching sessions on some days due to their early start. Taylor’s personal care routines meant that they often needed to prioritise these, over prompt attendance in lessons. This was both embarrassing for Taylor and also meant that they were unable to locate themselves comfortably within classes, often finding themselves at inappropriate desks and situated at the edge of classes where their participation and access to teaching was impacted. The late arrival and challenge of navigating Taylor’s wheelchair through a cluttered room compounded Taylor’s embarrassment and as this reminded them of similarly uncomfortably personal experiences they had had in the past, Taylor soon stopped attending these sessions. Taylor felt increasingly distanced from the class at an important stage in their student life and their engagement in teaching and attendance dropped off after a few weeks of their first term.

Taylor’s tutors spoke with each other about their concerns and Taylor’s personal tutor discussed this with Taylor when they next met. Having listened to Taylor’s difficulties, the tutor arranged for the start times of those lessons with earlier starts to be moved back 20 minutes, to allow Taylor time to attend each day. They also arranged for timetabling of all sessions in the second term to be adjusted in this way so that this would be a sustainable arrangement and ensured where possible that lessons that were close together were timetabled on the same levels, so Talyor could travel with their peers between sessions . They also discussed seating arrangements for Taylor and agreed with other tutors for Taylor to have access to an appropriately situated high desk for them to sit at and take notes in lessons. The tutors also planned longer breaks between sessions to accommodate for the extra time it takes Taylor to get between different teaching rooms and locations.

This worked well for Taylor in taught sessions and their attendance increased. However, Taylor’s participation in group discussions and activities remained lower than hoped for. Taylor spoke to one tutor who asked about this and Taylor explained that they didn’t always feel their participation had been considered in discussions and due to the clutter in the teaching rooms and the lack of time to move to different locations, Taylor had tended to let people come to them rather than fully integrating with the whole class. From then on, the tutor ensured classes where group discussion and activity would take place were organised to enable Taylor to move around the class more and asked Taylor to lead several discussions. This increased Taylor’s confidence and their integration with the class and Taylor’s initial misgivings were overcome. 

Though Taylor still faces occasional challenges with timings and access, their experience has dramatically improved and they are an active and popular participant on the course.

Pause for thought

  • What, if anything, might tutors have done to support Taylor differently when they first arrived at University?
  • How might you create the environment within which Taylor and other students would feel comfortable disclosing the anxieties and difficulties they face?
  • What changes to your teaching could you introduce to support Taylor in playing a full part in your course?

 Reflecting on Taylor’s situation, consider:

  • What emotional impact or stress is Taylor experiencing?
  • How might the issue with Taylor’s attendance have been avoided?
  • How might the issue with Taylor’s seating in class have been addressed?
  • Whether Taylor’s tutors and lecturers might face any challenges in providing appropriate support, and how they might access support and guidance to enhance their own practice
  • Is Taylor accessing all the resources and support available to them and if not, what are the reasons for this? 
  • How might University-wide policy and procedures have helped to encourage Taylor to disclose their concerns at an earlier stage?
  • Where Taylor might be signposted in order to access additional support and guidance on an ongoing basis, as they feel it is needed.

Josh

Josh is a first-year student studying management at University. Josh is registered blind/partially sighted.

Read Josh’s case study

Josh’s visual impairment is called nystagmus, which causes constant movement of Josh’s eyes. In addition, Josh has a recent diagnosis of anxiety.

Josh had specialist training in the use of a cane in the year prior to arriving at University. In addition, having contacted the University prior to attending, the disability service had arranged for some mobility training for Josh, to help him with orienting within what would be an unfamiliar environment to him. The University had also ensured that Josh’s core course materials were available in accessible formats and he had received training in his assistive screen reading technology, so that he was able to access materials.

Josh’s participation in the first few weeks at university was good, though he chose to miss some of the induction activities put on by the university as he didn’t feel they were appropriate to him. However, as his first term extended Josh’s attendance at class became poorer and when he did attend, he was often late. The work Josh handed in during his first term was also a concern and at a regular one to one tutorial with Josh, his tutor raised these issues with him.

Though initially reluctant to talk, Josh eventually opened up about a range of issues. Josh felt quite uncomfortable using a cane as he did not want to appear different from other students and this had impacted his anxiety to the extent that he had not felt able to attend on occasions. Josh had not made many contacts with people at sixth form and had consciously decided he wanted to feel more a part of things at University. He was therefore resistant to using a cane which he felt made him “different”. He was also concerned at the negative reactions and stigma this might bring out in other students. Josh also commented that even when he did attend, he often couldn’t access the teaching as he was seated too far from the screen and the tutor so was not really able to follow what was happening. Josh explained that he has limited vision as a result of his visual impairment but can see objects and text when seated close to them and when he can focus directly at what he is looking at. Josh added that his vision can vary depending on how he is feeling, and his anxiety is particularly impacting on this, so his concerns about feeling different and avoidance of his cane were doubly impacting. A further concern for Josh was that he was unable to properly take part in group activities. He had found himself in groups but unable to participate due to lack of awareness among his peers of the difficulties he was facing. One group task involved sharing of resources, both online and face to face and Josh had been unable to access these as they had been shared in real time and were in traditional smaller fonts.

Josh had therefore stopped attending or when he had attended had found himself disorientated and highly stressed making him late for several lectures in the past few days. On some occasions, Josh had arrived at University and felt so anxious and disorientated that he had made the decision to go back home without attending classes. 

At the end of their discussion, the tutor agreed to tell his colleagues that Josh needed to sit close to the front of classes with full view of any materials and the tutor. Josh and the tutor also contacted the university disability team. He did this and with the tutor they discussed some alternative provision with him, meaning he was able to access a sighted guide to help guide him to lectures for the rest of that term, as an alternative to him using his cane. Josh welcomed this and continued to use this support to this day as he feels this is less conspicuous that his cane. 

The tutors also suggested that they run a quick visual impairment awareness session for the course and the tutors, and another visually impaired student from another year agreed to help with this. Students and tutors were told some of the key concerns of visually impaired students and were encouraged to ask questions. Feedback was very positive. Josh and the other student also discussed use of a cane and how this had helped the other student become more independent and able to access far more of academic and social activities at the University. Josh agreed that he would access some more mobility training to give him greater confidence with his cane and it was agreed that his support would be discussed after he had done this.      

After the session, a couple of Josh’s peers asked whether sending information to him in advance of group discussions would be helpful and Josh discussed this with them and how this would mean he would be able to use his screen reading software to read the text. They agreed to work together on their next task in this way and this further enhanced Josh’s confidence moving forwards.

Pause for thought

  • What, if anything, might tutors have done to support Josh differently when he first arrived at University?
  • How might you create the environment within which Josh and other students would feel comfortable disclosing the anxieties and difficulties they face?
  • What changes to your teaching could you introduce to support Josh in playing a full part in your course?

Reflecting on Josh’s situation, consider:

  • What emotional impact or stress is Josh experiencing?
  • How might the issue with Josh’s attendance and participation have been avoided?
  • Whether Josh’s tutors and lecturers might face any challenges in providing appropriate support, and how they might access support and guidance to enhance their own practice
  • Is Josh accessing all the resources and support available to him and if not, what are the reasons for this? 
  • How might University-wide policy and procedures have helped to encourage Josh to disclose his concerns at an earlier stage?
  • Where Josh might be signposted in order to access additional support and guidance on an ongoing basis, as they feel it is needed

Hayley

Hayley has had a hearing impairmentsince the age of six.

Read Hayley’s case study

Hayley uses hearing aids to boost her residual hearing and relies as well on a mix of lip reading and watching facial expressions to help her follow what is being said. Without hearing aids, Hayley hears sound but cannot make full sense of it. Her hearing aids amplify the sounds she cannot hear, but in a noisier environment may pick up distracting background noises as well, such as people talking over one another, traffic through an open window, things being moved noisily around desks.   For this reason, a quiet learning environment is essential.


Hayley has opted for a course that has a mix of face to face weekend blocks and some online content as she felt this would better fit with her other commitments as Hayley has a young family and works part-time.

This is a new course that was previously delivered face to face and Hayley has experienced some difficulties with the online elements of this course, both due to technology and a lack of tutor awareness.

Hayley has difficulty with following conversations and making notes at the same time even in face to face situations. However, during online group sessions, particularly one to ones or lectures, this means Hayley has to choose between making notes and listening, which often means she finds herself with gaps in her understanding despite her best efforts.

Pace of tuition or discussion is also an issue with tutors and fellow students not understanding that there is a delay of several seconds as Hayley has first to pick up a new sound and then look around to see where it is coming from because she has no directional hearing; once she has identified the new speaker, she also then has to concentrate hard to pick through any background noise in order to tune into the voice.  This is particularly problematic in group sessions (in-person and online) as Hayley finds herself constantly missing the first few sentences as each new speaker starts talking, which causes her anxiety. Another complication with online group sessions is that the quality of audio can be variable between computers, and Hayley is reluctant to point this out because trying to resolve the problem can be disruptive to the discussion and frustrating for everyone if not easily resolved and she’s the only person not hearing.  She also finds it embarrassing to interrupt or ask for something to be repeated because she feels she is the problem and holding back the discussion.

 Hayley breathes a sigh of relief when she finds out a session has been pre-recorded and closed captions or subtitles have been added.    

Overall, this means the process of online learning and trying to take notes at the same time as participating in a conversation is both confusing and exhausting for Hayley and she has begun to get dispirited by this.  It isn’t that she wilfully disengages from the learning environment, she simply can’t keep up the necessary level of concentration over a long period.

Pause for thought

  • What, if anything, might tutors have done to support Hayley differently when he first arrived at University?
  • How might you create the environment within which Hayley and other students would feel comfortable disclosing the anxieties and difficulties they face?
  • What changes to your teaching could you introduce to support Hayley in playing a full part in your course?

Reflecting on Hayley’s situation, consider:

  • What emotional impact or stress is Hayley experiencing?
  • How might the issue with Hayley’s understanding, participation and note-taking have been avoided?
  • Whether Hayley’s tutors and lecturers might face any challenges in providing appropriate support, and how they might access support and guidance to enhance their own practice
  • Is Hayley accessing all the resources and support available to her and if not, what are the reasons for this? 
  • How might University-wide policy and procedures have helped to encourage Hayley to disclose her concerns at an earlier stage?
  • Where Hayley might be signposted in order to access additional support and guidance on an ongoing basis, as she feels it is needed

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