In a classroom in the Harmonie building, a group of staff members has gathered for an experiential workshop on ‘Studying with a visual impairment’, offered by Visio and commissioned by the Student Service Centre. ‘Welcome! We’d like to ask you to put on a pair of glasses, and find a seat.’ The glasses in question are taped on both sides, and they all turn out to limit vision in one way or another: we have officially begun!
Once we are finally seated, with the glasses still on, Visio teachers Henk Benjamins and Karin van Dijk talk a bit about their work, and students Inge (partially sighted) and Mireille (blind) share what it is like to study with a visual impairment. In the meantime, someone’s phone starts to ring, a latecomer walks in, and Henk and Karin circulate around the room — concentrate, focus on the voice!
Henk explains: seeing is something you do with your eyes and your brain. The eye registers colour, depth, light, and dark. If something goes wrong with the eye, you may develop tunnel vision (where only the central part is visible), macular degeneration (where the central part is missing), or hemianopsia (where the left or right part of the image is missing). If something goes wrong with the brain processing what we see, it is called a cerebral visual impairment, or CVI. CVI was only discovered fairly recently, and it covers multiple impairments or weaknesses in visual function as a result of damage to various brain parts. People with CVI may find it hard to get an overview, or to zoom in or out. CVI turns out to be hard to detect because people do not wish to stand out, and are often able to compensate for the impairment, for example by remembering where an object is or how to walk a certain route. But seeing with CVI costs time and especially energy, and it can manifest as fear of failure, irritation, or insecurity.
We proceed with the workshop and all try looking through another lens. Some participants are asked to go to the toilet, while others are invited to log on to Brightspace with their smartphones — absolutely hopeless with those glasses on! And how do you find the toilet if you cannot read the signs? Try to listen whether you can hear rushing water behind a door? Hope that you do not accidentally walk into a classroom? Or follow Mireille’s example and follow the smell of air freshener?
Back in the classroom, Inge and Mireille talk about their contact with student counsellors and study advisors, and about how they contact individual lecturers before each new semester to ask which books will be used, so they can order adjusted versions, and how and under what conditions examinations will be administered. What would really help is for lecturers to share their PowerPoint presentations beforehand. A few adjustments in Brightspace would also help. The study advisors present confirm that there are important differences between faculties. Mireille: ‘Even if I am offered the opportunity, I don’t want to take exams separately from the rest to avoid people thinking that I am cheating. I don’t want to make it more special than it already is.’
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