What's distancing like for a student who can't see?

College student Robert explains how his guide dog, Winnie, has helped him in continuing his studies during Covid
25th November 2020, 2:58pm
Robert and guide dog Winnie


What's distancing like for a student who can't see?

Coronavirus: College Student Robert Says His Guide Dog, Winnie,  Has Helped Him Amid The Social Distancing Restrictions

I was matched with Winnie after three years on the Guide Dogs waiting list. The wait was worth it; from the get-go, as we started our training, Winnie began changing my life forever whilst melting many a heart along the way.

My confidence, independence and ability to seek opportunities have all grown because of Winnie. Without her, and as my vision deteriorates further, with the probability of losing my sight completely, I truly believe I would be nowhere near where I am today as a student in my second year of radio production at City of Glasgow College.

Something as simple to others as walking to college has been made possible for me thanks to my wonderful guide dog's mobility instructor, who worked tirelessly to pair me with the perfect match and has trained us up to be a well-functioning team.

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It was single-handedly the best decision I have ever made -applying to be a guide dog owner. In these very strange times, I couldn't imagine life without Winnie. Once our training was completed, we quickly became comfortable with inner-city madness. It became our norm and, like at no other point in my life, I became part of the crowd, moving to the flow of life like everyone else and finding opportunity wherever I could catch it.

Coronavirus: The impact on college students with disabilities

All until 17 March 2020. A few days ahead of the national lockdown, the college announced that its twin campus would close and all courses would switch to online, possibly for the rest of the term.

Within a week, everything changed. We went from having access to modern studios, and the socialising we took for granted, to Zoom lessons with everything coming directly to you at home. It was a weird sensation as we scrambled to adapt, and again I was part of the crowd not finding it any more difficult than anyone else because, as it turns out, even sighted people sometimes don't see that they are still on mute mid-sentence.

It was tough but, with amazing support from my lecturers and from learning support, I got there with an A in my first year. It turns out that I am the first person with sight loss to pass this course at City of Glasgow College, so I truly hope this result proves it is possible for anyone interested in studying the subject. 

After six months shielding, it was time to prepare for a return for my second year. Back on campus, I was met with a temperature check, which my lockdown hair often interrupts. Masks must be worn at all times, we get a lift all to ourselves, everyone sticks to social distancing and, after a healthy dose of hand sanitiser, we scrub down anything we use, before and after.

2020 has certainly brought its challenges. I struggle to stay socially distanced from other pedestrians when commuting to and from college. If I can't see you, I can't avoid you. Street signage, new building layouts for entrances and exits with one-way systems, temperature checks and one-person-per-lift policies are a complex part of the "new normal".

It's all necessary and, as challenging and stressful as it can be, I abide by it all just as everyone should. At first though, and I'd argue even now, much of society hasn't fully considered just how much of an impact these changes have, and continue to have, on disabled people. Many people ask why I wear a mask outdoors. The "…if you don't wear a mask your glasses won't steam up…" comment is surprisingly common, and can be excused perhaps.

I interpret the guidance which states that in any instance you find it difficult to socially distance, you should wear a mask. For me, as I can't see you to avoid you, that's outdoors as well as indoors. I don't just wear the mask to protect myself either, I do it for the sake of everyone and, in particular, those I spend time with at college.

As fantastic as Winnie is, she doesn't understand social distancing, so, for me, when walking to and from college, or anywhere, I rely on sighted people keeping two metres away. It's not easy - none of it is or has been - but I am optimistic for the future generally. As long as we are all staying distant, wearing our masks, washing our hands regularly, and being kind to one another, we can ensure that we are not only keeping ourselves safe but everyone around us, too.

Robert is an HND radio student at City of Glasgow College.

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