Scotland 'must do better' for visually impaired

10th May 2013 at 01:00
The first conference for a decade on education for blind and partially sighted people heard that school-leavers too often lack the skills they need for everyday life and work

Blind and partially sighted people come up against what is often an insurmountable roadblock when they move into adult life. Away from the supportive confines of school, something goes badly wrong: in Scotland, two-thirds within working age do not have a job.

First the good news. Attitudes have undoubtedly changed dramatically for the better since Dennis Robertson, Scotland's first blind MSP, started school in Aberdeen in the 1960s. Back then, all too often infants and teenagers with all manner of visual difficulties and other special needs were thrown together in a single classroom to work on practical rather than academic skills. Now visually impaired people, unless they have other special needs, are routinely taught in mainstream schools; and their exam performance is close to that of the general population.

But when Mr Robertson recently addressed the first major Scottish conference on education for the visually impaired in more than a decade, he felt compelled to dispel any sense of complacency: "We've had a great deal of success in Scotland, but it needs to be better."

The event was replete with shocking stories and statistics: people with first-class honours degrees and PhDs applying for catering assistant jobs and other low-skilled posts; the man who had submitted 500 job applications but had only two interviews - and no offer; the 480 blind or partially sighted people on the UK's flagship employability programme, none of whom got a job.

The proportion of blind and partially sighted Scots out of work has not changed in a quarter of a century, stresses Kate Storrow, RNIB Scotland's employment and learning services manager. When the charity carried out a "mystery shopping" exercise, it turned out that if a person disclosed their disability, he or she was less likely to get a job interview. Nine in 10 employers in a Department for Work and Pensions survey considered it difficult or impossible to employ someone with visual problems, Ms Storrow adds, and about 300 people a year leave their jobs in Scotland because of sight loss.

But the thrust of the conference was less to condemn employers than to work out how students could be better prepared for life after school. Ms Storrow spoke of one bright young man who got an administrative job. But, to the frustration of his boss, he had to ask for help with every task and would hold his hand up for permission to go to the toilet.

Many blind and partially sighted people lack basic life skills and cannot meet the basic requirements of the workplace: it is not unknown for a student to leave school with a string of As at Higher but be unable to tie their shoelaces, go shopping, wash their clothes or cook for themselves.

John Ravenscroft, head of the University of Edinburgh's Institute for Education, Teaching and Leadership, believes "habilitation services" are key to fixing the "huge and significant" divide between exam grades and employment prospects.

Habilitation is a fairly new concept in Scotland. It entails helping people to improve their mobility and become more independent - an antidote to the mollycoddling that may take place in school. It can be painstaking: the conference heard about one young boy who took a whole lesson to put his coat on, then, realising it was back-to-front, despaired that he would have to walk backwards.

There is nowhere in Scotland to take habilitation studies, so the standard route is to sign up for a two-year distance-learning postgraduate diploma that the University of Edinburgh offers through the University of London's Institute of Education. So far, eight people from Scotland have been through the course, but not all of them have found work.

Some 15 out of 27 Scottish local authorities claim they provide habilitation training, says Janis Sugden, coordinator of the Scottish Sensory Centre. But she finds that councils vary in their understanding of habilitation. The patchwork picture reflects more general concerns, expressed to TESS by the EIS union and others, that the various forms of support for young people with visual impairments are hamstrung by haphazard approaches.

Such is the importance of habilitation, Dr Ravenscroft believes, that it may be better for young people to do less well in exams in order to improve their chances of managing in day-to-day life - that they should concentrate mainly, or even wholly, on the skills required to live independently. "Academic attainment may be achieved later, as it is for many young sighted adults," he says.

Dr Ravenscroft does not advocate that children be taken out of mainstream education - "This may lead to segregation and greater feelings of isolation" - but that mainstream education should help children to become more independent, through the project-based learning espoused in Curriculum for Excellence.

Ms Sugden believes that schools have met the demands of legislation to raise educational standards for visually impaired children, but that these children still find themselves on the margins of school life: "They should be included in lessons, and most of them are, but are they included in the broader culture of the school? Are they independent in the dining room and breaktime? I don't think that's the case." Too often, she hears of children sitting at separate tables, being led around by an adult, sitting out PE and hanging back while their friends tear around the playground.

This is a reflection of life beyond school, of children not socially involved in their communities who sit at home night after night, says Dominic Everett, who was a teacher of visually impaired children for 20 years before becoming RNIB Scotland's education and family services manager.

Sheila Riddell, a professor of inclusion and diversity at the University of Edinburgh, adds: "Resources in school can never quite counteract the disadvantages the visually impaired children encounter in their home environment."

Early diagnosis of eye conditions is crucial, Mr Everett says. Parents often lack the knowledge and ability to support their child, and need to be directed to the right services far sooner than is often the case. But he says that parents in many local authorities are not being offered "coordinated support plans" - which, under Scotland's additional support legislation, councils must provide for children who have a complex mix of needs - that would ensure their children are supported properly.

"I don't think we really have a problem with our policy documents - we have a lot of them and they all say the right things," says Professor Riddell. But it is often a far different story on the ground, and Mr Everett fears that economic austerity will make things worse.

Some 40 per cent of teachers of visually impaired children in Scotland are not fully qualified and he is concerned that local authorities will follow the lead of England, where costs are being reduced by actively choosing not to train and employ specialist teachers.

"This would be absolutely disastrous for our children and their families," he says.

Key statistics

2,080 - The number of blind or visually impaired children of school age in Scotland - but it is suspected that another 800 are undetected.

67% - The proportion of blind and visually impaired people aged 16-64 in Scotland who do not have a job (compared with less than 30 per cent of the general working-age population).

40% - The proportion of teachers of visually impaired children in Scotland who are not fully qualified.

Sources: various research projects by the Scottish Sensory Centre, RNIB and the University of Birmingham

Along the road to university and the path to independence

There can be few better role models for Scotland's inclusion policies than Sarah Mclean, a 19-year-old student at the University of Glasgow.

Sarah, blind since birth and with no sight at all, went right through the mainstream school system and is now in her first year studying English literature and French. She has just finished her first novel, Hidden Scars, which she will send to publishers this summer.

She had a "really brilliant" time at Pinkie St Peter's Primary in Musselburgh, where she learned how to use a white cane and started working with Braille in P1.

Sarah recalls "brilliant" teachers and an "exemplary" experience when she moved up to Musselburgh Grammar: "I was the first blind person they had taught. But they asked questions and we worked out what worked." She also had an "excellent" learning assistant who ensured that her work was transcribed quickly into Braille, and "could not have had a better brailling experience".

She was once told in craft, design and technology that there would be nothing for her to do - then came top of her class in technical drawing. The teacher in question apologised and admitted that he had underestimated what Sarah could do.

Sarah used a BrailleNote, a computer for visually impaired people that cost several thousand pounds. She is concerned that its full potential may not always be realised in schools: in her sixth year, security settings meant that she was never able to get on to the internet.

"I would say that school IT networks need to review their security in order to allow devices such as iPads, and particularly BrailleNotes, to operate on them," she says.

In school, Sarah always had friends to help her to get around, but at university she often has to find her own way. The earlier a visually impaired child is taught how to move around independently, the better, she believes: "It's a skill that requires a lot of time and practice."

Photo credit: Alamy

Original headline: Scotland `must do better' for visually impaired students

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