The visually impaired need lessons for life

Additional support needs is an area of steady progress in Scotland, it often seems. Crucial legislation has taken root, retrograde attitudes have all but melted away and the problems that remain are gradually being picked off.

But the recent national RNIB Scotland conference on education for the blind and partially sighted jolted any sense of complacency.

It is the norm for visually impaired children to go to mainstream school now, and they can flourish. Witness Sarah Mclean, 19, a University of Glasgow student and aspiring novelist who has no sight but recalls an "exemplary" experience at Musselburgh Grammar.

Sadly, Sarah's happy transition from school to the world beyond is by no means typical. The employment rate of visually impaired people is very low; a hatful of Highers often makes little difference.

However well qualified school-leavers are, they may still struggle to tie their shoelaces or find the toilet. There is an element of hobbling their chances with kindness: the support visually impaired children receive in their school years is such that the world of work comes as a shock: people are less willing to hold their hand, literally and metaphorically.

"Habilitation" seems to provide the answer. Visually impaired children need more help with basic life skills. Shopping, banking, catching a bus - all this and more is covered by habilitation. It is an emerging idea in Scotland, the understanding of which varies around the country, but a few pioneers with a habilitation qualification are trying to make a difference.

The responsibility to improve visually impaired children's life chances, nevertheless, should not be heaped entirely on to the education system. There is still an ignorance, at times even a callousness, that awaits after school.

Elaine Brackenridge, depute head of Edinburgh's Royal Blind School, has been astounded to find that FE colleges appear to have no obligation to offer Braille services, instead supplying auditory aids to blind students. "That's like telling other students they're not allowed to use pencils and paper," she says. And the RNIB Scotland's Kate Storrow says that more than nine in 10 employers consider it difficult or impossible to employ someone with a sight problem.

The conference engendered the same discomfort as an episode of Mad Men, the US television drama that tears apart rose-tinted nostalgia for the 1960s by continually confronting the viewer with casual racism and sexism.

In the same way, complacency was overturned by presenting delegates with the real experiences of visually impaired people trying to make their way in the world: star pupils who struggle to get dressed by themselves; school-leavers who apply unsuccessfully for hundreds of jobs; holders of PhDs and first-class degrees reduced to scraping around for menial work.

Except that this was 2013, not 1963.

henry.hepburn@tess.co.uk.

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