An open thank you letter

To The counsellor I went to speak to in March 2014,
You may never see this letter, you may not even remember me. But make no mistake that I remember you.

In my first year of university, when life was unbearable and I had nothing left to give, I went to you for help. I gathered the last vestiges of my resolve and forced myself out of the bed I hadn’t left for six days to attend the appointment I’d already rearranged with you twice. 
I remember sitting on the chair in your office, my cane in one hand and a box of tissues you’d handed me in the other, feeling empty; feeling dead; feeling black. I remember the nervousness with which you guided me to my chair and your uncomfortable laugh when I explained that you would need to complete your survey with me as I wouldn’t be able to write my answers myself. 
You asked me to wrate my feelings on a scale, zero being not at all and 10 being all the time. I remember being surprised at my own answers when I responded to statements such as, “I feel hopeless or worthless” never scoring less than 7. 
I knew I was in trouble, that’s why I went to you. I knew that staying in bed for over a week was not normal. I knew that missing countless lectures and cancelling numerous appointments for fear of leaving my room was not normal. I knew that ignoring phone calls and messages from concerned loved ones to avoid admitting what I was doing was not normal. I knew that a black cloud had gripped me, and I went to you to give it a name.
When you ask me why I was there, I told you everything. In a monotone voice and divoid of emotion. Continuous obstacles and injustices had warned me down to the point that the only thing left was anger, and as I told you what had happened during the last few months and how it had made me feel I think you saw how much that anger was consuming me.
I told you how the support I had expected had not been delivered. I told you that I felt isolated and unable to identify with my peers. I told you how, despite feeling unable to leave my room for the last 10 days because of the anxiety that gripped me at the thought of interacting with people, I didn’t want to give in. I told you that I wanted to be there. I told you that I wanted a degree. I told you that I wanted to prove myself, to myself and to the world. 
I wanted you to offer me support, to tell me that it was normal for me to feel this way and that the way I had been treated was unacceptable. I wanted you to tell me that my feelings were justified and that it wasn’t my fault. I wanted you to reassure me that you understood, that I hadn’t failed. But you didn’t.
Instead you told me that “maybe University might not be the right place for me”. You suggested that perhaps I should consider dropping out of my degree, as I had confided in you that I was so close to doing. You admitted that maybe I would be better off going home and giving up.
Thank God I ignored you.
You telling me that I shouldn’t be at university only rekindled the determination in me that had been stamped out by repeated disappointment. Your words rang in my ears and reverberated around my head for months, years afterwards. Your pitty and doubts in my ability became the fuel that only drove me to push myself harder; to get myself better; to believe in my self because you didn’t.
You are not alone in thinking that people like me are not worthy or not capable of achieving. The cane in my hand predisposed you to judge me before I had even started speaking, as it does for so many people in society. Those of us living with disabilities continuously face the misconceptions and misunderstandings of those who do not live with our challenges. But this attitude extends wider than just speaking to my friend rather than me when we are out, or ignoring my refusal of the help you have offered. This attitude leads to systematic failures that put barriers in the path of people like me from living normal lives and achieving our goals. 
Every time you take me by the arm and lead me somewhere I don’t want to go without my consent, you undermine my autonomy and disrespect my personal space; every time you fail to provide me with material in an accessible format, you reinforced the feeling that I and my needs are an afterthought; every time you tell me, that because of the adaptions I need, I am being difficult and giving you more work than you already have, you are reiterating the message that I am not welcome. I am not worthy of the time and effort it would require you to include me. I am an inconvenience that should be reprimanded for having the audacity to expect to be given the same opportunities as those who don’t need The adaptions necessary for me.
You epitomised this attitude for me, and as a result you made me stronger. Your ignorance reawakened and the stubbornness that defines so much of my character, not because it is part of my nature, but because it has to be. Your audacity to suggest that I would be better off giving up on my dream, despite me specifically explaining to you that this wasn’t what I wanted, thickened my skin and hard and my resolve to prove you wrong.
For so long your words were my motivation, though a part of me still believed you. So when, in my third and final year, everything again became too much and I threatened to crumble beneath the pressure to disprove your assumptions, your words again reverberated in my head and convinced me of their truth. 
But you didn’t win. I did. This time when I asked for help I received the reassurance and support you denied me. With that support I was able to again pull myself out of the darkness and overcome the final hurdle that would get me to my goal.
I am graduating with a first class honours, because of you. Whether it was your intention or not, your words have gotten me through the last three years and helped me achieve what I always hoped I could do but often thought was impossible. So I want to thank you for meeting me that day and for judging me as so many others do, because in doing so you gave me a reason to make myself and everyone around me proud. You forced me to find the self belief and self-worth I had lost, you shocked me out of my depression and inspired me to be the person I knew I was, but that you were too blind to see. 
Thank you for giving me the strength to prove my capabilities to anyone who doubts me. Thank you for motivating me to do my absolute best to show exactly what I can do. Thank you for reminding me that I alone can determine my worth. Thank you for having such low expectations of me and challenging me to exceed them. Thank you for inspiring me to continue facing my challenges head on and reminding me why I thrive on doing so. Thank you for teaching me that my disability doesn’t define me, and that it is my responsibility to demonstrate this to anyone who thinks otherwise. Thank you for reminding me why I wanted a degree in the first place. Thank you for driving me to work so hard that I not only exceeded your expectations, but also exceeded my own. 
Thank you, in short, for ignoring my own words and deciding my capabilities based on your judgement of my disability. Because in doing so, you’ve reminded me that nobody has the right to decide my limitations but me.

Advertisements

Deferring my dissertation

10 May has been a date branded onto my memory for months now. Why? Because it is the deadline date for my dissertation. Or at least, it was.

When I started my third and final year of university, I made a promise to myself that this year it would be different. That I would get organised, manage my time brilliantly, get all my work done on time and meet all my deadlines. When I came back in September I felt wildly optimistic that I would power through the year and emerge on the other end with a first class degree. 

I say wildly optimistic because my time at university hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride. My struggle in Higher Education isn’t really something I have gone into great detail about on this blog. I intend to, one day, after I’ve finished my degree. But for now, those of you who don’t know me personally need to understand that it has not been easy. I’ve struggled socially, mentally and emotionally and I’ve been so tempted to drop out on numerous occasions.

I think the only reason I haven’t dropped out is because I’m stubborn. I have a fierce desire to prove people wrong; to show that I am just as capable as anybody else of doing everything, even getting a degree, despite my Visual impairment. In fact, this often leads to me wanting to overachieve, not just to do as well but to do better than everyone else to prove that I can. What this means is that I end up putting a enormous amount of pressure on myself. Worse, because I feel as if I need to be able to do everything on my own, because nobody expects me to be able to, I used to feel unable to ask for help for fear of being labelled incapable. Thankfully this has gotten much better recently, proven by my action of requesting a deferral for my dissertation.

In September 2015 I felt like requesting a deferral would make me a failure. I thought that getting extensions would make me a failure. I thought that coming out with anything less than a first class degree, would make me a failure. I want to stress again that nobody explicitly said this to me. It was all me, all these expectations and ambitions were in my head. 

I can think of a few reasons why I feel like this, one being that being undermined and degraded on a daily basis because of an impairment that has nothing to do with my intelligence or mental capability makes me feel so patronised that it drives me to want to prove myself. 

I’m not someone who lets been disabled get them down often. I’ve said before on this blog that I feel 100% content with who I am, blindness and all. The main thing that I struggle with is societies attitude and treatment of me because of my Visual impairment. This is why I’ve think I’ve developed this instinctual determination to exceed expectations. Because if you’re treated and meant to feel inferior for 90% of your life, then if you don’t have some kind of drive and faith in yourself, you will start to think of yourself as inferior.

Anyway, back to the point. It was this attitude that make me so reluctant and somewhat frightened of the possibility of requesting extensions. I’m not going to lie, third year terrified me. The pressure and stress I put on myself to be the best in everything often makes it hard for me to fulfil my potential. In first and second year I had been forced to request extensions usually because of institutional failings. With third-year being such an important year, I was determined that I would need to be on the top of my game to make sure that all of my materials were accessible, that all of my note takers were arranged, that I would have a suitable place to study and that everything I would need academically would be put in place. This did happen; ironically, and terms of accessibility my third year has been the easiest of my whole degree. 
What I didn’t count on was me sabotaging myself and my own ability.

 I spent so long focusing on how I could make sure that nothing to do with my visual impairment would get in the way of me meeting all my deadlines, I didn’t stop to think about what I could put in place to ensure that my mental health would not impact on my work either. So that’s what happened. I became ill, I eventually sort help and I was granted a deferral for my dissertation until August.

It was a very hard thing to be for me to accept, because when you’re so used to dealing with a physical disability, a mental illness is a completely different ballgame. One thing I’ve always prided myself on is the fact that in spite of how people treat me, my intelligence and mentality is not compromised by my disability. I have a visual impairment, this is what I tell people; my eyes don’t work, it has nothing to do with my brain. So just because I can’t see you standing in front of me doesn’t mean that I can’t hold a conversation, alright an essay. So, to then be dealing with a mental illness that does impact on that element of myself that I had always depended on being so stable was very disconcerting.

I definitely think a part of the reason I struggled to understand and accept my mental illness is also because of the stigma that surrounds mental health. Even me, as someone who lives with a sensory impairment and therefore nose in some ways what it feels like to be treated differently because of something that is out of your control, still subconsciously harboured these fears and misconceptions of mental illness.

I am however pleased to say that I feel much better. Even though my year didn’t go to plan and I ended up doing the thing that I dreaded most, I’m now quite proud of the fact that I have asked for a deferral. It doesn’t make me less capable, it doesn’t make me less of a person and it doesn’t make me a failure. I think it makes me someone who understands themselves, someone who is self-aware and better for it. 

So even though the 10th of May is almost been and gone, I will carry on chipping away at the D-Word, I will feel proud of the achievement of just completing a dissertation never mind what grade I get, and I will take the obligatory submition selfie in August 😉

A huge congratulations to everyone who has submitted their dissertation so far, everyone on my course who submitted their dissertations today and everyone who will be submitting in the next few weeks. Be proud of yourselves! You did it!

Discrimination and why we should shout about it #AccessAllAreas

Yesterday a friend of mine was refused entry into a restaurant on the grounds that she was accompanied by a guide dog. She posted a video of the incident onto social media and received a range of responses. 
Holly, a 22 year old blind student at Coventry University had planned to celebrate her birthday with a friend at PGR Coventry. When Holly, her guide dog Isla and a friend arrived at the restaurant she was refused entry. Holly, who caught a part of the discussion on film, was told by a man referred to as the owner that dogs were not allowed in his establishment. He later asked Holly to either sit outside (on a freezing February afternoon) or leave her dog outside. Despite Holly explaining that to refuse her entry with her service dog is a finable offence, restaurant staff continually insisted that she not be granted access to the establishment while accompanied by her service animal. 
Watch Holly’s video here:


The public’s reaction to Holly posting the video of this incident has been fascinating. The majority of viewers have shared their own messages of support for Holly, many expressing their own anger and frustration towards the manager’s clear lack of understanding or care for Holly’s needs. But she’s also been on the receiving end of less encouraging messages. Some accused Holly of behaving too entitled, arguing that the restaurant did offer a reasonable alternative for her to sit outside with Isla.
Some argue that the incident might have been the result of a lack of understanding of UK laws, while others support the manager’s decision on the basis that Isla the guide dog might have posed a threat to the restaurants hygiene. 
Perhaps most concerning though are the comments who doubt Holly’s disability, asking for proof that she is blind and arguing that if she’s able to read all the comments she’s receiving, surely she can’t be visually impaired. People have suggested that she’s making a big deal out of something that doesn’t need to be newsworthy; that she is ruining people’s lives by highlighting the discrimination she faced and that she spent more time than was necessary arguing with people when she could’ve just gone somewhere else.
Watching Holly’s video had my blood boiling for so many reasons. I am fortunate that in my short time being a guide dog owner, I have experienced nothing like this level of discrimination. But what fuelled the fire for me was reading so many uneducated and frankly ignorant comments that blatantly miss the point of why this incident was an issue, but also why Holly was right to bring it to the media’s attention. So let’s break things down and explore exactly what happened to Holly yesterday. 
Why was the restaurant at fault for not allowing Holly to enter with Isla her guide dog?
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) is the main disability discrimination law. It bans any discrimination against disabled people by employers or service providers by imposing a duty on them to make reasonable adjustments so that disabled people can overcome any barriers they may face. This includes a duty to wave any regulations regarding not allowing animals in public places such as restaurants with regards to service animals such as guide dogs. 
Laws and legislations such as the DDA exist so that people with disabilities have equal opportunity to access any service, regardless of their impairment. By failing to take into regard this legislation, PGR Coventry were failing to adhere to the DDA and were breaking the law. This offence could lead to prosecution and a hefty fine.
Why was the managers offer to seat Holly outside not a ‘reasonable adjustment’?
In accordance with the DDA, Holly and any other guide dog owner has every right to access any place that is open to any other member of the public. By offering to seat Holly and Isla outside, PGR were not making a reasonable adjustment, they were offering an alternative. These are not the same things, in the same way that asking someone to sit in a different area on a public bus because of the colour of their skin is an alternative rather than a reasonable adjustment.
Why was Holly right to report PGR Coventry for discrimination?
Holly’s experience is evidence of disability discrimination that happens far too often today. The comments on social media that question Holly’s disability because of her ability to film a video or read comments, is further testament to the issue of misconceptions surrounding disability that evidently still exist more than twenty years after the DDA was published. 
Holly was right to post her video on Facebook a YouTube, to go to the local newspapers and to appear on her local radio because she is right to highlight discrimination. She is right to make people aware that refusing her access because of anything to do with her impairment is illegal, and she is right to teach people that this kind of behaviour is not okay.
She is right to demonstrate that people with disabilities have the same rights as able bodied people. She is right to challenge misconceptions that make people with disabilities other, or unequal, or unworthy. She is right to spend time trying to educate ill-informed citizens rather than giving up and going somewhere else, because she is right to want to make the future better for other people with disabilities. She is right to fight for equality because she’s right to think she, and all the rest of us, deserve it. 
I’m hugely proud of how Holly dealt with this situation, not only as someone who knows her but as someone who also has a disability, someone who also has a guide dog and as someone who will also inevitably face a similar situation in the future. I say this because I, like Holly, know that disability discrimination still happens. It happens every day in big ways like this, but in innumerable small ways too. 
I also know that the only way to challenge discrimination is to shout about it; to share it on the internet and in the media and to make people see it because if we don’t, it will never go away. It might not be our fault that we face discrimination, but it’s our fault if we don’t at least try to do something about it. So you’re right to recognise that the way Holly was treated by PGR Coventry was appalling and unacceptable. But if you’re thinking that she’s an entitled girl making a big fuss about nothing, you are wrong and you are part of the problem.

Please follow this link to sign a petition calling for the government to make refusing a guide/service dog a criminal offence enforceable by the Police:

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/119134
Link to an article about Holly’s experience in the Coventry telegraph: http://www.coventrytelegraph.net/news/coventry-news/video-blind-student-refused-entry-10936161?ICID=FB-Cov-main

International Disabilities Day: Cuts to Disabled Student’s Allowance

Why I’m against cuts to DSA
In light of today being International Disabilities Day, I wanted to share my thoughts on the issue of the UK government’s current plans to cut government funding for the non-medical help supplied by Disabled Student’s Allowance (DSA). 
This morning I read this article which brought the issue to the forefront of my mind again:

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/dec/02/government-to-cut-funding-disabled-university-students-jo-johnson
In this article Jo Johnson, the Minister for universities and science announces that from next September onwards, higher education institutions will be expected to pay for non-medical support for students with disabilities and that funding for specialist technology and adapted accommodation will be reduced.
Upon reading this article, I couldn’t help imagining how different my university experience could’ve been if I’d chosen to start my degree in September 2016 instead of 2013. 
How has DSA helped me?
Before starting my degree in English Literature in 2013, I used DSA to purchase a range of accessibility technology including a laptop, a scanner and software, a screen reader, a Dictaphone and a braille display. My laptop and screen reader is technology that I quite literally could not study a degree without; I access all my course material electronically and I’m able to complete all my assignments and exams independently using this technology. All of this essential equipment alone cost more than £5000.
I’ve also use DSA to fund non-medical support throughout my three year degree programme. This includes note-takers who write notes for me in lectures and who type them up in an accessible format for me in their own time. It also includes my research assistant who helps me access books/inaccessible materials that I need to complete my course, often spending hours manually scanning book chapters into electronic formats and helping me navigate the often complicated and almost always inaccessible online library. Additionally, during my first and part of my second year, non-medical help funding was used to pay for my mobility on campus. This was essential in enabling my independence and wellbeing, as being able to orient myself independently gives me much more freedom rather than having to rely on sighted guides. 
How would cutting DSA affect me?
If my university weren’t able to fund the non-medical help available to me through DSA I would be unable to:
• Take notes in class – I can’t listen to the lecturer, follow the handout with my screen reader and take notes all at the same time.

• Access course materials– If I was required to adapt all my course materials myself, I’d have no time to write my assignments, let alone have a social life (that is assuming I’d have the technology to do my own scanning).

• Complete required reading – I’m studying English literature, so without my library assistant scanning chapters and sometimes whole books for me I simply wouldn’t be able to study my course.

• Complete my assignments – without the notes from my lectures, completing the required reading, accessing course materials and having the ability to source secondary texts, how could I possibly write an essay or exam?

• Write a dissertation – without my research assistant supporting me in the library and sourcing accessible materials, I would be unable to complete an 8000 word piece of work comprising entirely of individual research, which is a required part of my degree.

• Get around campus independently – no mobility training would’ve deprived me from familiarising myself with campus consequentially restricting me from attending lectures, participating in clubs/societies and orienting myself independently.
DSA has been utterly essential in making my degree as inclusive and accessible as possible. The support that DSA has enabled me to access is something that I, nor my family, would ever been able to source from our own pockets and without being able to access that financial support,, I can say with absolute certainty that it would have been virtually impossible for me to obtain a degree.
Why is DSA, and getting a degree, so important to me?
I wanted to get a degree because I want the best chance possible of getting a job, building a career and making a life for myself. I have worked damn hard during these last couple of years to make the most of the opportunity given to me because I fully appreciate that without the support and resources available, like DSA, it would be impossible for someone like me to even consider attending University. It’s been difficult, draining and almost unbearable at times; my mental health has suffered and I’ve contemplated quitting more than once. But I’m still here and I am determined to come out of this with a first. 
Why? Because I read somewhere once that a disabled person with a degree is about as likely to be employed as your average Jo with standard GCSE’s. If that’s true, I don’t really want to contemplate what my chances of getting a job would be without any HE qualifications. Contrary to a depressingly common misconception, most people with disabilities wouldn’t prefer to be unemployed. Living off benefits, without a purpose or anything to get up for in the morning is not the life I want for myself. I want a career; I want success; I want to prove that I, and others like me, can do absolutely anything in spite of our differences. For me, the best way I feel I can achieve this is by getting a degree. And the cold, hard truth of it is that without support like DSA that would be impossible. 
What does cutting DSA funding mean to me?
Cutting government funding for disabled University students is to deprive us of our right to education, our right to equal opportunities and our right to shape our own futures. The quality of support available to students with disabilities is already so varied among establishments that expecting Universities to fit the bill of non-medical support is an unrealistic expectation that can only lead to even more inconsistency. . I fear that this is only the first step towards bigger and more damaging cuts to provisions for students with disabilities in the future and I believe that it’s a mark of how disconnected our current government is from the realities of what it’s like for young people with disabilities living in the UK today that they would even contemplate this ridiculous course of action.

Common Purpose and Santander Frontrunner Alumni Workshop

A few months ago I attended the Frontrunner Programme for Disabled Students run by Common Purpose in association with Santander, and I wrote about it in my first ever blog post here!
https://elinangharadwilliams.wordpress.com/2015/07/13/common-purpose-frontrunner-for-disabled-students-in-association-with-santander/
Now a couple of months on, I attended the Santander Frontrunner for Disabled Students Alumni Workshop and had just as insightful experience as I did on the course in Newcastle back in July.
 
Passion and resonance
 
The course was held in Nottingham and was open to any alumni of the Frontrunner for Disabled Students programmes. Common Purpose hold a number of these programmes throughout the year in different locations across the country, so it was nice to see some familiar faces from the programme in Newcastle but also to meet other alumni of different programmes from the last couple of years.
In true Common Purpose style, I arrived to be welcomed by a very friendly bunch of people and was immediately made to feel at ease by the fact that all the access requirements I had requested had been met.
 
Side note: I can’t really emphasise how refreshing it is when this happens. It’s a depressing reality that I’ve gotten far too used to my requests being ignored or misinterpreted when I ask for things like work in accessible formats or accommodations for my guide dog, so that when it actually happens it leaves me flustered with disbelief and stammering an inner monologue along the lines of:
“You mean you actually paid attention when I asked for handouts to be emailed to me in Word? But… I only had to ask once…”
One of the things that makes me sing the praises of Common Purpose is that I only ever have to ask once for anything. More than that, they don’t make me feel like a massive pain in the back side for asking for something to be converted from picture PDF to Word or for someone to do a little orientation with me at the beginning. It’s a nice change not to be treated like a chore.
But Anyway! Enough of my wining, back to the workshop.
 
After the initial introductions, the first exercise we did was to get into groups and think about the different qualities possessed by six famous leaders – Oprah Winfrey, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Branson and Mahatma Gandhi. We were asked to think about words to describe them as leaders and afterwards to write down three words that we wanted to describe us as leaders. Mine were approachable, empathetic and fair.
Following a quick tea break, we then gathered to listen to our first speaker of the day; Peter Osborne has previously worked for the RNIB and now works as a Mobility Team Manager at the Hull branch of Guide Dogs. He shared his own personal experiences of leadership and discussed how passion and resonance play a part in effective leadership. I personally found this session very enlightening as a lot of Peter’s commented resonated with me and my hopes and concerns for my future career. It helped that Peter is an extremely approachable man who had the room laughing on several occasions.
 
Communicating your passions
 
Lunch was followed by our second speaker of the day Paul Bisping’s session on communicating our passion. After showing us some examples of both negative and positive ways other people communicated their passions, Paul asked us to get into groups of three to complete the task he’d set. In our groups, one was to be the talker and was tasked with talking for a few minutes about their passion, the questioner who would spend a couple of minutes questioning the talker about their passion after their initial speech and the observer who was to stay silent throughout and give feedback on both the talker and the questioner’s methods of communicating during the task. We were to rotate so that each person should have an opportunity to take each roll, so that’s what we did.
What was interesting to notice was that animation brings out different reactions in people; some people start talking very quickly, some people (like me) have so much to say they struggle to structure their points coherently, others find it difficult to express their thoughts about their passion especially if it’s something close to their hearts. One thing for certain though, there is no doubt that the difference between someone who’s really enthused about their topic and someone who isn’t is definitely noticeable. An important thing to remember in the context of leadership I think; you have a much better chance of persuading someone to believe or agree with you about something if you’re passionate about the topic yourself.
 
Passion in interviews
 
Our last speaker of the day was Jo Miller, a Branch Director within Santander. She spoke to us about the importance of conveying passion during the interview process. We practiced answering some interview questions using the STAR structure (situation, task, action, result) while conveying passion in our answers. The practice and feedback was very constructive and Jo’s insights into the recruitment process were invaluable.
 
Closing thoughts
 
Proceeding Jo’s session, the final session of the day was about reflecting on how to channel our passion into our goals. After taking a few quiet moments to imagine where we’d like to be in one, three, five years’ time, we regrouped and went back to the three words we’d noted down earlier in the day that we wanted to describe us as leaders. I volunteered to explain my words to the group. Standing up and talking in front of everyone was marginally easier than last time but I’m a way off from being able to own the room, though it’s a minor progress that I volunteered without too much hesitation to do it this time. Baby steps!
 
I will end this post by reemphasising how fantastic I feel Common Purpose are and how much I would highly recommend the Frontrunner Programme to any disabled student. Every single person I’ve ever met who works for Common Purpose have been refreshingly accommodating and friendly. Both events I’ve attended have been intense but immensely rewarding and I most definitely look forward to working with Common Purpose again in the future.
 
Find the Common Purpose website here:
http://www.commonpurpose.org.uk/
 

Independent isn’t alone: guest blog for VI Able Solutions

VI Able Solutions is a blog intended to share the problems we all encounter in our daily lives and how we have resolved them. Posts include solutions for anything from paring socks to making friends. The aim is to share experiences in the hope that someone else might benefit from what you learned.
Check out my guest post here:
https://viablesolutions.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/independent-isnt-alone/
 

RNIB Young People’s Ambassador: being a student and guide dog owner

Around this time last year, I signed myself up to volunteer as a Young People’s Ambassador for RNIB Cymru. Being an ambassador gives me the opportunity to share my insight and experience of growing up as a visually impaired person to help and advise others in a similar situation. RNIB Cymru has a number of ambassadors located across Wales, whom they will match with any young person who contacts them seeking support or advice from someone who’s been there and has the T-Shirt to prove it.
I know from my own experience how valuable a service like this would have been to me when I was a gawky teenager trying to figure out this whole “sight loss” thing, so I take my roll very seriously. Of course I am not a trained professional in the subject of blindness, but I hope that my personal experience of both mainstream and specialist education, higher education and being a young guide dog owner qualifies me to some degree to advise others on the topics. After all, you can study something until you’re blue in the face but you’ll never understand it as well as if you’ve lived it.
Most recently I was contacted by the RNIB to do some ambassading about having a guide dog at University. Most of the questions were ones I’ve been asked by blind and sighted people alike and that I myself had before becoming a guide dog owner, so I thought I would share a few examples of how I answered the FAQ’s about having a guide dog at University.
 
Q: How do you manage other people and students reactions??
 
A: I think it makes a massive difference if you set the boundaries straight away. The first time I brought Jazzy to a new lecture, I asked for a minute before the tutor began to introduce her but to explain that she is a working dog doing a job an consequentially should not be touched, fed or distracted. Clear explanations make people much more understanding and cooperative in my experience.
 
Q: When you’re in lectures or seminars, do you take a blanket or a bone for her?
 
A: I don’t. Usually she will sprawl out and fall asleep for the duration. I only poke her if her snoring gets too loud!
 
Q: In a lecture theatre where the seats are tiered, where do you sit?
 
A: I sit on the end of the row to allow her room to spread out, especially if it’s a long session. As long as she’s not blocking the way too much for anyone getting passed, there should be no problems.
 
Q: What if a flatmate/classmate is afraid of dogs?
 
A: Again, I think full disclosure is the best policy in this case. Be open to questions and be patient. When Jazzy moved into my flat, I distributed little leaflets under every door on my floor with some information about guide dogs and an invitation to knock on my door if anybody had any questions. Make sure your accommodation department is aware that you’re bringing a guide dog so that they can ask your potential flatmates about allergies before move in day.
 
Q: What do you do with your dog when you go out clubbing?
 
A: Guide dogs advise that it is fine to leave our furry friends alone for up to five hours, providing they’re in a comfortable and secure environment. When I go out without her, I leave some entertainment like a bone or a chew and leave some music/TV/audio book on to mute the noise of other students. I leave fresh water out and lock the door and she’s pretty content. At least I’ve never had complaints of howling or come back to a trashed bedroom, so I assume she just enjoys the alone time.
 
I hope this post has cleared up any trepidations you might have if you’re a guide dog owner soon to be fresher, but also that I’ve hopefully managed to clear up any confusion or questions about the logistics of being a student and owning a guide dog.
 
I will soon be writing a post about some blind student life hacks I’ve picked up while at University, so please keep an eye out for my upcoming blogs and remember to check out the Facebook and Twitter pages to keep up to date with See My Way!