University: Something I Thought I’d Never Do

I have always found formal education quite intimidating. High school was not a supportive environment, so I left as soon as I could. I had mixed experiences with Tafe, but took on too much in my last attempt and burned out. Somehow, the way people talked about uni, it just seemed out of reach for me. I assumed it would be a lot harder than Tafe, but I’m coming to understand that it is just a different style of learning.


The way people talked about uni, I thought I’d be sitting in class from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, or maybe even more than that. I was surprised to learn how wrong I was. When I described my perceptions to a good friend of mine, who is a student, she explained that I would likely have a lecture and a tutorial each week for each topic, and the rest of my study would be done independently. This started sounding like a learning environment that I would be better suited to, but I was still very apprehensive.


My main area of interest for employment would be community development, especially with the deafblind community. I had been thinking of returning to Tafe and continuing the community services course that I’d had to drop out of several years ago, but I found out the community development subject had been removed from that course. This subject was my main motivation for returning to this course. Around this time, there was a whole sequence of situations that increased my frustration about not being listened to because of my lack of qualifications, and how powerless I felt to bring about change as a volunteer.


When I discussed a lot of my frustrations with a friend, she suggested the Bachelor of Disability and Developmental Education (again). She had been trying to encourage me to take this path for quite some time. Every concern I raised about university seemed to have a solution. As time went on, it felt like everything was pointing towards this being the direction I should take.


The disability services at my uni have been very supportive of my needs so far. It has been a bit of a process of trial and error to figure out exactly what supports I need to be able to study and participate in my classes, especially as I am struggling to adjust to changes in my access and communication needs. It seems that not all staff are always aware and accepting of the role of disability services, and I am going to have to find a constructive way to address this issue.


I am currently doing Foundation Studies, as that seemed my most realistic pathway into uni as someone who didn’t finish high school. So far, I have found the actual study side of things to be more manageable than I first expected. My biggest struggle with assignments has been the research. All of the tips we were given about how to research more efficiently haven’t been much help for me, and they rely on your being able to visually skim for headings and other things that would stand out to a sighted person. This has a significant impact on how long it takes me to complete assignments.


Lectures and tutorials are full of their own complex set of challenges. I can’t understand speech at a distance, or even hear that someone is speaking to me if I’m in a space with background noise of other conversations. I rely on live captioning to know what is being said in my classes. I have a BrailleSense Polaris, which basically functions like a tablet, but which has a refreshable Braille display and a Perkins-style Braille keyboard. This device also has text-to-speech, but I have switched off that function, since I am trying to become more used to Braille, and since I can’t hear it in most environments anyway. For functions that I’m not yet used to interacting with the BrailleSense for, I just plug it into my laptop and use it as a replacement for trying to hear the text-to-speech on my laptop. This is my current method for accessing live captions.


Any face-to-face interactions tend to be quite stressful. There is part of me that sometimes wishes I had chosen to study online, but I sort of want to prove to myself that I can do this. There is also the fact that, given my barriers to communication, it would be too easy to let myself become isolated if I decided to just do everything from home because that is more accessible. I’m trying not to let that happen. I still need to work on finding a balance there though, to avoid burning out.


Learning my way around new environments with the help of an orientation and mobility instructor also takes longer these days, since it is harder to communicate information about my surroundings. A lot of educational institutions don’t seem to be very well thought out in terms of access. It seems like once they’ve put in some ramps and a lift, a lot of people think their job is done. I would love to see these environments laid out in a way that is less disorientation for someone with vision and/or hearing loss to be able to navigate. This problem is compounded by the fact that my course is spread over two campuses, so I have had a lot to get used to in a short space of time. Last week was the first time I caught a bus independently in over a year, because the background noise makes it almost impossible to communicate with the driver, and without that communication, I don’t know where I am. I’ve been relying on trams, because I’m so used to the automatic announcements that I can still just manage to identify them, even though I can’t hear the words properly any more. However, the only way to get to one of my study locations is by bus. I will have to investigate what gps options are compatible with my BrailleSense.


One day I hope I can try to be more involved in the social side of uni, but for now, I need to focus on wrapping my head around surviving the lectures and tutorials. My uni has a queer society, a disabilities collective, and a vegan club, all of which greatly interest me. I’m not yet sure how to make this work. I really struggle with communication in any group setting. The live captioning for lectures and tutorials has been arranged through disability services, and is paid for by the uni. This is not a service that I can afford to pay for, so I don’t have access to this in social settings. I’m still waiting for funding through the national disability insurance scheme (NDIS) to start learning tactile Auslan, which is likely to eventually become my primary form of communication.


I have passed my first topic, and am starting to feel some hope that I might actually get through the course. I still have days where I think, “who the hell did I think I was kidding when I said I could do this?” Fortunately those days are becoming less frequent though. Foundation Studies has its frustrations, such as being in a class full of people who aren’t going into the same area of study as me, as well as a tutor who seems to have no interest in what I want to study, but it is a means to an end. It is a flexible environment for the trial and error of supports, and for getting a feel for life at uni. I am looking forward to being able to put this behind me and move on to my degree, so that I can get the qualifications I need to be able to better support my community.