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Nicola McDowell’s Blog (10)

Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI. Through a series of blogs Nicola shares her experiences with us.

Access for all

Although there are many aspects of going to school that are important, the main purpose of attending formal education from a young age, has always been to gain knowledge. As a society, we have deemed it important and necessary for our young people to be formally educated to a certain level, so that one day they too can become contributing members of our communities. The youth of today are the future of tomorrow.

But for this to happen, everyone needs to be able to access the information that is used to teach children about the world around them, in whatever educational setting or environment they are learning in. And for the majority of the population this is easily achieved. Information is generally provided in visual and auditory form using a number of different methods to suit the different level of understanding, which can be easily accessed by most.

When there are obvious barriers to learning, for instance, a significant visual impairment, a hearing impairment or a physical disability, as a society, we are learning to make suitable provisions, so that these children also have the same access to the information. However, what happens when there is an invisible disability, that no one, not even the person that has it, truly understands, which is stopping them from accessing the information provided? And what if the learning environment itself is actually adding to the impact of this disability without them even knowing?

Sounds complicated, right? Well that's the situation I found myself in when I finally started attending school full time again, with an expectation that I was back to normal and could continue on with my education the same as I had before my brain injury. I expected to be able to enter a classroom, to sit wherever I wanted and to be able to see the whiteboard easily. I expected that I would have no difficulty concentrating on what my teachers were saying to me and with copying what he or she wrote on the board. I also expected that I would be able to do everything that was asked of me, in the same timeframe as everyone else in the classroom. And probably most importantly, I expected that the classroom environment itself, would be conducive to my learning.

Unfortunately, I soon learnt that these expectations were not actually reality and the resulting failures in different classroom activities and tests, made me at times question my actual ability to complete my schooling career with my peers. Of course, there were one or two people that had a more accurate understanding of what the reality was going to be, including the vision teacher that visited me once a term. However, I was not very good at listening to them.

Due to the fact that I did have a known visual impairment with the right-side hemianopia and slightly reduced visual acuity, I had been provided with a number of strategies that would hopefully make things easier for me in class. However, at times, these strategies clashed with the unknown visual difficulties that I wasn't able to tell anyone about. For instance, I had been told that the best place for me to sit, was at the front of the classroom on the right-hand side. However, I found that when I sat too close to the whiteboard, all I wanted to do was pull back from the complex visual scene directly in front of me, as I found it visually overwhelming.

This problem with where to sit, also highlighted the bigger issue of trying to copy information off the board. For me, the task of copying was near on impossible. I would begin by trying to find the starting point on the board, if this was an obvious heading or in another colour, this was easy. If not, it was more difficult. I would then look down at my book and write down what I could remember (which often wasn't very much at all due to the issues with short term memory). The obvious next step is to look up at the board again to find what came next, but it was very difficult for me to find the place on the board that I had been reading from previously. And so, an endless cycle would begin, of me continually searching for where I was up to - on the board and in my book, which was very mentally and emotionally draining. More often than not, the teacher would have cleared the board and was preparing to write the next piece of vital information, before I had finished writing the previous one.

At some point, it had also been decided that the best font size for me was 24. So, the majority of the teachers just photocopied any handouts they had onto an A3 size piece of paper, which was embarrassing, as it was so different to what everyone else had. The large pieces of paper were also quite difficult to manage on a small desk. However, the main issue with the classroom material I was being provided with, was that the increased font size did not seem to make it any easier to read. It was still difficult to identify letters and words and everything had a tendency to just run together. But I was unable to explain this to any of my teachers, because I had no idea what the problem was or what needed to change to make the page more accessible for me.

Image showing the difference between font size 12, as used by the other children in Nicola's class, and font size 24.

Not having easy access to classroom material was unnerving and made me feel that I was not on a level playing field with my peers. How could I answer questions about different topics we had learnt, when I had only been able to access a fraction of the information that everyone else had received? On top of all of this, what effect were the actual classroom environments having on my ability to learn?

Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI. Through a series of blogs Nicola shares her experiences with us.

Note: For advice and tips on choosing the optimal font (and spacing) for a person with CVI please click here.

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At CVI Scotland we are devoted to helping people understand cerebral visual impairments, and together working towards developing the understanding of this complex condition.