VI Students: Overcoming the Social Struggle

By Saliha Rashid

This month, many of us are starting, or returning to, college or university. As I mentioned in my previous Post, I recently moved from Yorkshire to Kent, to complete a Masters in Social Work.
As Visually Impaired (VI) students, we face many challenges, one of which is social inclusion. Even though this is my third time at uni, I still found myself feeling just as nervous-would I be accepted? Will I make friends?
For my primary education, I attended a specialist school for the blind. However, the school closed down in 2004, as the idea was that VI children should be integrated into mainstream education.
My secondary school was mainstream, with a specialist VI unit. Here, I found the social aspect of school a struggle. Like many VI pupils, I would spend the majority of my free time with a Visually Impaired individual in my year group, up until I left school. At the time, for me this was not a problem-we were good friends and I did not see the importance in trying to integrate with sighted pupils. I later realised how very wrong I was. It was only in later years, when we were split into separate groups, that I was forced to socialise with other pupils, one of whom I still remain good friends with now.
Although attempts by staff were made to facilitate social inclusion, I feel that some VI pupils are ill-equipped to deal with the big wide world, whether that’s further/higher education, or employment. For example, there is a heavy reliance on support staff, resulting in not having to ask for help from our sighted counterparts, something which I believe is detrimental to this idea of “social integration” and independence, but that’s a topic for a future post!
In 2011 I started my Psychology degree at Uni, and I was the only visually impaired student there. For the first time, I felt alone and scared. Here I was, in the big wide world, without a member of staff constantly by my side, spoon-feeding me all the information I needed. For the first time, I had to find everything out for myself, welcome to the real world, Saliha! Moreover, I didn’t have another VI person to talk to, resulting in me feeling quite isolated. However, I either chose to isolate myself, or do something about this.
This meant stepping out of my comfort zone. So, one day, when we were assigned a group task, I asked the girls who I was working with if they wanted to go for coffee after the lecture. They said yes, and that’s when I asked myself “why did I not do this sooner?” I also became involved with the Psychology society and the students’ union, which brought more social opportunities.
I then started a Graduate Diploma in law, and tried to form social relationships from the outset. I found suggesting a Facebook group a useful tool in doing this, as this allowed us to get to know one another and arrange to meet outside of uni.
So, when starting my third degree, I thought I was confident now and that I’d cracked this social inclusion business! Wrong! I found myself feeling just as nervous and unsure, but I knew that I would have to step out of my comfort zone from the outset.
For the first time, I asked my note taker if they would sit at the back of the lecture theatre, so that I would be forced to directly interact with the others on my course, and ask them, instead of the note taker, if I was unsure of something. This was extremely nerve wracking. I walked into the welcome lecture last week, and sat on a table with people I’ve never met before. Moreover, I could hear everyone around me talking to each other, have they made friends already? Should I go and join in, or should I just keep myself to myself? Biting my nails, I ponder this for the next 5 minutes. “Get a grip!” I told myself. Feeling extremely self-conscious, I turn to the group of students next to me. “Hi, I’m Saliha,” I said. Silence. Oh God, now what do I say? “What are your names and what are you studying?” I asked them. That’s when the conversation started and carried on for the next 20 minutes.
I then headed over to the café, where I sat with a different group of students. Through asking questions, I discovered that one of them lives a couple of blocks away from me, so I suggested we could meet up for coffee at the weekends, to have a break from the studying!
I have only just realised in the past week that the social aspect of university is daunting for all students, regardless of whether or not they have a disability.
A number of students have shared with me that they were worried about whether or not they would make friends too; one student considered eating lunch in their car.
My advice would be to step out of your comfort zone, be uncomfortable for a while, and initiate these conversations, even though it makes you feel uncomfortable. Suggest making a Facebook group, because that is where a lot of the social interaction happens. And importantly, if you are unsure of something ask fellow students first, because chances are that they were thinking the same thing, so you can find out the answers together. Also, get involved with the clubs and societies that are available, and also the student union, more often than not they are friendly and accommodating.
Though it may be a challenge, it is possible to overcome the social struggle at college/uni, it takes effort, but it is definitely worth it.