Suhaylah has oculocutaneous albinism and nystagmus, meaning her eyes are really sensitive to light. She has reduced vision and depth perception, and sometimes her balance and coordination are affected. She’s always wanted to work with children and when she was accepted onto her dream course to study for an early years and childcare degree, she worked really hard to get top grades. But Suhaylah didn’t just have to work hard for her grades, she also had to fight to be heard, when some of the university’s staff didn’t believe that someone with a vision impairment could undertake the necessary placements.
“I was really excited when I started my university course in 2015, and I was particularly looking forward to the practical placements on the course, as they’d give me hands-on experience in an early years setting. Soon after starting, I was invited to a meeting. I thought it was an informal meeting, but it turned out to be very formal, and I felt intimidated and frustrated that as I hadn’t prepared or taken a companion, I wasn’t able to represent my needs.
“I had told the university about my vision impairment when I applied for the course but, at the meeting, I was told I wouldn’t be able to take part in the placements due to my sight condition. The reasons they gave were around health, safety and safeguarding. As the placements were a compulsory part of the course, I was asked to transfer to a different course. I was incredibly disappointed.
“I contacted my local authority’s Qualified Teacher of children with Vision Impairment (QTVI), who agreed to attend future meetings with me. We outlined the Equality Duty (eliminating discrimination in the workplace), suggested reasonable adjustments, such as arranging a placement at a nursery I was familiar with, and I described my abilities and how I felt I could do the placement successfully. However, the university was adamant that it posed too much of a risk.
“At this point, I didn’t have the confidence and just wanted to give up.
“In desperation, my QTVI contacted RNIB and they suggested I should speak to Guide Dogs’ Specialist Education Support team. As a result, I started working with Andrea, one of the team’s officers.
“Andrea worked with me and the QTVI to present my rights in writing to the university. She gave me emotional support throughout the journey and a better understanding of my own situation.
“She also gave me the confidence to press for a change in placement tutor as we felt this was the cause of some of the barriers.
“We went back and forth with the university staff until they realised I wasn’t going to take no for an answer!
“Finally, my future on the course was confirmed and a placement was found in a nursery that was small and easy to get around. It was in a mainstream setting, which is what I wanted, and when I visited, the staff were keen to make adjustments, such as ordering large print books, rearranging the layout and fitting blinds to the windows to help with my sensitivity to light.
“My new tutor was also supportive and sent through observation details in advance so that I could prepare properly for my assessments.
“Things went so well at the nursery that I returned there for my second-year placement. That gave me the confidence to find a larger setting for my final placement, and as that had another staff member with a vision impairment, it was well set up already.
“Looking back, I feel that my own experience of disability helped me and the nursery to better adapt the learning experience for other children with a special educational need or disability.
“I graduated in 2018 with a first-class honours degree. I was offered a job at my last placement and, although I was then out of work during the Covid lockdown, I recently started a job at a university nursery.
“Guide Dogs has helped me become a powerful self-advocate, a skill that I know will stand me in good stead in the future. Despite the hurdles, I now feel more able to tackle any challenges that come my way.”