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Starting university – a parent’s view

Suzanne’s daughter Emma has severe hearing loss. Without hearing aids she can’t process sound and hears no speech. She is in her final year studying German and Applied Language Studies, having spent a year as an English language assistant in a German secondary school.

When we met the support staff they went through everything and as well as accommodation and tech they set up a meeting with the language department head, lecturers and an audio specialist. They really knew their stuff – it was so reassuring.

We started thinking about the support Emma would need when she was about 15 or 16 years old. She had always expressed an interest in university so we knew it was a possibility.

As much as anything, we looked at what financial support would be there, especially from a technology viewpoint, because whichever course she did technology would be one of the most expensive parts of what she would need.

Then when she started applying to universities, we talked to them all, asked what support groups they had, what support there was for deaf students, if they had experience of deaf students.

Emma and her dad visited the universities and managed to talk to people at every visit, to find out attitudes as much as anything – things like did a lecturer of German balk at the idea of having a deaf kid in his group. Actually nobody did. They were all extremely accommodating and I think meeting Emma helped because they got a measure of what kind of person they were getting. It was probably that Highers year when we did most research into what was needed.

It was a lucky coincidence that Emma went to university close to where we live. She wanted to go further away, but after a difficult and exhausting Highers year that wasn’t possible and in fact having her closer to home has worked beautifully.

A piece of advice I would give to parents is consider how far away you are going to be, because while I’ve played a much smaller role in supporting Emma through university there have been times when I’ve had to step in. All the support is student driven, so if the students get to a point where they’re not in a position to ask for help themselves, being able as a parent to see that almost immediately and do something about it is very useful.

I found it very easy to step in on Emma’s behalf when I needed to. Student support has been amazing. Every time it’s been to do with mental health issues, so fatigue driving her down, anxiety, feeling depressed, losing her confidence, not being able to concentrate. I have taken her with me to the support team and without fail they’ve immediately set up counselling, study tutoring, everything she needs. They also invoke the learning plan that entitles her to extended deadlines and so on.

The main thing hasn’t been getting the support people to do it, it’s been getting Emma to recognise when she’s at the point she needs help. In her second year it came a month too late and I didn’t recognise what was going on because I wasn’t seeing so much of her. So it’s about keeping your eye on the ball and trying to recognise when you know your child is not at her best. But from a university point of view, it’s been very easy.

Just about everything was in place when she started. There were a few small glitches but the tech people sorted them out. Within 2-3 weeks everything was running smoothly. To be honest I couldn’t believe how helpful these people were, and how knowledgeable.

I wasn’t emotional when Emma first started, I became very practical. It was all about Emma and her gaining confidence to do things for herself. In my mind, part of her course involved a year abroad, and I knew she had a very steep learning curve to get to the point where she would be able to go to a foreign country and do everything for herself. But Emma is an incredibly strong person, I have complete respect and faith in her ability.

The weekend she moved into halls actually went quite badly, which surprised me and I have to say on the Sunday evening when we left her at the university I was quite a mess inside because I was really worried about what the first few days would hold. So I was really torn – she was in floods of tears, and we had to say we need to go now, you have to do this, this and this. We talked to each other about 2 hours later and she was fine because by then she’d met other people on her course. But that was by far the most difficult part.

We’ve always encouraged Emma to be totally honest about her extra needs and also about the impact of her deafness, which entails fatigue which can then impinge on mental health issues. Being honest helps her get the support she needs.

 

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Starting university – a student’s view

Emma has severe hearing loss. Without hearing aids she can’t process sound and hears no speech. Learning to speak herself took intensive speech therapy to age 6 and on and off to age 11. She is in her final year at university studying German and Applied Language Studies, and has just returned from a year as an English language assistant in a German secondary school

I’m a very firm believer that any kind of disability or additional support need shouldn’t directly dictate where you should go and what you should do. You should be able to choose any course you want, and if it needs to be made more accessible to you then hopefully it will be. So don’t cut yourself off from doing something just because you “shouldn’t” be able to – look at how it can be made possible for you.

My first year entailed a range of language courses and I had tech provided so I could take part – especially the aural classes. I’d used a radio aid in school so the university helped find one that was more modern. I had headphones provided for the language lab, where they set up software on one of the computers to direct to my personal headphones rather than the general ones anyone can use.

There was lots of additional technology to make my hearing aids work with the technology the university already had. I was also issued a university printer and a laptop that came with recording software and a digital recorder so I could record my lectures, get the slides from the lecturers and make my notes from them all in one place. All that was paid for and insured by the university through the Disabled Students Allowance.

I’d advise someone with a disability to find a university where they feel comfortable. It’s important to get a head start by talking to various departments, making sure it’s a place where you’ll feel supported.

It goes beyond the course being a good fit – find out if the campus is a good fit for you, if the support department are accepting of you, if they seem to have everything in order so they can assist you. Be aware they are going to be there to help, as long as you ask them. There will be stuff out there, but you may need to go and find it. The responsibility is a bit on you.

I lived on campus for the first year and it was my first time living and working away from home. We talked to them very early on, at the beginning of the summer before I started the course.

I very much wanted to live away from home, and I think it’s good not to be afraid of wanting to do that, because you’re going into a kind of intermediary stage in halls – you still have support from the university staff.

I was lucky because mum and dad were just down the road, but it means you can get used to living by yourself, cooking for yourself, not necessarily doing washing for yourself because washing machines are complicated!

The person responsible for DSA helped organise the tech needs, and we sorted out accommodation with her too. She asked questions like what kind of location would be good? How many people do you want to live with? What extra support might you need?

I needed an extra fire alarm unit linked into the university system, which made the alarm louder in my room and also had a red flashing light. After the first few weeks the support team spoke to the janitor and arranged that if there was an alarm they would also come and check my room if possible, especially during a drill, to make sure I had got out of the building. That was a very doable arrangement because I was on campus. And of course my flatmates were also aware, so they would also knock on my door.

Lots of things are common to everyone in the first few days, regardless of if you have special needs. Most people are living away from home for the first time so everyone’s a bit confused. Even if you feel completely removed from everyone else’s experiences because you need X piece of tech or Y arrangement, actually pretty much everyone is in the same boat, trying to work things out.

With my course, because it’s languages, there was listening and speaking, so it was very important to get the lecturers and to some extent peers in the class to understand I could do the work, I just needed a bit more time to respond because of the things I need to do to make that happen. That’s probably the main difference.

In terms of making friends, it can be quite lonely at first. There were a lot of Freshers’ events which usually involved some kind of party, an enormous gathering of people. And for me, I don’t do well in noisy situations. On the first weekend there was a massive halls party, and a lot of people got to know each other through that. For me that wasn’t an option because it was just too noisy. But through the week they had things like an afternoon tea in the support centre, and arts and cultural stuff in the postgraduate centre. If you seek out the clubs and festivities you’re interested in you will eventually find like minded people, or they will find you, and you just stick together.

It’s not a simple thing, especially when you’re not great at socialising, but you will find people to hang out with – also, they won’t necessarily be on your course, that’s the other thing. I hardly socialise with anyone on my course, but because someone isn’t doing the same thing as you it doesn’t mean you can’t spend time with them if you want to.

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How exams work when you’re home schooling

Home schooling means you can support your child to learn in a way that suits them. Louise explains how exams work for a home educated pupil.

My local authority seems to have a path set out for autistic pupils which involves developing practical and social skills, and that’s great. However that didn’t meet my son’s needs fully, as although he is academically inclined we were told he wasn’t allowed to take exams beyond National 4. That’s a great shame as there should be space for that too – and of course it potentially limits what opportunities may be open to him in the future.

We decided to home school and this year he took International GCSEs. We spread them out so he did maths in January and English, physics and chemistry in June. He’ll do French and biology next January.

Many home schooling parents choose IGCSEs and A levels instead of National qualifications and Highers, as a lot are solely exam based – they don’t require practicals or course work assessments. Those can be difficult to arrange, especially if it involves laboratory work, because labs are often fully booked and there are health and safety issues to take into account.

Having said that, many local authorities are supportive of home schoolers – for example, some are helpful with arranging for course work to be assessed by a teacher. Some allow home educated pupils to sit National and Higher exams in their local schools and colleges for free. I’d definitely advise anyone thinking of home schooling to contact their local authority and ask what help they can offer.

Because my son was taking IGCSEs, he took the exams at a private exam centre, which had a real understanding of special needs and built a very good relationship with us.

Private centres all charge the same exam fee, which in June 2018 was £110 per exam. Our centre also charged £25 per hour for an individual room and a further £25 per hour for an invigilator. It can get expensive and we couldn’t find a bursary or grant to pay. However, if your child’s over 16 and you’re on a low income it can come from their Education Maintenance Allowance – or some education authorities will pay the exam costs for you. Ours did, and also our travel costs to the exam centre we chose.

The authorities aren’t under any obligation to help with exams, but I’ve found if you’re serious, they’ll go the extra mile.

The exam boards have lists of accredited private centres, and you phone the centre direct to register – ask for the examinations officer. I found a couple of Facebook groups were useful sources of information and recommendations.

There isn’t much difference between taking exams this way, and taking them in school, except travelling time if the centre is outside your local area.

The examination boards decide what adjustments should be allowed, for example extra time or equipment, and these are largely legal requirements around “access”. It’s the exam centre’s job to request any adjustments, and implement them. You have to provide the centre with a statement of your child’s normal way of working, backed up by evidence from a professional – perhaps from a previous school. “Normal working” could include things like needing a laptop because writing is slow, or extra time because of concentration difficulties.

My son has to write in pencil, not pen, for maths, and he needs to walk around to think of an answer. He was allowed a private room with an individual invigilator so he could do this. Exam centres usually support pupils to prepare for an exam. For example, they can arrange for an autistic candidate to visit the centre, see the exam room and meet the invigilator. In our case, the centre sent us pictures of the exam room and a written statement of what would happen during the exam.

Candidates don’t need a diagnosis to request special adjustments, but it’s helpful to provide it if you have one. The centre completes the application and you have a right to see it before they send it to the exam board. The process can take time, so it’s useful to give the centre all the information as soon as someone’s been entered for an exam – but the good news is, you only need to do it once, not for every subject!

Parents are not involved with the exam board – that’s the centre’s role. I tried many times to talk to them directly, but they referred me back to the centre every time.

The most useful Facebook groups I found for exams were:

  • Home Education UK Exams & Alternatives (this group has a lot of Scottish members); and
  • Home Education Support Scotland.

There are many other Facebook groups that share information and experiences. It’s worth joining quite a few and seeing which one works best for you – you can always unjoin the others!

If you are home schooling, your local education authority is still responsible for making sure your child receives a suitable education up to age 16 (and beyond, if they choose), and have an obligation to support you to put together a transition plan.

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