Visually impaired students hope technology can help make college ‘possible’

Maynooth camp aims to encourage young people with sight loss to progress to third level

The camp  is the result of a partnership between the National Council for the Blind Ireland and the access programme at Maynooth University. File photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

The camp is the result of a partnership between the National Council for the Blind Ireland and the access programme at Maynooth University. File photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

“We don’t need easy, because nothing is going to really be easy for us, we just need possible ” said Niamh Donnelly, student ambassador of the Maynooth University Access Programme. The third year law student was quoting from her favourite film Soul Surfer.

This is the message she hopes to share with the attendees of a three-day assistive technology summer camp held this week on the Co Kildare college’s campus. The camp aims to encourage young people experiencing sight loss to progress to third level education, and is the result of a partnership between the National Council for the Blind Ireland and the access programme at Maynooth.

“We’re creating that continuum of support” said Grace Edge of the access programme. “We’ll still take it as a win if they go to Trinity or UL or to a PLC or an apprenticeship, or anywhere else. Really one of our main aims is just helping students to realise their educational potential in whatever way, shape, or form that is, and where-ever that is.”

Students with visual impairments are under-represented in third level education at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Twenty students are participating in the camp which introduces them to new technologies to assist them in their studies and beyond.

“We’re looking at what technologies we can give them to make them as independent as possible, not just for now, but with one eye on the future as well” said Ger Gallagher, disability advisor at Maynooth. “We have a number of students who are now in employment and use assistive technology as part of their standard day-to-day work.”

Technology demonstrated included the Livescribe smart pen, which allows the user to write key information while the pen records the rest, benefitting visually impaired students who may find it difficult to take copious notes.

Niamh Donnelly has used the Livescribe pen and a magnifier camera during her studies. “A lot of people were like ‘It’s a bit ambitious of you to try do law isn’t it’ and I was like ‘Watch me,’”. She said technology has made it easier. “It helps me so much that I don’t even feel like I have sight loss at times” she added.

“Students often prefer something that’s small, they can throw into their bag” said Mr Gallagher. With widely-used technology like tablets now having built-in accessibility features such as speech-to-text technology, he said “it’s amazing to see the changes in the last couple of years.” “It’s a good time for these guys to really be thinking about further study,” he said.

Sarah McNamara (16) was one student at the camp who hopes to study science at third level. “It was interesting getting to see it and try it out” she said of the new technology. “There’s a lot of new stuff coming out that looks helpful.” She was introduced to one device which is “like the three things I’d use in one, which I thought was very interesting, because it can be very clunky carrying around.”

Similar camps have been run by the National Council for the Blind in the past. “It’s all on the back of a lot of research that we’ve done with students saying that they felt they weren’t prepared and so on, so we wanted to bridge that gap” said Caroline Lane, children services team lead at the National Council for the Blind Ireland.

“The big thing we’ve seen is students are feeling more okay with the technology, they know what piece of technology they’re going to carry on with them to secondary school or third level education, and that doesn’t have to be a learning curve for them once they get in there.”

Ms Donnelly has high hopes for the younger students. “This morning we had inaccessible slides up to see would they say ‘I actually can’t see that’, because in a college setting, you have to advocate for yourself, you’re not going to have Mammy or Daddy behind you.”

“They were like ‘This is ridiculous, I can’t see those slides’ and I was like ‘yes!’ You’re able to say I can’t see that. That was the point.”