Student Laura Wilmot tells how her visual impairment has helped her forge a strong sense of identity and purpose
Fitting in and standing out are common issues for any teenager. Most teenagers don’t think twice about being in a mainstream school, reading from the white board and participating in the full range of subjects. For pupils with a visual impairment (VI), the quality of learning can vary from school to school and from county to county.
While most schools do all they can to enable pupils, many students find themselves fighting for the right to access the same information as their classmates. This can mean waiting for work to be put into a format that is accessible for someone with their eye condition, or even being told to join a class for children with autism because there is nowhere else to place a visually impaired student. Some pupils experience being left out of lessons due to the teacher’s own concerns or inexperience of how to include them.
Laura Wilmot has aniridia, glaucoma, cornea disease and nystagmus. She was diagnosed at two months old and her sight remained relatively stable until she was 15; she now has approximately five per cent of the vision of the average sighted person. She is a confident 20-year-old, now getting the most out of her studies, but her life was not always this way.
A difficult path
For Laura to attend the nearest school that was prepared to meet her needs, she had to travel 90 minutes each way from her home in Seaham, County Durham. Although she received support with her studies, this resulted in long, tiring days and impacted on her social life, leaving her distanced from her sighted peers who lived close to the school.
Laura became the victim of bullying during her GCSE years as a result of her appearance and sexuality and when her sight changed dramatically. Getting a guide dog in Year 10 was both a blessing and a curse, as it drew more attention to her and why she was different.
“I have a big bond with Willis, my guide dog. My mum had one when I was a young girl and she encouraged me to try it when the age was lowered for people to be able to have one. I didn’t have the independence to travel to visit my friends, or to go further than my local shop. If I wanted a semi-normal teenage life then I needed to try a guide dog. I wouldn’t look back now.”
Determination to succeed
At sixth form, Laura enjoyed a better social life, which she puts down to people being more grown up. Studying health and social care, she found her fellow students were more understanding of her diminished eyesight. “I was scared to leave the learning support that I’d had throughout school when I moved to sixth form. Unfortunately, I was proved right. Academically, I had lots of issues with accessibility to deal with. I was offered one piece of equipment, which took one and a half years to materialise. Teachers hadn’t taught a visually impaired person before and I suffered some discrimination: one teacher refused to receive work in any other format than on paper, even though I can’t use paper because I can’t see what’s on it.”
Laura completed her two years at the Durham-based sixth form through sheer determination, leaving with a hard-fought diploma. “I needed to prove them wrong. Although I felt like it sometimes, I wouldn’t leave.”
Being ambitious and having determined what career she wanted, Laura decided to improve her chances of employment as a person with VI and applied to a college for the blind, where she is now a final year student.
“I went thinking the worst thing that can happen is I try it and don’t like it. Being here has changed how I felt about attending a specialist college. I feel like a human, not a burden.”
As many teenagers discover upon leaving school, accessibility has been an issue in Laura’s further education. At her original sixth form she had to fight for months to use a system that she could access. Laura is now a competent user of a voiceover software that tells her what is on the computer screen, so now, if she can’t access something, a solution is found straight away.
Laura’s career goal is to be a counsellor and motivational speaker. She has chosen courses to enable this. Sociology and psychology will, she believes, help primarily with the counselling, while she feels that business studies will be useful because, as a motivational speaker, she is likely to be self-employed.
“I want to help young people in self-esteem and body-confidence issues, particularly as a counter to celebrity culture. When you are at school, everything is about grades and I want young people to know that their worth is based on so much more than how well they are doing academically.”
Laura’s chosen career has grown out of her personal history. “I am more comfortable with who I am now than I was. The process of doubting myself started when I was 12 or 13. I had to learn to love myself; not only was I disabled but I was also gay.”
Studying at a residential college, Laura has found empathy and support from her peers: “I have friends just along the corridor now, instead of them being over an hour away. Just being here builds up the confidence to be more open and interact with people. It’s a positive and a strength and something that certainly benefited me when I was on work experience at the local hospice because I felt comfortable talking with patients.”
Despite being let down in various ways during her education, Laura is immovable in her desire to read counselling at university and now feels prepared for the independent style of studying that higher education demands. She plans to work in schools, enabling teenagers to feel comfortable with who they are, whether they have a disability or not.
“Society’s expectations filter down through every layer. I know what it is like to be told to stay in the corner, being a disabled, gay female. I’ve been through a lot to be proud of that label, to wear that badge. I am celebrating who I am now and want to empower others to be who they are.”
Anika Backhouse is PR, Publications and Outreach Officer at The Royal National College for the Blind,
a further education college for those aged 16 plus with visual impairments: