Surviving UG as a blind student (and how to make things better)

Ganesh Singh is the first blind student to have graduated from the University of Guyana (UG) with a masters. There are others, he says, who have a masters and are blind but as far as he is aware he’s the only one to study for and complete the programme while visually impaired.

“The experience was an interesting one and one that I embraced,” he says. His masters was in social work – and he found the programme, taught by lecturers from York University in the UK, spoke to his more radical, direct approach. “As a disability rights advocate I am more of a critical social worker in the sense of: I think advocacy, I think of being radical and getting thing done.”

It wasn’t an easy process, he admits. “It was challenging at some points because of the number of academic papers and the standard of writing for social sciences [at UG], especially social work, is very low – so they really do not challenge you from early to prepare yourself for the transition … But I feel very satisfied, it’s a dream come true. It’s something I always wanted to do. It also raises the bar for other persons with disabilities who are following my footsteps.”

Singh’s next step is a postgraduate diploma in (higher) education, and he’s also contemplating a PhD. We asked him to share with us some thoughts and tips on studying at UG as a disabled student, how lecturers can better support their students, and what UG needs to do to improve its disability policy.

“Lecturers need to view those students just like any other students. Because a lot of times what you find is people have their preconceived ideas of persons with disabilities. There are lecturers that are of the feeling that we should not be in a classroom. That’s fact. So because of that, they’re very apprehensive in providing the necessary support. So it’s for these lecturers to see the student – not their disability – and at the same time, provide the necessary support.

“…the university is void of any relevant disability policy. The lecturers need to seek advice on whatever support they can provide to that student. They seek it from the student themselves but also persons that are experienced or would have a better idea in providing that kind of support.

“I’m not being critical of UG, but I’ve been at UG for the past five years and UG is very disorganised when it come to dealing with person with disabilities … one of [a colleague’s] lecturers made an intervention for her to get a computer to write her exam but in other faculties they bluntly refused to provide the computer – or allow her to use a computer, they rather use a scribe. So at the university there’s no go-to person and everyone does things as they see best. The assistant registrar for exams is supposed to be the one to [put] systems in place but again the preference is scribes. In any institution you should be given a choice.

“I made some input along with Sinikka Henry and Rosemary Benjamin-Noble into the disability policy for UG [a part of the adhoc committee on disability]. It’s in draft and again that might be there in draft unless we push! … the university should implement that disability draft policy and upgrade their delivery of education to persons with disability in sync with international best practices and standards.

“Sometimes it’s embarrassing the way they do things. Simple things: lecturers would have to send out copies of documents – which would make our lives much, much easier – but they are unwilling to provide them. To be honest, I never had these challenges but I’m in touch with all the other persons who are visually impaired that are at UG and those are the challenges that they experience.”

GANESH SINGH’S TIPS FOR UG STUDENTS WITH A DISABILITY

> Do not see your challenges as barriers but see them as stepping stones to uplift yourself.

> Being accepted and registered at the university to read for any degree is a major accomplishment already and you should see that as just the beginning.

> You have to work doubly hard to achieve anything because you have to deal with the course content but at the same time you have to deal with all the other obstacles that are in your way in ensuring you can write an accessible exam, ensuring you get to classes in physically accessible environments. You have so many other challenges other than the actual content of the course.

Work hard and build a network. Once you have people around you at university, in your class and outside the university arena, you can get support whenever necessary to complete assignments, to help you with studying, to explain things – whatever it is they can help you with.

You need to be very strong. Lecturers can be negative towards you and can really affect your confidence and self-esteem.

> They have an accessible scanner in the library but I don’t know how much it’s used. It’s there but it’s not a service they would inform you of when you register as someone with a disability.

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