Student on the move

In last week’s blog, I began to tell you about my time as a visually impaired law student at what was then the Polytechnic of Central London and is now the University of Westminster. Let me pick up where I left off…

Having been to boarding school, I was used to looking after myself. I had been changing my own bed sheets at school since the age of seven and I was accustomed to being away from home. I think this all helped to make the transition from school to college less traumatic than it was for some people.

Finding my way around was still a real challenge, though.

The Law School itself was not too difficult to navigate. The canteen and library were on the lower floors but from there on up all the floors were laid out identically. When I started my studies, the corridor walls were white while the tutorial room doors were dark blue, which made it relatively easy for me to distinguish them. I simply had to count the doors along the corridor to the room I needed. In my third year, however, they painted the doors a light mushroom colour which I found much more difficult to see. Fortunately, by then I had got a feel for how far along the corridor each room was.

The lecture theatre was on the 11th floor and the lift only went to the 10th so I did have to do some stair climbing. This was a bit slow with crutches, but not insurmountable.

If I had to go far outside the building, I used a wheelchair. I think it is to my friends’ eternal credit that I was never tipped out on our way back from the pub last thing at night. On the other hand, I did make a convenient carrier for stolen goods and a purloined salt and pepper set would occasionally be concealed about my person.

One of the disadvantages of being at a central London college with widely scattered facilities rather than being on a campus is that you regularly have to travel long distances from the hall of residence to your particular faculty. I couldn’t use the Underground without a lot of help but, after advertising, I did find fellow students with cars. As I had been issued with a parking permit, a benefit normally restricted to staff, they got the perk of being able to park in the Law School car park and I got a lift to and from my place of learning.

It was a good system, but I still didn’t manage to get a lift every day. I had to hire a lot of taxis and minicabs in the course of getting my degree.

College Daze

I have written a few times about life at school but I don’t think I’ve talked about my experience of higher education.

I studied Law at the Polytechnic of Central London, which is now the University of Westminster. As well as my visual impairment, due to my arthritis, I was walking with crutches at the time. This meant I couldn’t carry a long cane either for mobility use or to indicate to others that I couldn’t see. As you might imagine, this complicated my life a little.

I was allocated a room in a hall of residence in Marylebone Road.

You may have seen the concrete jungle opposite Madame Tussauds. That monstrosity housed the School of Management and the hall of residence. The latter was 21 storeys high and in high winds people on the upper floors could see ashtrays and mugs move across their desks.

I was originally given a room on the 15th floor but when it was mentioned that in the case of fire the lifts would be turned off, I pointed out to them that I would never make it out of the building. They then moved me down to the 5th floor. I explained that, in the event of a fire, I still wouldn’t be able to get out of the building alive. The Law School’s answer to this was to warn me in advance whenever there was going to be a fire drill. No one ever answered my query as to who was going to warn me in advance when there was going to be a real fire!

I shared a galley kitchen with 11 other people. There were six girls’ rooms on one side of the building and six boys’ rooms on the other, with a common room in the centre.

I will come back to the kitchen in a moment.

On the first night I plucked up courage, knocked on my neighbour’s door and asked if she was going to the canteen for breakfast the next day and, if so, could I come with her. She said yes and the next morning off we went. I did eventually learn my own way there although it wasn’t easy. You had to go down to one of the lower floors, up some stairs, and across the area linking the hall to the School of Management. This last sometimes contained moveable stands displaying students’ work, which conveniently served as unexpected collision hazards for visually impaired students like me. (I seem to recall exhibitions of work by the students on the photographic arts course, so perhaps they were housed there as well as the management students. I can’t remember!) You then had to go upstairs again and, finally, you came to the canteen.

It was all of a bit of a trek and after a while I started getting my own breakfast. I did use the canteen sometimes in the evenings though.

The Law School also had a canteen. Obviously, I couldn’t identify the food on offer or carry a tray so, if I was on my own, I just turned up at the counter and one of the staff would help me. They were really good about this.

I remember one particularly cheerful guy – I think his name was Bernard – who was great. One morning I turned up for breakfast in the canteen and, as far as I could tell, seemed to be the only person there.

“Hello beautiful,” he said.

I turned round, thinking that someone had crept up behind me, before realising that it was Bernard addressing me from behind the counter. In those days, this sort of banter came without consequences. I didn’t mind. His cheerful demeanour was reassuring to me as one who very much needed his assistance.

I said that I’d return to that student kitchen I shared with 11 others…

I am amazed we didn’t all suffer regularly with salmonella. Piles of dirty plates would sit in the sink, sometimes for days. I once had to sit on the floor to stir my scrambled eggs because there was literally nowhere to put the pan down.

One day, one of the boys came into the kitchen whilst I, the blind girl, was trying to cook on the inadequate oven, and asked me how to boil an egg. He must have been truly hungry.

Somehow, we all survived!

Schemes for the Deaf

Over the years I have had a variety of jobs and one of my favourites was working for something called Schemes for the Deaf.

Yes, you did read that correctly.

During the 1980s, when unemployment was rife, the government here in the UK created a nifty way of getting some of us jobless folks out of the statistics. They created “community programmes”, which were short-term contracts doing useful work in the – yes, you’ve guessed it – community. One such programme in the area I was living in at the time was called Schemes for the Deaf.

The aim of the scheme was to enlighten the public about the problems faced by hearing-impaired people and give them tips on how to communicate. Those of us working for the programme were given training in communicating with deaf people and in presenting our message to the public and off we went.

We worked in teams and went into schools, shops, and anywhere people would have us.

I loved the school visits. We mostly worked with children in the 7-9 age range and they were fantastic. They would cotton on quickly to the fact that I couldn’t see and I would often find a small hand in mine and a child would guide me across the classroom.

Each member of the team did a different activity with the children. Mine was holding up a poster showing lots of different things happening, all of which would generate sounds a deaf person wouldn’t hear. There was a helicopter, a bird singing, a telephone, an alarm clock and much more besides. The children would sit on a mat in front of me and have to pick out all the different objects, actions and events on the poster which would make sounds they thought couldn’t be heard.

The teachers said watching the children interact with me was an interesting exercise in itself. Normally the children would simply have pointed to things on the poster, but they soon realised that this wouldn’t work so they had to describe what they were looking at. I felt that in this way, as an unplanned consequence of my involvement, they were not only learning about sound and deafness but about sight loss and the need to communicate effectively.

I should perhaps say that I am using the term “deaf” because that was the term that was used at the time. In any case, we weren’t trying to give small children a nuanced understanding of disability. Today, however, we would usually say “hearing impaired”.

Okay, lecture over!

We often did return visits to the schools and the children would give us pictures they had drawn of our visit. This is when I discovered that a little confusion had arisen through having a blind lady talk about deafness. I still have some of the pictures the children gave me and below my image they have written things like, “Someone came to talk about deaf people. It was a lady. She was blind.”

The work was hugely enjoyable but, in the way of so many jobs at the time, it wasn’t long before we were made redundant. In their desire to get us into the world of work, the government had taught us an important lesson: how to survive having your job taken away from you.

Still, I am grateful for the time I spent on the scheme because I enjoyed it so much.