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Tertiary education experiences of students with visual impairment

An increasing number of students with disabilities are attending tertiary education institutions in New Zealand. Understanding the experiences of students with disabilities will enable education providers to develop policies and practices that promote the inclusion of these students. This study examined the tertiary experiences of students with visual impairment, an understudied group of students with disabilities in New Zealand. It examined their transition, social, and academic experiences. Qualitative research, critical theory, and participatory research were adopted as the research approach, paradigm, and design, respectively. Semistructured interviews were used to collect data from six students with visual impairment, two accessibility advisors, and an official of Blind Low Vision New Zealand. Students with visual impairment also participated in a focus group discussion. Due to the participatory nature of the study, students with visual impairment were involved in the formulation of focus group questions. The coconstruction of focus group questions ensured that the questions were relevant to participants’ lived experiences. The process of coconstruction was also empowering for participants as their feedback shaped the “direction” of the research. For example, the incorporation of transition experience into the study was at the request of participants. The focus group was also empowering as the conversation produced new insights among participants. Three themes emerged from thematic analysis, and these were transition experiences, negotiating the social environment, and learning experiences. The findings indicate that tertiary institutional support offered to students with visual impairment relates mostly to academic participation (note-taking and examinations) and, thereby, seems to neglect other aspects of students’ inclusion. This study found that aspects of tertiary education other than academic issues are equally important to students’ inclusion and must be given the needed attention by tertiary institutions. For instance, the social environment, according to some participants, was the most important barrier to inclusion. Further, it emerged that the transition, specifically pre-enrolment factors, could influence students’ tertiary experiences. It was observed in the study that participants experienced both barriers and enablers to inclusion in tertiary education. However, participants experienced more barriers than enablers. The barriers included delays in the provision of support, problems of the physical environment, perceived misconception of disability by peers, disregard for participants’ request for support, and inexperienced reader–writers. Some of the enablers were psychosocial and practical support from peers, the contacting of participants prior to enrolment, and support with laboratory experiments. The barriers faced by participants imply disconnect between inclusive education policy and practice in tertiary education. Inclusion is about creating a tertiary environment and system that is barrier-free, flexible, equitable, and supportive for all students. Based on the findings of the study, it is recommended that tertiary institutions include nonacademic programmes, such as social participation initiatives and transition programmes, in the support they offer to students with visual impairment. Moreover, accessibility advisors and academic staff should be provided with training on disability issues.
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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