The Open University

When your top typing speed is 50 words per hour, working towards a degree might feel out of reach. Not for Dawn Faizey-Webster. Despite it taking up to three weeks to complete a three-hour exam, she graduated from The Open University with a BA (Hons) in Ancient History and is now studying an MA in History of Art.

The former teacher was left with locked-in-syndrome after a stroke, which left her with complete paralysis of almost every muscle in her body except for her left eye.

Faizey-Webster's only way of communicating with family, friends and the OU is by computer, which she activates using only tiny head movements and blinking. Yet despite these difficult circumstances, she decided to undertake a History degree: “I wanted to prove to myself and to others that it was still me,”

“I chose the OU because they were the first consideration when it came to distance learning. Once I took the first module I found them to be excellent in terms of the teaching materials and the support given.”

Six years later, in 2014, she graduated with a 2:2 in and is now half way through her MA: “I have decided to do an MA because I enjoyed taking my degree and so I didn’t want to stop. Also, I have set myself the ultimate goal of doing a PhD so an MA is the next logical step.”

Whatever your circumstances, whatever your lifestyle, if you have the drive and determination to succeed, The Open University will support you every step of the way.

“My advice to others would be ‘why not?’” says Faizey-Webster. “If it’s something in the back of your mind then give it a go. It’s no good thinking that you can’t do, if you don't try – and that goes for those that consider themselves too old as well.”

We Spoke to Jennie Augustyniak, Senior Student Services Manager at The Open University, to find out more about the services and support available at the OU, to help those with difficult circumstances, like Dawn, to realise their dreams.

How did Dawn initially approach the OU?

Like the majority of OU students, Dawn registered online. As part of this process she told us about her disability and completed a Disability Support Form. This alerted her Student Support Team and Disabled Student Services to her additional needs. By exploring how Dawn’s disability would affect her studying in terms of travel, access to buildings, reading materials, producing written work, taking notes and speaking, the OU could begin to tailor Dawn’s learning experience.

Dawn explained that all buildings needed to be wheelchair accessible and frequent travel caused fatigue so attending tutorials would be difficult. She also told us that reading materials had to be held for her and any written work could only be produced by adapted computer.

What assistance was offered to Dawn at this stage?

The OU provides a range of accessible materials in anticipation of meeting the needs of most students. Dawn requested ‘comb-bound’ books, which is an alternative format where the spines of the standard books are replaced with a spiral or comb-binding. These are one of our most popular formats because they can serve many purposes. The course materials are in paperback format and are generally quite thick and heavy and don’t readily lie open, so they require some effort to hold and to keep open. Comb-bound books however open easily, lie flat when open, and the pages turn very easily making them much easier to use. They are also ideal for use with magnification and scanning equipment as they do not have a curve at the spine to distort the image, as anyone who has tried to photocopy an item from a thick book will appreciate.

What was the next step for Dawn?

Dawn applied for and received Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs), which are government grants to help pay the essential extra costs a student may have as a direct result of their disability. To find out exactly what equipment and support Dawn needed, the OU Access Centre carried out at Study Needs Assessment for her. This took place at her home and as most of our students study from home, we are very used to arranging this when necessary. In many ways a home visit is preferable to a centre-based needs assessment for OU students as the Needs Assessor can gain a much better idea of the student’s situation and they can demonstrate exactly how they study instead of having to explain.

Dawn’s DSAs assessment, recommended she was given help with notetaking, printing, photocopying and travel costs as well as extra time and maximum flexibility with assignments and examinations.

How was Dawn’s Needs Assessment followed up?

A copy of Dawn’s Needs Assessment Report, with her permission, was shared with her Student Support Team. Supported by telephone conversation with Dawn’s father, acting as her advocate, they added the recommendations to Dawn’s student record along with the information she had provided on her Disability Support Form. This was then made available to Dawn’s tutor and other staff to provide her with the support she needed.

Were there any obstacles along the way?

Dawn was entitled to six years’ DSAs support but she effectively ‘lost’ one year as she studied for only a short time in one of those years. The OU wants to see all students complete their studies wherever possible so the OU DSA Office signposted Dawn to an alternative source of funding within Disabled Student Services that she used to continue with the study-related support she needed to attain her BA.

How did you support Dawn’s decision to do an MA?

Dawn began her Masters in October 2014. She had a further Study Needs Assessment of her disability-related study needs in February 2015. Again, this was carried out as a home visit. She was recommended further study assistance support, help with the costs of printing and consumables, extra time to complete assignments, and maximum flexibility for examinations. We continue to provide comb-bound books and Dawn also now receives electronic texts of all printed material.

Accessible PDFs are availalbe for disabled students for almost all printed materials and eBooks and Word documents are available for all on-screen text within the Virtual Learning Environment for each course. We also produce Daisy talking books for disabled students. The Digital Accessible Information System (or Daisy), is a means of creating talking books for people who wish to hear and navigate written material presented in an audible format - navigation is provided within a sequential and hierarchical structure and the text is synchronized with the audio. This is a very accessible and popular format.

Why choose the OU if you have a disability or challenging circumstances?

We’ve got the largest disabled student community in the UK. Many are attracted to us by the breadth and nature of what we provide in terms of support for disabled students. The aim for most of us involved in supporting disabled students is to do whatever we can to remove or reduce the impact or the barriers to student success. Because we've got years of experience we can anticipate a lot of those barriers but also take a lot of pride in realising student have the best answers – so we do as much as we can to tease these out from students so they get what any individual adjustments that might be needed too.

Additionally, we've got an extensive range of support that we provide for students when they go to residential schools – from relatively simple things like dietary requirements to quite complex needs like 24-hour nursing care.

We’ve been doing this for a long time – it’s in our DNA – and we are unique in how we can work both at scale, as we do with anticipating the need for accessible study materials, and in how we work with students individually to meet their needs.

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