For many students, going to university is the time of their lives. After working hard during sixth form, university is a chance to meet new people, gain some independence, study a subject you’re passionate about and experience a seemingly endless array of nightlife.
However, for some, this is not the reality of the university life they had once dreamt of. Through no fault of their own, blind students and those with disabilities are often affected by a problem that is having an increasingly prevalent impact across society: that of loneliness.
According to the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, over nine million people in the UK are either always or often lonely. But for students who are blind and disabled, and are surrounded in a noisy and confusing world where everyone seems to have friends, the impact of loneliness can be even greater- as many as half of disabled people will be lonely on any given day. And these are students whose struggles are overlooked and at times disregarded on a daily basis.
I am a witness to the difficult experiences many blind and disabled students endure during their time at university, many of which are often compounded by loneliness. Through volunteering for Cardiff Institute for the Blind and befriending an overseas blind student, I have often acted as part of an amazing support network that is massively over stretched and underfunded.
Whether it be the support staff who accompany blind and disabled students to lectures or the course friends who help with readings and assignments, they are assisted in some aspects of their university life. However, this support comes at a cost, with only a limited number of hours available for free each week.
As such, once comfortable in their surroundings, blind students often then have to walk lectures by themselves and complete other tasks individually.
Whilst their independence and ability to live their lives like anyone else constantly astounds me, what ensues is loneliness, as the person they once had contact with for that day, or that week, vanishes.
There are many times in which these students are alone, struggling to eat a good meal and interact with others on a daily basis. Not only does their loneliness affect them mentally, it also affects their physical health as they grapple with everyday tasks such as cooking. On many occasions, my friend has survived off ready meals and bread, and with loneliness already being damaging for your health, a poor diet only magnifies the problem.
Without sight, time can feel so much longer as day fades into night, and the instance since they last spoke to someone can feel like an eternity. Even though we may not speak to everyone we see, the ability to be able to know that there are people around us is more comforting than we can even imagine.
Despite all of this, volunteers like those at Cardiff Institute for the Blind do amazing work to help combat loneliness by running regular coffee mornings and events throughout the year. I feel extremely fortunate to have volunteered at the organisation, and it is something I cannot recommend highly enough, especially to students.
I know that the blind student I have befriended is not the only one, as they are almost invisible on campus, partly due to a lack of awareness and education. If more students volunteered, all blind and disabled students could have a friend which can help fight loneliness, the epidemic of modern times.
I don’t see my friend as blind, he’s like anyone else where we talk about football and endlessly laugh together. And through meeting him, one thing has become very apparent: blind and disabled students encounter things many of us would struggle to cope with, but loneliness should not be one of them.