Steve Tyler, Director of Assistive Technology at Leonard Cheshire, reflects on some of the earlier assistive technology influences in his life.
Since Sight and Sound’s ‘Getting AT Ready’ event was originally due to take place in Scotland – pre-pandemic of course – I thought it would be fitting to reflect on some of my earlier experiences with assistive technology when I was at the University of Stirling.
For me, being ‘AT ready’ isn’t just about having the necessary technology in place – it’s about having the right attitudes and support to go alongside it.
As an eager student back in 1986, I began my search for the best university course with an element of doubt and an awareness that the options available may be limited due to my visual impairment. For me, I wasn’t just visiting universities to decide if I liked the course or the campus. It was about whether attending university and completing a course in Clinical Psychology was a possibility in the first place. And sadly, at the time, these fears were justified.
At many of my visits, my hopes were dashed immediately. I was often asked the question “how would you conduct a reaction-time experiment?” Such experiments are of course highly visual, so the question was merely setting me up to fail. During one particularly negative experience at a top league university, one interviewer had the audacity to scoff at me when I spoke about the kind of books I enjoyed reading. He actually brazenly asked the question “you say you’ve read – how precisely did you “read”?”
It wasn’t until I attended my interview at the University of Stirling that the tide began to turn. It was the tenth university I’d visited – and the furthest away – so by the time I arrived my hopes were on the floor. Until I met with Dr Carl Gijsbergs. I asked him outright whether he thought I could do the course and be able to overcome the logistics and challenges. I was met with complete surprise at such a question and he responded with something that has resonated with me ever since. “Of course, if you think you can do it, then of course you will do it, why not?” This was so different to the other reactions I’d had, and it made me realise that attitude really does make all the difference.
Attitude was one of the key things that informed my university career. In my early lectures, as embarrassing as it was to be drawn attention to at 18 years old, my lecturers would outwardly ask people in the class to volunteer to read with me. After all, they would need to do the reading anyway, so they “fully expected 50% of the class to sign up.” Initially this felt uncomfortable, but actually, this was a simple positive move that ensured I was able to succeed academically whilst integrating with my classmates. On my very first day there, I had a gentleman called Gary turn up at my halls of residence. He declared to me that he wasn’t going away until he knew I was completely happy in terms of getting around the campus. I’d never really thought about that level of support before. I’d thought maybe I would be able to make friends if I could get to the bar – but of course, how could I do that if I didn’t know where the bar was? And it was those small, positive moments and attitudes that really did pave the way for an extraordinary experience at the university.
When friends would come to visit, they would quickly fall in love with the place. Not just because of its beautiful setting, but because of the immense support I received there. I became interested in the level of support I was receiving at Stirling compared to what other visually impaired students were getting elsewhere. At that time, while a small portion of my contemporaries were getting places at university – they weren’t surviving. People were dropping out of education because they simply were not getting the level of support needed. I was one of the lucky ones – Stirling strived to be equitable.
Of course, another important element of my experience was technology. For me, one particular piece of equipment that sticks out in my mind was my ‘Versabraille Mark 2’, a backpack-like device with word processing capabilities. It was enormous and heavy, but it was amazing. For the first time I could make braille notes on braille displays and then print them off. I’d always been pretty fast at brailling and this device made it all the easier. So much so that I quickly became the person of choice for my peers to get their notes from if they’d missed a lecture. This also made me feel a lot better about having readers! Of course, given the clunky nature of the device it would often break down every five or six weeks and be sent of for repairs. I look back fondly thinking of how the university porters would refer to it as my ‘vertebrain’, a name that stuck with it through the duration of my time there.
In today’s world, technology is constantly changing and evolving. There are so many more options and possibilities – but that doesn’t make it easy. As social beings we still crave meaning and connection to others. For people to truly thrive, whether they are accompanied by assistive technology or not, the attitudes and environments around them must be supportive.