My name is Reanna, and I have Leber's Congenital Amaurosis, which means I have been blind from birth. I have light perception, but no “useful vision”. I would argue that light perception is very useful, since without it I’d be stuck, but I'm not the one who decides what’s classed as useful and what isn't. I wouldn't say I've ever been “normal”, but that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with my condition, I've just always been a bit different.
I have been to both mainstream and specialist schools, and I feel like both have their advantages and disadvantages depending on what you’re looking for. I hope that at some point someone might read this and it will help them decide what kind of education they want.
For most of my school life I went to mainstream schools, and I feel like my experience was quite similar to that of sighted students. At primary school I was always included as much as possible, and mostly my memories from that time are good (apart from the odd scary teacher).
I don’t feel like secondary school was quite as nice, but I'm not sure if it was linked to my blindness or the fact that it was an all girls’ school. Anyone who has been to one will know how much drama there is, and how easy it is to become unpopular if you annoy the wrong person. I made some of my best and most longstanding friends in secondary school, but I wouldn't say it was the best five years of my life. In terms of accessibility my school was great, I had a teaching assistant who I am eternally grateful to as I wouldn't have made it through without her. I think I did pretty well in my GCSEs, all my grades were A*-A, and I don’t think I would have done quite so well at any other school, but at the same time I was never very happy.
For sixth form I decided to go to New College Worcester, a specialist school for the blind. This was partly because I thought I would be happier there, and partly because I knew I wanted to go to university and NCW could teach me the life skills I would need to live on my own. While there I took A levels in English, History, Art and Psychology,as well as mobility and life skills. I learned to cook, clean etc, skills I use a lot now that I live on my own. If I hadn't gone to NCW I may not have learned these skills and would have had to live at home and commute to university. I also think it helped me to meet other people in the same situation as me who understood certain things in a way that sighted people might not. Before sixth form I didn't really have any visually impaired friends, and I think it’s really important to have at least some friends who share your disability. The friends I made at NCW have all gone on to university now, but we still meet up as often as we can.
Although I wasn't always happy at mainstream school I'm definitely glad I went, it gave me experience which I wouldn't have otherwise had and might need in later life. The one thing I noticed at NCW was that people who had been there from age 11 sometimes seemed very sheltered and inexperienced (probably because it’s a residential school), and I wouldn't want that for myself. I also don’t think I would have done as well in my GCSEs, since NCW has to cater for a wide range of different needs and while they do their best I think I needed a more focused environment like the grammar school I attended.
Obviously I can’t speak for everyone, but personally I think going to mainstream school is very important for gaining experience and integrating with society. Specialist schools are definitely very important as well, without NCW I may not have been able to live on my own, and for some people going to a mainstream school isn’t necessarily possible. However, I definitely think there needs to be a balance, people need to learn life skills while still getting involved with the outside world. I think the way I did things allowed me to achieve this balance, and has given me all the skills I need to get through university.