The Road Less Travelled
The Journey Begins
How to begin describing myself and all the twists and turns of where the last decade or so has taken me?!
I’m Jane Britt. I’m blind-deaf with low vision and profound deafness in one ear. I was born and raised in Northern NSW in the town of Lismore. I went to Primary and High School there before relocating to Brisbane to attend the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. At the end of my secondary schooling, I knew that I wanted to undertake study in my area of interest rather than undertake further rigorous academic study; my final year of school had been intense enough. I wanted to pursue my life’s enduring passion of music. I’m a classical pianist and clarinetist. The shift from secondary schooling to the tertiary sector would expose its own unique challenges, whilst I grappled with homesickness, learning my way around a city and finding my feet in a new academic environment.
The Musical Path
University life began in Duchesne College at the University of Queensland in 2005, when I started my degree at the Conservatorium. That first day was one of overwhelming homesickness, when I said goodbye to my Mum and Dad, watching them drive away down our long hilly drive. I went back to my room and listened to big band music whilst unpacking, trying to numb the separation pain of leaving behind the only place I’d ever called home and the people whom I love the most in this world.
I quickly found my feet at college and discovered other girls from varying backgrounds. I also had a group of girlfriends who had moved to Brisbane from my hometown and seeing familiar faces from home on a regular basis helped. I quickly discovered that the dining hall was a space for joy, laughter, commiseration and forging lifetime friendships; They remain steadfast friends to this day.
So how did a country girl with low vision and hearing adjust to university life?
On the academic front, I had formal supports I quickly put into place. I contacted Guide Dogs Queensland for Orientation and Mobility Training (O&M training), which is a service which teaches people the skills and techniques they need to get back and forth from a location safely. Together, they helped me learn how to walk from my college, catch the CityCat to the Con, taught me how to get around the Con, and how to then get the CityCat back home. I also engaged a Disability Advisor to help me find my feet academically. They were able to draw up a plan with my specific requirements around my vision and hearing losses for my lecturers and tutors, to help them support me in my learning. This included things like enlarged written materials, good colour contrast on PowerPoint presentations, sitting front and centre in lecture rooms and glare reduction strategies for my lecture rooms.
I graduated from the Con in 2008 and entered the University of Queensland in 2009 for a Bachelor of Arts in English literature, with a view of becoming a high school English and Music teacher. At the same time, my glaucoma become unstable; my health had other ideas about my smooth progress into the next part of my academic journey.
In 2007, the pressure in my left, and only seeing, eye destabilised to the point where I needed surgery. I was also undergoing testing to determine the cause of my ocular migraines at the same time (eventually deemed to be hereditary). It was a terrifying period of my life and one steeped in grief when I learnt I would eventually completely lose my vision. I had major surgeries in February 2008 and August-September 2009. These surgeries came with excruciating pain and long rehabilitation periods. Again, Student Services was instrumental in helping to make sure my academic progress would not be too significantly hindered by my health issues. I was able to return to study several weeks after each eye surgery, however the lingering grief around my prognosis meant I also had to learn new coping strategies; my life had suddenly been jolted from my charmed progress from adolescence to early adulthood to full adulthood in all its complexities. My support network became vitally important in this time; my friends, health professionals and most of all, my family. The primary thing I learnt from this period was that your support network, above all else, is what will carry you through tough moments. There would be more to come.
The Education Path
In 2011 I finished my BA and moved onto a Graduate Diploma of Education. The coursework was fine and I tackled it with ease, however the difficulties arose when I entered the classroom for my first practical experience.
How does someone with vision or hearing loss effectively manage behavioural disruptions when they can’t identify the source of them?! With great difficulty, it turns out!
I realised quickly that this career pathway wasn’t the right one for me. After discussion and research, I decided to withdraw and enter psychology study, also throwing myself a new challenge: moving to Canberra.
The Psychology Path
A Bachelor of Music, Bachelor of Arts and a Graduate Diploma in Education had all been tackled by now. Would Psychology be the answer?
In 2012, I said goodbye to subtropical Queensland and made the long drive with family down the coastline to temperate Canberra, to study at the Australian National University. I didn’t truly appreciate the challenge that I’d undertaken until my parents drove away and I had the same feeling of sweeping homesickness I had back in 2005. Still, I was determined to make the most of my new environment.
Again, I found a Disability Advisor to work with my lecturers and tutors whilst also having O&M training by Guide Dogs ACT/NSW. For a few months, I coped well until I started to realise that I was quite socially isolated. I loved my university, loved my classes, adored the seasonal changes in this beautiful city but I had no social support. I found this to be an enduring theme throughout my time in Canberra. I set my sights on gaining the marks I needed to leave Canberra for postgraduate study.
In 2014, I did my Honours year in Psychology. It was a tough, academically rigorous year with very little down time. I truly worked tirelessly to get the marks I needed to get into postgraduate studies, which I did in 2015. I got a place in a professional doctorate, majoring in clinical neuropsychology.
Diversion onto a new path
I commenced the doctorate in 2015, however I ended up leaving the degree due to unforeseen difficulties. I re-evaluated my career direction at this point after I was given a succession of fortuitous opportunities to publicly speak, peer mentor and be actively involved in disability advocacy. I walked away from these experiences with a realisation that I had discovered my life purpose in engaging in public advocacy.
I want to be a strong voice for those who may not be able to advocate for themselves. I also believe in teaching self-advocacy which might encourage others to speak up if they’ve previously felt unable to do so. I believe that accommodation practices and universal design features can be used to ensure equity of access for anyone pursuing postgraduate studies. I will continue to write about my experiences and those of others to be an agent for change for all of us.
Where to next?
A Clearer Path Ahead
I am currently working as a Business Transformation Graduate in Service Innovation and Design for Vision Australia. Vision Australia is an organisation helping individuals with low vision or blindness to live the life they choose. I am also President of Achilles Brisbane, a charity organisation which assists individuals with disability to achieve an active lifestyle, walking or running with the assistance of guides. I am delighted now to also be writing for ADCET and I look forward to sharing more of my journey, tips and strategies with you!