Yes I Am Blind But It Does Not Define Me (County Press Article by Emily Pearce - 8th January 2016)

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She may not be able to read text books but that hasn't stopped Ruth Hollingshead from gaining a first-class degree.

Ruth, who was registered blind at the age of 24 and is a volunteer and trustee at the Isle of Wight Society for the Blind, has graduated from the Open University with a first in social policy and criminology.

"It was a proud day.  I hope I inspired my children - Erika, 18 and Fletcher, 16 - who came to cheer me on," said Ruth. 

Ruth describes her blindness as "a pain in the bum" but she refuses to be defined by it.

She was diagnosed with macular dystrophy when she was ten years old, a genetic condition that causes sight loss.

A former Carisbrooke High School student, she excelled at her studies - although she relied on friends to read the blackboard as her eyesight deteriorated - and was offered a place at university.  But it wasn't until later in life she decided  to pursue higher education.  "Going to university was always something I wanted to do and it was assumed I would.  But my A-levels were such a hard slog, I decided against it.  It wasn't just the reading and the work, I didn't know how I'd get around.  I went to a couple of open days and it was really hard to navigate the site.  I didn't know how I'd manage", explained Ruth, 41 of Priory Road, Carisbrooke.  "This was the early Nineties and there was very little support available."

Following her divorce, however, Ruth decided it was time for a new challenge.  "At the back of my mind was this nagging question of whether I had used my visual impairment as an excuse for not going to university.  In the end, I decided to take the plunge and find out if I had what it takes to get a degree," she said.  "The Open University, and further education generally, was something I'd toyed with for years.  But it was when my husband left I thought 'right', it's time to do something'.  At the rate things were going, my daughter would have a degree before I did!

"I wanted to set a good example to my children.  I didn't want them thinking I was just mum and all I did was cook the tea.  I've always thought education is very, very important and I hope watching me and seeing the effort I've put in has helped them realise if you work hard at something, you will get results."

Ruth was supported by the Open University's "fantastic" disabled students' team throughout her course.  She was provided with e-books and audio files in place of text books and a sighted guide to accompany her tutorials.

After six years, during which she studied modules ranging from sociology to anti-terrorism policy - fitting her studies around her role at the Blind Society, running the IW branch of the Macular Society and her home life - she attended her graduation ceremony at the Lighthouse, Poole, to collect her BSc, with first class honours.  "It was a big moment for me.  My mum came too and my daughter came up on stage with me.  She's my guide.  It was really emotional," said Ruth.

She will now take a break and then she hopes to study for a master's degree and perhaps become a researcher or adult education tutor.

Ruth says her eyesight is "pretty rubbish.  It started with central vision loss and now I'm losing my peripheral vision, too.  But I've had it for such a long time, I've adapted well.  If you saw me bustling around my house, you'd never know anything was wrong," she said.

Although it is a genetic condition, macular dystrophy has been ruled out in both Erika and Fletcher.

When asked if it was a relief to learn her children would not lose their sight, Ruth said: "Everyone says that but there are far worse things that can happen to people.  It's a pain in the bum but it doesn't hurt or kill you."

"Admittedly, I sometimes stop and think how ridiculous my life is when I'm struggling to read the cooking instructions on a chicken or something but I don't think about it when I get up in the morning.  It doesn't define who I am."