From education to employment

Achieving Your Potential: A guide to making the move from school to FE and apprenticeships – for young people with vision impairments

Noel Duffy

Many school leavers are keen to start their careers in an apprenticeship. Students with visual impairments are no exception, though they can face additional hurdles finding and securing an apprenticeship that suits them.

This guide will take you through what an apprenticeship is, how to choose one that helps you fulfil your potential in the workplace, and how to communicate your accessibility needs. 

As the merits of a diverse workforce are becoming more apparent to business leaders, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are core values of any modern business. However, RNIB studies show that only 1 in 4 people registered as blind or partially sighted are in employment. A number that hasn’t significantly changed in over 30 years. Clearly, it’s time to make a change!

While all young people need to stay in some kind of education up to the age of 18, apprenticeships are becoming a popular way to bridge the gap between school and the workplace. There are over 300 apprenticeships available now in England. These prepare young people for their careers and provide a sound basis for on-the-job learning.

Although many school leavers are keen to start their careers in an apprenticeship, students with visual impairments can face additional hurdles when finding and securing an apprenticeship that suits them. Meanwhile, organisations might not be sure how they can support a student with visual impairments.

The good news is that there is technology and support in place to make an apprenticeship a fantastic option for school leavers who are blind or partially sighted.

Read on to find out how to find the right course and get the support and adjustments you need as a student with a visual impairment; and find out how as a business – you can easily employ an apprentice with sight loss and ensure they are a valuable addition to your team.

What is an apprenticeship?

An apprenticeship is an on-the-job learning experience. The apprentice works with an employer and has time at college to study their chosen course, which is related to that role.

There are a number of different apprenticeships available to young people over 16. These are:

  • Level 2 – Intermediate level, which is equivalent to 5 GCSE’s.
  • Level 3 – Advanced level, which is equivalent to 2 A Levels
  • Levels 4, 5, 6 & 7 – Higher Level, equivalent to a foundation degree and above
  • Levels 6 & 7 – Degree Level, equivalent to a bachelor’s or masters degree

What are the criteria for an apprenticeship?

You must be over 16 or over and live in England to start your apprenticeship.

There are apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales or  Northern Ireland though these have slightly different criteria. This article relates to apprenticeships in England, though some similarities may occur.

Many will not require any previous experience or qualification, but for others you may need previous qualifications such as maths or English GCSE. This depends on the apprenticeship level.

Benefits of apprenticeships

Different to higher education courses, an apprenticeship means you study ‘on the job’. Apprentices are paid for their work and receive paid holidays. You will gain real-life work experience and gain workplace skills that you learn from experienced colleagues.

In addition to working, you will have time allocated each week to train and study for your role. At least 20% of your normal working hours are spent on training and study. This training and study might take place in your workplace, at college, with a training provider or even online.

What support is available during college studies?

Further education (FE) colleges support students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in similar ways to schools. There is a SEND Code of Practice: 0-25 years which colleges must follow, and as part of the Equality Act 2010, mainstream FE colleges must do everything they reasonably can to remove all barriers to learning for disabled students.

Similar to school, there should be a person at FE college who is in charge of SEND provision. Contact them if you need help or advice about your studies and college life.

How do I start an apprenticeship as a visually impaired student?

If you’re interested in apprenticeship opportunities, speak to your school careers advisers, and discuss it in your ‘preparing for adulthood’ transition review.

Find out more about the apprenticeships in your area (England only) and apply online.

As apprenticeships are popular ways to work and learn, they can be competitive. Sometimes you may be required to have a certain level of qualification already, such as GCSEs.

If you have a disability such as a visual impairment, the employer must give you equal access and offer you the chance to show that you are ready to do your apprenticeship. This might be through a ‘portfolio of evidence’ that can include evidence of paid or voluntary work you have done, non-accredited courses you have completed and other study, work or life experiences you’ve had.  

Perhaps you have completed a Supported Internship, taken out-of-school classes, have travelled independently, or are a member of a sports club or organisation such as scouts or guides. Perhaps you’ve done a Duke of Edinburgh award or helped out at a youth group? All these life experiences help prospective employers build a picture of your abilities, relevant skills, and work ethic.

Some colleges or training providers may also offer traineeships if you feel you need a little extra support to help prepare you for a full apprenticeship. Like a work experience placement, a traineeship helps build your confidence, as well as your skills and experience.  It’s workplace-based and your college will arrange your support and make sure Access to Work is in place.

Making the transition from school to an apprenticeship

When you start an apprenticeship, you will be dealing with lots of new experiences. Navigating a new workplace, meeting colleagues and making new friends, adapting to the workplace and new ways of working and managing your time.

This – in conjunction with your college study days – is where you have more freedom than at school. There’s more focus on you being responsible for your own learning outcomes and this is an important step towards the independence of adulthood.

You may find this exciting, and you may find it challenging, but you’ll certainly notice a difference in support from your school days. You may not have your QTVI anymore, and your teaching staff will be new to you – and you to them – so they may not know your learning style or the adjustments that you might need for learning materials. So how do you make your accessibility needs known? How can you get the things you need to be your best, most authentic self and thrive at college and during your apprenticeship?

Communicating accessibility needs

If you have a visual impairment, your workplace and your training provider or college must make reasonable adjustments to ensure you are safe and have full access at your workplace and while studying.

The most important thing you can do is communicate your accessibility requirements – but what if you don’t know what they are?

You might find it useful to identify the things you might need with the help of the Be My Best Self form. This can help you consider, identify and communicate any accessibility needs you have. Fill in what you know and use the outcome to start a conversation.

If you don’t know the answer then leave the field blank, it will populate automatically with some suggested text that invites the recipient to work with you on finding out more. Remember, your employer or college might have some things already in place that you haven’t considered, but that could help you do your job easily, or study more efficiently.

You can communicate your accessibility requirements or preferences in an email, over the phone, or in a meeting.  Be open to discussion and remember it’s ok to ask an employer or college to investigate or research options for you. There is funding and support available.

What about Supported Internships?

Designed to help young people with an EHCP or LDA experience the workplace and build on the skills they need for work, a supported internship is a structured study programme based in a workplace, which is tailored to each individual’s needs.

Read about the experience of Harley, in his supported internship at Dolphin Computer Access. His supported internship helped enable him to gain valuable work experience, to help with his transition from education to the workplace. 

In a supported internship, the student will have the support in place to ensure they can travel to work safely, a job coach who will support them at work to learn the role, liaise with their colleagues and make sure Access to Work, the employer and the college are all set up.  After a supported internship, a student might go into employment, or move on to another course or placement.

Funding and financial support

Statistically speaking, students who are blind or partially sighted are less likely to do an apprenticeship. The government is seeking to remedy this, and so employers can claim funding and grants from the National Apprenticeship Service to encourage young people with disabilities, including visual impairments, to apply.

Students should also receive financial support from their training provider or college if they have a visual impairment. This would usually be paid through Learning Support or Exceptional Learning Support if you’re eligible.

An apprentice or employer should also investigate financial support through the Access to Work grant. This funding will help get apprentices to work (paying for taxis and public transport for example), and help them stay in work – perhaps paying for adaptations to the premises or for specialist technology such as a screen reader or screen magnifier, depending on their level of vision.

Assistive Technology

If you have the right technology in place – whether at college or the workplace – it can open up a world of opportunity to set young people on their chosen career path. Help inform your workplace of the types of assistive technology available to blind and partially sighted people in the workplace.

You can find more about assistive tech at  and colleges will find the Educators’ Guide to Assistive Technology a useful resource.

Ensure your college or university has the right resources and advice in place to help young people with visual impairments start their working life. Encourage your students to consider an apprenticeship as the first step in a successful career.

For more information and to read about the experience of some of our own apprentices, please visit here.

By Noel Duffy,  Chairman of the Board, Dolphin Computer Access

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