Saturday, 31 May 2014

Skillstep: Week 1

I have now finished my first week of Skillstep, at the Henshaws resource centre in Manchester, and I thought I would share with you what Skillstep entails and the skills I have learned so far in the first 3 sessions.

What is Skillstep?

Skillstep is a 12 week training course, provided by Henshaws Society for Blind People, and supported by the Big Lottery Fund. It is a practical course and beneficial for those who are seeking employment or voluntary work, or for those wanting to go into further education. Skillstep also delivers the perfect opportunity to boost confidence and independence, and expand social circles.

Throughout the duration of the course, experienced trainers and guest speakers will visit the centre to help build on technology and IT abilities, route training and travel efficiency, personal and social development and vocational skills.

The end of the initial 10-week course is concluded with a 2-week work placement, based on your personal interests and skills. A nationally-recognised qualification is then gained, accredited by the Open College Network.

You can find out more about Skillstep by clicking here and can register your interest to the course via e-mail.

Enrolling onto the Course

I have been interested in the Skillstep course for a almost a year, after attending the 'Living with Sight Loss' enablement course last summer, from June to July, and expressing my interest to Lisa Young after she explained the benefits of it. As the co-ordinator post has only been filled in recent months, courses have only started to run again and I am part of the second group undertaking Skillstep with the new co-ordinator.

I wanted to be a part of Skillstep to help bridge the gap between now and the time that I train for my Guide Dog and go back into further education, hopefully by next September. I thought it would be an excellent resource to help identify my current skill set, improve them and acquire new skills. I also wanted to boost my independence and make some new friends closer to my age.

After having an IT assessment with Linda and Neil, from Bolton College, and an interview with Julie Parrish, the new Skillstep co-ordinator, I enrolled onto the Skillstep course on Friday, May 16th.

The course runs for three days a week - on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday - and each day is focused on a different area of learning. On Tuesdays, Maureen Cain from Trafford College visits to work on vocational and social skills. Wednesdays add a bit of variety to the course, with visits from a rehab officer, a Trustee of Henshaws, Transport for Greater Manchester, Department of Work and Pensions, and so on. Thursday, the final day of the week, is occupied by developing IT and technology skills with Linda and Neil from Bolton College.

My First Week

The course began on Tuesday, May 27th, with the group consisting of 8 members of varying ages and sight conditions. We began the first day by giving introductions of ourselves and were then given a brief history of Henshaws - Manchester's oldest charity, established in 1837 - as well as an overview of Skillstep and what we will be achieving over the course of the next 12 weeks.

We were introduced to Maureen Cain, from Trafford College, and she explained the work that she would be doing with us on a Tuesday which included social and vocational development. In the first session, we were introduced to rapport and how to establish connections through behaviours such as body language, tone of voice, language and active listening. Throughout the day, we were given exercises to demonstrate using these skills and the difference they make to building rapport with someone.

On the second day Gary Cassidy, a rehabilitation officer based at Henshaws, visited our group for the morning to discuss the basics of how the eye works and the most common eye conditions that cause sight loss in the UK. These include Glaucoma, Cataracts, Macular Degeneration, Retinitis Pigmentosa, Diabetic Retinopathy, Nystagmus, Hemianopia and Charles Bonnet Syndrome. Simulation glasses were passed around so that those with some useful sight could experience a few of the conditions mentioned.

In the afternoon, we were visited by Andrew Rose - a Trustee and a Member of the Board at Henshaws. He gave a speech on his sight loss journey, suffering from Retinitis Pigmentosa, and how Henshaws and the Skillstep course benefitted him 4 years ago. It is a truly inspirational story of someone who has achieved so much despite their increasing sight impairment and it was wonderful of Andrew to share his time and his story with us. It really exhibited the goals that someone can attain when they accept their visual impairment and work with it to help others.

The third day was based around the computer, with each individual group member located at their own computer already set-up with the software they identified needing to use during the previous IT assessment. I am currently using ZoomText, as I much prefer the voice in that software, as opposed to JAWS which sounds rather robotic and is hard for me to understand with my hearing aids!

The computer is loaded with documents consisting of tasks for us to work through and demonstrate our basic IT knowledge of how to; open Word, save a document, find and open a document, add additional text to a document, and copy, paste and cut text. We then printed two copies of each task to be marked and added to our portfolio. I completed 10 of the 14 tasks in total and will continue with the final 4 tasks in the second session on Thursday, before moving onto the next section of work.

As a life-long Apple user, I must admit that the beginning of the session was a little difficult to get my head around - using commands and keys that aren't featured on a Macbook keyboard. By the end of the 5 hour session though, I had picked up a lot of the basics and was very thankful to work through the simple tasks to get used to the things I will be using in the IT sessions in coming weeks.

As Skillstep is an evidence-based course, a portfolio must be created in order to display the skills we have learned over the duration of the 12 weeks, to be accredited correctly. We were provided with a binder and dividers for us to organise our work with Maureen and IT work with Linda and Neil. I created a Braille label to identify my folder and Braille labels to divide my work.

At the end of the first week of Skillstep, I was absolutely shattered! It was a good feeling though, being in a routine and socialising with other visually impaired and blind people close to my age. I felt like I had made progress and a good start in the course. I am certainly looking forward to week 2 and will be sure to blog weekly posts regarding my Skillstep progress.