Web Magazine for Information Professionals

The DISinHE Centre

Professor Alan Newell asks: How can technology assist with the obligations of HE to support staff and students with disabilities?

Over four percent of students in Higher Education have registered as having one or more disabilities, but the actual number of students may be closer to ten percent. Communications and Information Technology (C & IT) has an important part to play in supporting both staff and students with disabilities, and staff in Institutions clearly need to be aware of their moral and legal obligations, and know how to set up processes and practices to provide such support effectively and efficiently. One important side-effect of this approach is that, learning support methods and materials which are accessible to students with disabilities, are likely to be significantly better for all students. {The most ubiquitous general example of this effect is the cassette tape recorder, which was originally invented by the company marketing talking books for blind people.} Thus providing accessible systems and materials is a situation where everyone can win.

The UK Disability Discrimination Act makes it illegal for Institutions to discriminate against disabled staff and external "customers" of its services, and requires "reasonable" provision for their support. In its present form, this Act does not include students, but Institutions are required to publish a "Disability Statement" describing their support procedures. It is likely that the exclusion of students from the Act will be removed, and Human Rights legislation gives everyone the right to benefit fully from education. An Institution may thus decide to suffer the displeasure of the Funding Council (which has a responsibility to "take account to the needs of students with disabilities when exercising their function") by, for example, not insisting that lecture notes should be in an accessible form, but they could be in breech of the Human Rights legislation. The Dearing Report, the Funding Councils' Widening Access and Equal Opportunities initiatives, and teaching quality assessments also have a focus on the needs of students with disabilities, which Institutions ignore at their peril. Other countries, particularly, the USA, have more prescriptive legislation, and the possibility of disabled students sueing Institutions is greater, but UK is rapidly moving in this direction.

There is a whole raft of support which Institutions are encouraged to provide for students with disabilities, and the Higher Education Funding Council of England has recently published a document which lays down general guidelines for "baseline provision". Increasingly, however, Institutions are using C & IT as part of their support for students, and it is important that they consider the accessibility of this technology, and how it can help them to provide a proper level of support for students with disabilities.

C & IT has great potential to provide an effective and efficient way of accessing learning materials for people who are disabled. With some forethought by the designers, for example, Web pages can be designed so that they can be easily outputted in synthetic speech by blind people using Screen Reading technology, and keyboard commands provided for those who cannot use a mouse. With a little care, electronic text can be designed so that it is easily convertible to Braille, and the fonts, colours and layout modifiable so that people with Dyslexia can read it more easily. Institutional acceptance of word processed essays and examination scripts means that those who can only use a keyboard, or even those who have to use special input devices, can be fully integrated into a course of study. If such provision is properly organised at a strategic level, appropriate support can be available whilst minimising the need for special provision for individuals. It may also be possible to use C & IT based video links to provide temporary alternatives to cope with physical access problems.

The downside, however, is that some C & IT can be completely impossible to access by these same groups of people, and there is a danger that certain recent technological advances will make this situation worse. Access to computer based information by blind people had become relatively simple, until graphical user interfaces were introduced. Initially this system had no accessibility features, and blind people were suddenly unable to use even standard packages. Microsoft, Sun, Apple, and other manufacturers now provide accessibility features, but other more specialised software suppliers often do not. Some educational software and web pages are triumphs of form over content, and not only need the most up-to-date multi-media equipment and browsing software to operate them, but also are often completely inaccessible to people with disabilities.

The irony of the situation is that, if accessibility is considered at the beginning of the design process, accessibility features do not add substantially to the cost of a product (e.g. the provision of a text description of a picture or diagram) and indeed can often make the design better (e.g. the designer is forced to ask "what is the pedagogical reason for this picture). If such considerations are not included at the design stage, however, it may be very difficult, or even impossible, to add them at a later stage. Thus, if for no other reason than to comply with the law, Institutions may have to completely re-write their web pages and their computer based learning packages, or provide an alternative learning methodology for those students who cannot use them. This could be an expensive venture!

Talking into account the needs of people with disabilities will not only fulfil legal and moral obligations, but also, provide many possibilities for improving educational provision for all students. For example, if lecture support material is accessible to students with disabilities, it will be easily accessible to all students. All students would benefit from a requirement that timetable changes should posted on the Web in accessible format, and Computer Based Learning material which was properly designed for students with disabilities is more likely to be of higher quality and thus benefit all students. Accessible web pages are also much likely to readable by those with non standard equipment, a slow connection to the internet, or via mobile phone technology, than more "picturesque" pages.

Many IT Services Departments provide good one-to-one support, but usually as an add-on extra. It would be much more effective if Institutions fully considered the needs of staff and students with disabilities within their C & IT strategies, and as part of the Information Strategies which they are developing. Total support for people with every type of disabilities can seem an impossible task, but the Act does have a "reasonableness" clause, and it is very important to realise that significantly better access can be provided relatively easily, especially if this is done early and has a strategic dimension.

The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) have funded the Disability and Information Systems in Higher Education (DISinHE) project to provide Institutions with support in this area. The project is based in the Applied Computing Department at Dundee University, which, for many years, has had an international reputation for developing C & IT systems for people with disabilities. The project is a clearing house for information about such support: DISinHE is also developing guidelines for Institutions to ensure that this support is properly embedded in the procedures and practices of institutions, and in particular, within the generic C & IT support which is offered to staff and students.

The DISinHE project is building up an extensive web site (see <URL:http://www.disinhe.ac.uk/>) to assist Institutions in this important task. The remit of the project is not to support individual students, but to help Institutions to provide generic technical support, and appropriate technical infrastructure so there is less need for personalised support for individual students. Deputy Principals, Pro-Vice Chancellors and senior managers in the C & IT support services are encouraged to visit the site as part of their task of ensuring that the provision for people with disabilities is an integral part of the normal infrastructure of their Institution.

Author Details

Picture of Alan Newell Alan Newell
DISinHE Centre
Department of Applied Computing
University of Dundee
Dundee,DD1 4HN
Scotland, UK

Email: alan@disinhe.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.disinhe.ac.uk/