Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Disabil-IT? Conference

Isobel Stark reports from the February 1997 Disabil-IT? conference, aimed at library and computing services staff to help raise awareness of issues related to IT provision for students with disabilities.

On the 12th February I attended the Disabil-IT? One day conference in Birmingham organised by the teaching and Learning Technology support Network at the University of Wales, Bangor. The conference was aimed at library and computing services staff to help raise awareness of issues related to IT provision for students with disabilities. It was a long and packed day, with an exhibition to busy oneself at coffee, and it was warm, despite being mid-winter due to the sheer number of people present.

The opening address was given by Tom Vincent of the Open University, an institution with 7000 students declaring themselves disabled (interesting this number has risen at a greater rate than the able-bodied students in the past few years). Prof. Vincent gave an overview of present activities and future developments.

Maintaining Access to Learning materials
Present developments include:
  • text in digital format which can be printed in large characters or be used in enabling technologies such as screen reading (synthetic speech) or soft braille
  • digital audio, so audio can be searched via text, a necessary development as one OU course averages 200 hours of audio tape
  • tactile diagrams and tactile overlays (to allow diagrams and maps to be read by the visually impaired)
  • distributed audio
Multimedia for Access
Well designed multimedia is for everyone, not just for a niche market. For example the OU’s Virtual Microscope [1] started off to help visually impaired students but is now used as a learning aid by all students on relevant courses. Multimedia needs good design:
  • screen layout
  • navigation
  • ease of reading screen
  • auditory information
  • compatibility with enabling software
The Future
Again the future will not be developed solely for a niche market. Many issues are generic to all teaching, and with increasing student numbers and possible need to record lecturers for later playback to aid space restrictions (as at Stanford’s School of Engineering [2]) students with disabilities will increasingly be using the same materials as able-bodied students.

While Prof. Vincent advocated progress for the benefit of all students, there is little legal drive for the Higher education sector to change it ways. Fran Tate, University of Wales, Bangor and Ann Wilkson, CTI Human services, both touched on the legal aspects to varying degrees.

Legal requirements

“Higher Education institutions are free to determine to decide the provision they make”

So said Lord Henley, Disabilities Minister. The Disability Discrimination Act does not apply in its entirety to the Higher Education sector However, the Higher education Funding Councils are to have a regard to the requirements of disabled persons and HEI’s are to publish disability statements (to‘help students make informed decision’, Lord Mackay).

Disability Statements
existing policy
  • admissions
  • examination
  • equal opportunities
existing provision
  • advice services
  • academic support
  • careers service
  • availability of IT
  • acess to buildings
future activity and development
  • brief - looking at next few years

Making HEI’s Accessible

Several speakers (Ann Wilkinson, CTI Human Services, Fran Tate, Wales, Bangor, Mike Wald, LSU, Southampton and Debbie Sapsed, Wales, Bangor) covered what HEI’s can do to help make their environments more accessible

  • gloss surfaces reflect light - difficult for the visually impaired
  • contrast floors and ceilings, skirting and furniture
Building fabric and layout
  • induction loops in lecture halls for the hard of hearing
  • visual alarms as well as audio
  • sloping boards for the physically disabled
Computer provision issues
  • can all students access a workstation for their own personal use (but not solely for their own use)
  • volume control and earphones on a significant number of computers
  • quite workspace within computer workspace (block out sounds)
  • are WWW pages readable in Lynx?
  • can dyslexic students, for example, borrow laptops?
  • is adaptive equipment available for hire?
Library Provision
  • can all students access an OPAC?
  • can all machines get at CD-ROM machines and get help?
  • are video and online resources accessible?
  • does the Library have quiet study rooms?
Software Issues
  • can keystrokes be used instead of a mouse?
  • is it possible to add adaptive software?
  • see Ariadne issue 8B, in mid-April, for more discussion of software design for accessibility
Staffing Issues
  • awareness for all staff
  • individual library tours for disabled students

The speakers from the University of Wales, Bangor, spoke of the project at their institution to set up support study centres for students with disabilities. They encountered many problems with incompatible software and have found the maintenance and support for the users and staff of the centres (one in the library and a larger centre elsewhere on campus) time consuming for a variety of reasons, including the staff’s lack of familiarity with products as there is a large range to master and there is infrequent need of support for each individual item.


Several organisations were represented at the conference, namely:

Skill - National Bureau for Students with Disabilities
Skill promotes opportunities for young people and adults with any kind of disabilities to realise their potential in FE and HE, training and employment throughout the UK. It is a voluntary organisation and a registered charity.
Skill: National Bureau of students with Disabilities
336 Brixton Road
London SW9 7AA
Teaching and Learning Technology Support Network (TLTSN)
A network of centres around the UK supported by the HE funding councils. The TLTSN exists to disseminate the experiences of the institutional projects, in the area of learning technology, to the wider academic community. The centre from Bangor dealing with technical and organisational requirements for the use of IT by students with special needs, was represented at the conference.[3]
British Dyslexia Association
The BDA’s Computer Committee provides information and support to dyslexics nationwide. For more information see their web site [4]
British Dyslexia Association
98 London Road
Reading RG1 5AU
Tel: Helpline 0118 966 8271
Tel: Admin. 0118 966 2677
Fax: 0118 935 1927
Email (Helpline): infor@dyslexiahelp- bda.demon.co.uk
Email (Admin): admin@bda- dyslexia.demon.co.uk
Access Centres
The national federation of Access Centres is now 10 years old, but there still is not yet universal coverage across the UK


  1. The Virtual Microscope
  2. Stanford School of Engineering, Dept of Computer Science
  3. TLTSN, Bangor
  4. British Dsylexia Association

Author Details

Isobel Stark,
Information Officer,
Email: i.a.stark@ukoln.ac.uk
Phone: 01225 323343
Address: UKOLN, University of Bath, Bath, BA2 7AY