This week the Inclusive Digital Resources Working Group met for the first time. The aim of this group is to make recommendations for ensuring all students/staff have access to accessible and inclusive digital resources for learning and teaching. One of the drivers for the formation of this group is changes to the DSA (Disabled Student Allowance) which will remove additional technology support for students with dyslexia and other conditions. Peter Willets announced the changes in April 2014 saying ‘The need for some individual non-medical help (NMH) may be removed through different ways of delivering courses and information. It is for HEIs to consider how they make both anticipatory reasonable adjustments and also reasonable adjustments at an individual level.’ Greg Clark in September 2014 added ‘alternative provision in the form of university provided services such as printing services and books and journals in electronic format to be considered as alternatives’ and included the reminder ‘Universities should discharge their duties under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate disabled students.’ The changes will come into effect for September 2016.
Neither statement mentions the principles of universal design whereby changes for some create improvements for all. This is a shame because inclusion lies at the heart of the matter. It involves thinking beyond your own experience and considering diversity. Access to digital resources is a bit like the old Cadbury’s crème egg question How do you eat yours? We all have our own ways of working in online environments. The problems arise when assumptions are made which don’t take into account individual difference.
The key to reasonable adjustments is choice. Digital data supports personalisation. There is no one size fits all way of designing documents and presentations so the best alternative is uploading versions which can be customised to suit individual preference. The user should be able to change the size, shape and colour contrast to whatever works for them Where users can’t adjust content, it’s down to individuals to make reasonable adjustments like not placing text over an image and providing textual equivalents and user controls to multimedia.
Design is a political act. Putting content into the public domain involves decisions which determine access. This is power and with power comes responsibility. Reasonable adjustments to the provision of teaching and learning resources is not just about students with disabilities, its about maximising the affordances of virtual learning environments and improving access for everyone. The Inclusive Digital Resources Working Group will be contacting student reps, collating advice on best practice and making recommendations to the Learning Development and Environment Standing Group which reports to the Education and Student Experience group. The principle of reasonable adjustments is an opportunity to go back to basics, to review the minimum requirements for digital content and rethink what its means to be digitally literate.
So, on the question of reasonable adjustments – how will you be making yours?
It’s been a busy few months for e-accessibility. You could be excused for missing the Single Equality Act October 1st because the media seemed to miss it too. The Act significantly increased responsibility on information providers to ensure their online content is accessible for disabled people; so it can only be a matter of time before a successful exposure of the inaccessibility of 99% of public websites to access technology – can’t it?
Next: the e-Accessibility Action Plan: Making Digital Content Available to Everyone on October 12th. This reminds us e-Accessibility is essential as the government delivers more and more services online (Universal Credit anyone?) and will ‘ensure accessibility, affordability and equal participation for disabled users in the digital economy’
Final player in this triptych: BS 8878:2010 Web accessibility – Code of practice on December 7th. The BSI says it’s the first British Standard to address the growing challenge of digital inclusion Hurray… but then identifies the excluded as being the disabled and older people Boo…..
Two issues here. Firstly the government appears to be moving further away from Labour’s explicit linkage of digital exclusion with existing categories of social exclusion. The UK National plan for digital participation included low income households, people with no formal qualifications, single parents, new immigrants and those living in geographically remote communities alongside older and disabled people (2010:13) as groups likely to experience digital exclusion. Secondly the new trend of linking disability and older people is worrying; it’s a blanket expression that implies ‘not part of the workforce’ therefore not contributing to the economy. The message that inclusive practice benefits all is missing.
The social model of disability was a giant step for individual rights to participation but the original meaning (an individual disabled by society not by themselves) is being diluted and the ‘society’ part forgotten. Slowly but surely we are moving back to a deficit medical model. Boundary lines are being redrawn and the label ‘disabled’ continues to imply exclusion through unwelcome difference. We need to fight this discriminatory mergence. The Papworth Trust write 83% of people disabled by society acquire their disability in life; they are not born with it. All of us however, will get old.
The Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) website have produced a document ‘Implications for Higher Education Institutions’ referring to the Single Equality Act’. They also have a useful link on their home page How can academics ensure the materials they produce are accessible for all students?
The Single Equality Act is a complex piece of legislation; there are nine areas against which it is illegal to discriminate and HEIs still have the responsibility to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ in order to ensure a disabled person is not treated less favourably than a non-disabled one. The word disabled is in itself contentious. It doesn’t make explicit that being ‘disabled’ is about society and not the individual, that being disabled is about being denied access to participation through society’s failure to recognise sufficient categories of difference. The external social environment functions at the level of the majority or the level of the individual who is operating as the provider of ‘goods, facilities, services and public functions’.
With regard to virtual learning environments this is about the MEE Model. The person creating and uploading digital content using Mouse, Eyes and Ears and assuming everyone accessing that content is doing the same – when this might not be the case. As we head towards the start of a new academic year, it’s worth revisiting the subject of promoting inclusive practice with digital data. Look out for PIP2 following shortly 🙂