As part of World Sight Day, which is recognised internationally on 8 October to raise awareness of blindness and vision impairment, Jisc accessibility and inclusion specialist Margaret McKay listens to advice from learners who have experienced sight loss.
World Sight Day may not grab the same headlines as other awareness events so you may be surprised at just how many people are affected by visual impairments. In the UK alone, there are almost two million people living with sight loss. Of the 360,000 people who are registered as blind or partially sighted, 84,000 people are of working age.
Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. According to the RNIB there are a significant number of people who are not registered as blind but say their sight loss is severe enough to affect their everyday lives.
Given how many of us are affected, the notion of ‘visual inclusion’ should therefore be important to everyone – and start with the learning process.
Accessing information – the learner experience
As part of World Sight Day I want to consider some of the issues that learners with sight loss face when accessing information.
I spoke to friends, learners and colleagues who have experienced sight loss to discover the technologies and tools they find useful for learning and teaching - and to find out where problems arise.
Two students I spoke to use built in universal access features, particularly magnification and Voice Over on their Apple computers and iOS devices to access information. Both highlighted their frustration when information, particularly Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, PDFs and websites, were not created with inclusion in mind, making them less accessible.
A languages graduate I spoke to uses the Windows-based Job Access With Speech (JAWS) screen reading software to access digital content. JAWS relies on well-structured information and images with alternative text descriptions in order to ‘read’ it back.
She described having to rely on course information being reformatted, meaning the process accessing information was long, laborious, and dependent on other people being there to help her. She questioned if this was reasonable when the material could have been created accessibly from the start:
"Often I was the one spending time making my course work accessible. It was very time consuming scrolling down, continuously listening to information I didn’t need or want to know about at that point in time."
A history undergraduate explained that accessing course content in the appropriate format was often difficult, particularly where he needed to call on older content such as manuscripts. He also relied heavily on the support of alternative format services to reformat his material.
The problem with e-books
e-books herald a golden age of accessibility – yet, according to Dan Pescod, campaigns manager at RNIB, digital rights management (DRM) guidelines put restrictions on how text can be adapted and used, posing real challenges.
Another student I spoke to described his frustration accessing e-books where digital rights management protocols had been applied. In addition to controlling the use and modification of content, he explained how other features, such as text-to-speech or screen reader options, were also restricted, having further impact on accessibility.
Does technology hold the key?
Everyone I spoke to highlighted the crucial role technology plays in enhancing access to information. Each described their satisfaction with the growing ecosystem of inclusive mobile technologies and their significance in helping them access information.
However, one thing is clear – unless we create information inclusively it runs the risk of being inaccessible to many people. Retrofitting inaccessible material is not an effective strategy; it takes additional time and effort, can come at a considerable cost to organisations, and have detrimental impact on learner achievement.
Things to consider
- Check that the information you create using MS Office suite is accessible
- Ensure everyone in the organisation is aware of their role in embedding inclusive practice in to their work
- Make sure you design and test your websites, learning platforms and e-book platforms to ensure they are accessible by following best practice guidelines
- Invite students and staff to be part of usability testing groups, test your web presence and actively seek feedback to inform your design
- How do you access publications in alternative formats if they are required? Load2Learn (now RNIB Bookshare) offers support in accessing curriculum material in accessible formats
- Library staff are pivotal in helping to access course material in alternative formats. Make sure your library team is confident about what they can to do provide inclusive library services
- Communicate the different ways staff and students can use technology to personalise the way they access information. Promote these as productivity tools that could benefit everyone – students learn in different ways and even those without visual impairments may benefit!
Find out more by reading our guidance on supporting learners with visual impairments