Literacy is arguably the most significant invention of all time, allowing us to live rich and varied lives and gain knowledge and experiences from the minds of others.
Visiting Syria in 2009, a young man practicing his English on me said how appreciative he was to England for inventing the scouting movement. I reflected on that conversation for a long time afterwards, wishing I had had the quickness of wit to respond how grateful I was to his Mesopotamian ancestors for inventing literacy.
International agency UNESCO has even sponsored an International Literacy Day since 1965, which this year falls on Tuesday 8 September.
Technology advancements are now extending literacy’s impact even further. Textbooks in digital format should widen access to literacy; any time, any place and – in theory – to any person – that is, if the text is adaptable enough to be accessible to the 10% of learners with a print impairment.
But as we know, theory and practice do not always match up.
The gap between theory and practice
Digital text lends itself to being highly flexible, offering an adaptable reading experience to learners – whether they need to change colours, magnify and reflow the text, or have it read out through text-to-speech tools.
But poor interface design or inaccessible production methods often leave print-impaired learners unable to make the changes to textbooks that they so desperately need. This problem is already significant, and surely only set to become bigger as the changes to Disabled Student Allowance come into force and less funding is made available (we’ll have more on this issue in the coming months).
Ensuring print-impaired learners can get sufficient access to important information that supports their literacy requires action on several fronts, from publishers as well as learning providers, policymakers and practitioners.
I’ve been part of the Publishers Association Accessibility Action Group for several years, working to raise awareness of accessibility within the industry. As a result of this group’s work accessibility has been placed firmly of the radar of academic publishers, and many have already established efficient processes for requests for textbooks in alternative formats – a good place to start for this is the publisher lookup website.
One of the group’s current big priorities is around recent changes to copyright legislation, which allows learning providers to make, keep and share ‘intermediate copies’ of textbooks made under the auspices of the copyright exceptions. While the new law is good news for disabled learners, a lack of clarity over the definition of ‘intermediate copies’ has prevented many library services from embracing these new opportunities.
So, with Jisc colleagues, publishers, library staff and advocacy organisations, we’re working towards new guidance that will help both publishers and libraries be confident in navigating these new rules.
Learning provider changes
One of the fundamental ways of making information more accessible is to provide it in a variety of formats – you’ll find a number listed in Jisc’s accessibility guide for tutors/teaching staff.
But it’s a change in attitude that’s needed to go beyond this monoculture of text. A good example is the library service at Leeds Beckett University, which is actively working with subject specialists to create resources rather than reading lists, reflecting the recognition that non-print resources have a vital role to play in supporting disabled learners. Small changes can go a long way.
I cannot stress this enough: institutional policies can have a huge impact on the accessibility of information. Even things like procurement policies for e-book collections and the platforms you use need to be considered for how they could affect learners.
Use tools to assess and reflect on your institution’s own policy and practice, such as this accessibility self-assessment tool for use in the library context. Watch out for work from the University of Kent, which is currently working with Jisc on a project to make accessibility more mainstream in the organisation, or explore the Open University’s SeGA approach on accessible courses and resources.
What do I want you to take away from this blog? A bit of consideration really – how at the practitioner level technology can support the needs of disabled learners, how your own policies, practices and technology tools might open doors to people struggling with literacy issues, and how engagement with other stakeholder groups such as publishers are vital to achieving this aim.