The number of disabled learners entering higher education (HE) is trending steadily upwards as barriers to participation and achievement are reduced. Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) statistics suggest the average higher education institution (HEI) has over 500 disabled students, rising to over 1,000 in some arts-based universities.
The gap between further education (FE) and HE can be daunting for any learner. For learners with disabilities it can be particularly daunting, not least because teaching methods can feel very different from relatively small FE classes.
By supporting an inclusive learner experience, organisations can better serve all their learners at the same time as significantly reducing barriers for disabled students. Here are suggestions gleaned from some of the best practices we have observed.
There are four main strategies you can consider either on their own or in combination:
Ensure all key lecture content is available online before the lecture
This enables learners to focus on understanding the concepts rather than writing notes. However, lecturers may fear that putting PowerPoints, supporting documents and lecturer’s delivery notes online will result in reduced attendance at lectures.
There is no clear evidence that this happens. In practice, putting the content online frees up lecture time for alternative activities such as small group discussions, role play, active questioning and quizzing.
Case study - University of Edinburgh
Set up institution-led lecture recording
Enable learners to revisit content at leisure and check on points they didn’t understand. This gives full recording control to the institution and can ensure high quality but there are significant implications for data storage, intellectual property rights (IPR) and accessibility of any recordings. It may also change the nature of the lecture – for better or worse.
Case study - University of Manchester
The University of Manchester campus now has all of its 340 central teaching spaces equipped with lecture capture technology.
They record approximately 40,000 hours of teaching and learning activities per academic year, and these recordings are accessed in excess of two million times by students.
Case study - King's College London
Case study - University of Southampton
One of the issues with recording lectures is how you make them accessible so users can navigate quickly to appropriate areas and see a transcription.
The University of Southampton developed the open source Synote tool to help in this process.
Further details and case studies on both the policy and practice of lecture recording are available in this post from our accessibility and inclusion blog.
They demonstrate that getting the right policy framework in place is as important as getting the right technology installed.
Facilitate student-led lecture recording
Put appropriate policies and practices in place so that both staff and students can be confident in do-it-yourself (DIY) student recordings for those who want to use their own devices. This gives institutions more flexibility – they don’t have to manage a lecture capture infrastructure but there are disadvantages too.
The quality may be poorer and there may be equity issues with ownership of appropriate devices. Students who would most benefit may feel reluctant to publicly disclose their need.
Case study - University of Edinburgh
At the University of Edinburgh students have automatic permission to audio record lectures, tutorials and supervision sessions using their own equipment for their own personal learning, whilst they are studying at the university.
Teaching staff have the right to stop the recording of sensitive or confidential information students agree to the conditions of use at matriculation. Intellectual property (IP) rights remain with the university.
Institution-provided 'student note takers'
Where specific needs have been identified student note takers may be an affordable alternative. However, to get the quality of support required this needs to be managed professionally, matching for subject knowledge as well as note taking skill.
Training, development and payment are likely to be required. Even then it may prove difficult to recruit at certain times of the year (dissertation deadlines and finals).
Case study - Arts University Bournemouth
Arts University Bournemouth has set up a tightly managed programme of student note takers recruited by a competitive selection programme and paid an hourly rate. Note takers are only recruited from years 2 and above. They are trained in expectations, standards, confidentiality, data expectation, boundaries etc.
The note takers are matched to their own subject areas and the process is anonymised so that one note taker may be taking notes for several students in the same lecture with neither the note taker nor the recipients being aware of each other. The process is non-automatic - recipients are actively involved in booking support on a weekly basis.
Whilst this can be challenging it gives opportunities to also support learners on improving their organisation and forward planning. The approach requires active management by the university but it has yielded several significant benefits. However the nature of the university (with a high ratio of practical workshops to lectures) means this process may not be scalable in more lecture-intensive teaching contexts.
Owing to the free flowing nature of seminars it is much more difficult to anticipate the content that will be covered or the directions the seminar will go in. Nonetheless, the following recommendations are offered:
- Ensure the details are available on the VLE in advance. This should include both functional details like venue and timing as well as content details (for example topics, key questions, links to resources)
- Wherever possible ask those contributing papers or presentations to adhere to basic good practice guidelines for accessible documents and presentations
- Make them available electronically to participants in advance
- Use webinar/videolink tools like Skype, Appear.in or corporate equivalents. This can enable people with mobility impairments or health/stamina issues to take part
- Be aware of legal and ethical issues. Although recording of lectures by disabled students for personal use is widely accepted as a reasonable adjustment there are still issues that all parties need to recognise (see University of Oxford guidance). The issues around recording seminars are more complex because there are more people involved and therefore more permissions to obtain
- Consider using social media tools (for example a dedicated Facebook profile or a Twitter hashtag) to allow question asking / answering by people with communication difficulties or social anxiety
The University of Reading has some good guidance for students on getting the most out of seminars.
The reading list is usually the core resource of any course and the student’s ability to access it effectively in the format they require can make a big difference to achievement, engagement and satisfaction with the course. Helping print disabled students to access their reading list can be one of the most challenging tasks for libraries and learner support teams.
This can be exacerbated by the fact that print impaired learners make over 55% of total declared disabilities in the average HEI. The scale of support needed can seem daunting but institutions need not be overwhelmed if they take a strategic approach.
Moving from reading lists to resource lists
Print-based resources are inherently less accessible unless they are already available online. Ensure the reading list is compiled from digital resources available through library subscriptions, for example e-books and e-journals. These should include personalisation options (magnification, colour changes text-to-speech).
Multimedia resources such as video clips and podcasts are often more accessible to print disabled learners. However, be aware that they may create different accessibility problems for people with hearing or sight impairments so ensure that the key teaching points are also available in text form.
Blogs from experts in the field are 'born digital' and so can usually be personalised using the browser settings or a disabled user’s own assistive technology.
Leeds Beckett University library service is now encouraging academics to compile course resources lists rather than reading lists to help encourage the use of a wider range of media to suit different learners.
Empowering learners to meet their own needs
Many learners with print impairments have a limited awareness of the wide range of resources available to them at no cost. Our guidance on student self-service options can help you to help them be more independent.
Taking a strategic organisational approach to alternative formats
The key points include:
- Ensure your procurement policies include accessibility
- Ensure reading lists are constructed with an awareness of accessibility implications and produced in a timely manner
- Liaise with appropriate partners – this might be a formal arrangement (RNIB Bookshare, the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA)) or informal via the LIS-Accessibility JiscMail list
Distinguish essential from desirable and add the value you need
Find more details on adding value step by step and take a pragmatic approach. In particular note that:
- The concept of the intermediate copy means accessibility can be added in an iterative way
- Don’t make things more accessible than they need to be for the learner requesting them but keep the file. When a learner comes along who needs more accessibility add it
At the University of Edinburgh a course outline and reading lists must be provided at least 4 weeks before the course starts, with an indication of which texts are considered key to understand themes. This ensures students have the information at appropriate points.
University of Dundee provides an alternative formats service with guidance on reading lists and e-books. The library e-book collection indicates when an e-book is available in the accessible category.
Even when you have ‘alternative formats’ readily available in the form of digital texts in an e-collection, accessibility varies from collection to collection. The Open University and Suffolk University, Boston have guidance on the accessibility of some collections but the LIS-Accessibility JiscMail list are actively exploring ways of getting suppliers to be more explicit about accessibility features.
A significant proportion of the content a learner comes across in their course is likely to be generated from within the institution. This might include lecture notes, PowerPoint presentations or more sophisticated materials created by dedicated e-learning teams.
Online content created within the institution provides a significant opportunity to improve accessibility compared to traditional hardcopy resources like paper handouts.
However, the accessibility advantage you gain from online materials is highly dependent on the practice of the content author and the nature of the tools they use. See our blog post on institution created content in order to maximise the benefits for accessibility and minimise potential barriers.
University of Oxford provides a range of accessible prospectus in high contrast, rich text format and braille.
The Open University has an accessibility policy that requires all materials are developed according to accessibility standards and guidelines and the full range of other formats are provided.
Supporting disabled students in fieldwork, laboratory and practice settings is highly individualistic depending on factors as diverse as the nature of the disability, the nature of the work, the tasks required and the tools available. Factors such as the personality and confidence of the learner can also come into play - are they comfortable and confident about their differences or do they want accommodations that are as invisible as possible?
Generic good practice guidance is available from a range of recommended sources (see below) but less guidance is available in terms of the technology tools or resources that can minimise barriers for disabled learners. Our recommendations include the following practices which will benefit all students and particularly benefit those with additional access needs:
Making effective use of your VLE will help prepare all learners. It can be particularly important for learners with disabilities. Here are some examples of how the VLE can support disabled learners in their preparation:
- Detailed, accessible information on the programme requirements provide clarity as to the demands of the activity. This helps a disabled learner to anticipate their support needs and discuss with the tutor. It might encourage learners who have not yet disclosed a disability to do so
- Video clips can illustrate practical techniques that will need to be mastered before fieldwork/laboratory sessions. This can reassure those with mental health difficulties or short-term memory issues
- Maps, images, videos and aerial views can help orientation in unfamiliar environments and highlight potential difficulties for learners with mobility or stamina issues
In the field or on placement
Learners with disabilities can struggle to organise tasks, handouts, maps and data recording sheets and still make accurate observations and take effective notes. Consider how you might be able to use the following to provide alternatives that could support anyone (these require mobile connectivity so would not be suitable for all environments):
Create mobile friendly web resources
Consider the opportunity presented by learner’s own phones to access content that would otherwise require a sheaf of printouts to manipulate and organise. Approaches might include:
- Setting up a course in Google Drive or Dropbox containing all the relevant resources
- Using a teacher friendly tool like Xerte Toolkits to create mobile optimised web resources. Note that Xerte can easily embed other online tools so tutor created explanations could sit alongside collaborative data collection pages or wiki pages for note taking
- Using website/app services like Padlet to collate support materials
- Include resources in a range of media – for example a text based instruction on a particular technique might be supplemented by a video or audio explanation
Use online tools for data collection/collation
This might include:
- Google forms for survey data, allowing easy live input from dispersed groups
Use social media
Use a course-specific Twitter or Facebook account and previously agreed hashtags to record observations.
By incorporating social media into fieldwork and placements you also provide opportunities for:
- Formal and informal support networks to maximise understanding and achievement
- Formal and informal evaluation or reflection opportunities. This applies equally to staff and students since staff can identify common misunderstandings in the threads and identify areas where their explanations or instructions need to improve.
- Professionalisation, digital literacy and employability. Encourage learners to set up ‘professional’ social media accounts for this type of work so that they are getting experiences at using social networking in a formal work related context as well as building a professional digital footprint that can be promoted to other professionals in the field.
Encourage alternative forms of data recording
For example using the inbuilt audio or video tools in the learner’s phones or creating short podcasts of observations using 'phone to podcast' services like iPadio.
Encourage the use of image annotation tools
The following links illustrate some of the detailed guidance provided by different HEIs. The process of assembling such guidance helps ensure you have reliable systems in place as well as providing learners with a benchmark of reasonable expectations:
- University of Edinburgh – Accessible placements (especially 'Support issues to discuss with Placement Provider')
- University of Gloucester - Working Towards an Inclusive Educational Experience for Disabled Students: legal requirements and examples of good practice (p 26 – 30)
- University of Sussex - Providing Work Placements for Disabled Students
- University of Strathclyde - Creating accessible placements, study abroad and field trips for disabled students
An assessment activity for a disabled learner needs to genuinely assess their knowledge, skill and understanding, not their disability. There are several approaches to making assessments more inclusive. The SPACE project at the University of Plymouth identified an evolutionary approach from
- 'Special arrangements' (for example extra time or an amanuensis). This is an attempt to assimilate a disabled learner into the existing system
- Alternative approach (for example a presentation instead of a written assignment). This is embedded into the course design but only available for disabled students
- Inclusive approach: a flexible range of assessment activities that assess learning outcomes in alternative ways and are available to any learner