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Visually impaired student at the University of Kent
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Visually impaired student at the University of Kent
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Rohan Slaughter

New digital accessibility regulations are having an impact on universities and colleges. Our subject specialist on assistive technology, Rohan Slaughter, sets out what you need to know.

Some years ago, when I was working with assistive technology at the independent specialist Beaumont College, I met a student whose experience in my field had been quite negative – largely because he’d been offered technologies to do things that didn’t interest him much.

Small changes - big impact

My team started by asking the student about what he really wanted to do. More than anything, like most young people, he wanted to be able to access his music. So we set up a Windows tablet to allow him to control his music independently. Then, over time, we added the ability to control his TV remotely and also added vocabulary so he could use the tablet as a fully-featured voice output communication aid that allowed him to control standard Windows applications such as Microsoft Office.

What had started out as a student-led approach to making his life more enjoyable had turned into a way he could engage with the curriculum at a higher level than he would have found possible without the technology. I saw then how caring about accessibility and assistive technology can make the difference between failing and flying.

Facts and figures

Our 2019 digital experience insights survey results show that teaching staff often don’t know enough about accessibility and assistive technologies.

In higher education...

17% of teaching staff said they use assistive technologies in their role but only 24% of these receive any support in using them.

Only 26% say they’re informed about their responsibilities in relation to assistive and adaptive technologies.

In further education...

15% of teaching staff say they use assistive technologies in their role and only 40% of these receive any support in using them.

Only 16% say they’re informed about their responsibilities in relation to assistive and adaptive technologies.

New accessibility regulations

GDS video

Accessibility regulations for online public services

 

While that was at a specialist college, assistive technology in various forms is widely used (19% of HE students and 14% of FE students either need or choose to use it, according to our 2019 digital experience insights survey) and accessibility matters for everyone.

That’s been recognised by the government, with new digital accessibility regulations that came into effect in September. All public sector organisations, which will include most universities and colleges, must make sure they comply. And, while the new rules offer institutions an opportunity to widen participation and improve engagement, this does mean that some organisations need to consider equipping their staff with the skills and knowledge to implement the regulations.

Fortunately, there’s an increasing amount of sector-specific guidance on getting it right, as well as a growing body of support to help you give staff the skills and knowledge they’ll need.

Resources to help you navigate and implement the regulations

UK government

A good starting place is the UK government page on making online public services accessible, developed by the Government Digital Service (GDS). GDS is responsible for monitoring the new regulations and its website spells out that you need to do two things:

  1. Make sure websites and mobile applications are “perceivable, operable, understandable and robust for all users”
  2. Publish an accessibility statement

The site offers guidance on how to do these things and also a template for your statement.

Further and Higher Education Digital Accessibility Working Group

You’ll also find a rich and growing variety of resources – created by the Further and Higher Education Digital Accessibility Working Group. The group includes representatives from education and accessibility organisations and it provides a supportive space for people working on these issues in FE and HE. Its aim is to speed up the flow of information about the regulations and make sure it is relevant and helpful for the education sector.

The key output from its work to date is a digital accessibility toolkit offering rich resources including articles about effective approaches to improving digital accessibility, presentations, cheat sheets, templates and guidance on specific topics such as auditing for accessibility and procurement.

Jisc's role and resources

At the end of last year, we published some legal guidance and we’re working with a variety of stakeholders to ensure the digital accessibility regulations can benefit learning and teaching.

For example, we’re working with both GDS and the Further and Higher Education Digital Accessibility Working Group and we’re collaborating with the Department for Education on implementing its edtech strategy, with our chief executive Paul Feldman taking a seat within the leadership group. 

I’m also a member of the assistive technology experts’ group, focusing on making sure assistive technologies are considered carefully as the edtech strategy rolls out.

We’ve also developed a range of measures to help members focus effectively on accessibility and compliance with the new regulations. 

For example, following an online briefing late last year in which we asked participants to choose the priorities they wanted us to focus on, we’re running monthly webinars for members looking at issues such as accessibility statements and we’re also offering online digital accessibility drop-in clinics from December. Join the JiscMail digital accessibility regulations list if you’d find these useful, as we’ll be publicising opportunities there. The list is also an easy way to keep up with developments both within Jisc and at other universities and colleges.

You can also keep an eye on our accessibility landing page, which takes you to a range of resources.

Training assistive technologists of the future

Between 2010 and 2015, while working at Beaumont College, I led the Jisc-funded DART project, which provided training and support to help mainstream and specialist FE colleges improve their assistive technology services, aiming to replicate the assistive technologist role that had been developed at Beaumont College and National Star College.

Looking further into the future, we’re exploring ways to develop structured training programmes at multiple levels with various HE partners, starting with an MSc for people who want to be assistive technologists. We think it’s important to professionalise the role and we’re taking a multi-disciplinary approach, aiming to introduce new modules alongside existing education, health and IT and technology modules.

It builds on previous Jisc work at Beaumont College where we developed an approach to training assistive technologists that started with a skills assessment for the individual, looking at their teaching/education skills, therapeutic approaches (notably from occupational therapy and speech and language therapy) and IT and assistive technology-related skills and knowledge; these three areas are combined in the educational assistive technologist role.

We plan to present the new modules as ongoing M level continuing professional development for professionals working in a variety of roles, including specialist teachers or lecturers, occupational therapists, and speech and language therapists. We’re also considering introductory training courses to meet the specific assistive technology training needs of supporting staff such as learning support workers and social care staff.

This work is in its very early stages and we’ll keep you posted.

Key dates

  • For new public sector websites (published on or after 23 September 2018), the regulations came into effect on 23 September 2019
  • All other public sector websites must comply by 23 September 2020
  • Public sector mobile applications must comply by 23 June 2021