Illustration showing a group of people, some of whom have a physical disability
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‘We must embrace technology to make education easier, fairer and more inclusive’

Around half a century ago, an enthusiastic teen arrived at the University of Sheffield, ready to embark on a politics degree and right the world’s wrongs. 

David Blunkett

Like many of his fellow students, this young man dreamed of a career in parliament – but while others’ paths demanded hard work and a lucky break or two, having previously studied at the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford, the young David Blunkett – now Lord Blunkett – had additional hurdles to overcome. As he says:

“While the expansion of higher education in the 1960s brought greater opportunity to so many, there was still no internet, no Google and, for those without sight, no easy reproduction of books and journals.”

Indeed, Lord Blunkett’s undergraduate career coincided with the world’s first major disability equality legislation – The Chronically Sick and Disabled Person’s Act - which was passed in the UK 50 years ago.  He notes:

“Students supported students, and tenacity was the driving force to overcome both physical disabilities and what William Blake called ‘mind-forg’d manacles’. The world has changed in many ways since then - not least for disabled students and those with specific learning difficulties.”

Greater support

Things are different now. For Richard Wheatley – who has been blind since he was five years old – assistive technologies are part of everyday life. He attended New College Worcester, a residential school for blind and visually impaired students, and arrived at the University of Lancaster in 2013 fully cognisant of LaTeX, a typesetting system with features designed specifically for technical and scientific documentation. Wheatley, who is now 25, reflects on this technology:

“It made maths immeasurably easier. Without it, to write a fraction I’d have needed to list a very complicated sequence of numbers, letters and symbols.

The LaTeX plug-in enables my screen-reader to read information back at me in a much simpler form. LaTeX could also translate complicated text into a beautiful pdf, and even create a bibliography.”

Further, he says, because lecturers could simply press a button to turn their LaTeX notes into slides to share with other students, Wheatley knew he was benefitting from the same information as his peers.

Rozanna Piddington’s experiences with assistive technologies are also positive. Having struggled through school without support, she was finally diagnosed with dyslexia when she returned to education in her early 30s. Piddington is now studying education at the University of Bedfordshire, and uses the ClaroRead screen-reader; Grammarly for spelling, punctuation and grammar; Inspiration to plan essays; and Olympus Sonority to record notes and lectures. She says these tools mean she is better-equipped to overcome the challenges her dyslexia poses:

“At the start of my degree course, I met with an educational psychologist and support was put in place. By the end of my first year, I had all the technology I needed, and I’d been trained in how to use it. It’s made a huge difference. My essays are more coherent, I have more confidence, and I’m more aware of other students’ struggles too.”

Lifts and ramps

Yet, even in 2020, such positive experiences are not universal. While the University of Kent works hard to ensure each disabled student is supported with an inclusive learning plan that includes details about the adjustments they require, accessible information adviser, Ben Watson, knows the sector overall could do more:

"Organisations are familiar with the idea of putting in lifts and ramps to make spaces physically accessible. My job involves putting in metaphorical lifts and ramps to make information and learning experiences more accessible. We know that makes things better for everyone.”

Piers Wilkinson, disabled students’ officer at the National Union for Students, comments:

“Assistive technology and digital accessibility are invaluable for disabled students in accessing education, yet barriers are inadvertently created. We need to ensure all staff understand their role and duty in supporting disabled students’ access, and help inform disabled students of our right to adjustments.”

The good news is that, across the UK, many universities are working harder than ever to improve accessibility, and a Higher Education Commission Inquiry into the experiences of disabled students in higher education seeks to inform further change. This follows the introduction of the EU Web Accessibility Directive regulations which, since September 2019, require colleges and universities to make documents, presentations, multimedia resources and digital content accessible to all. Rachel Hewett, a fellow at the University of Birmingham’s Vision Impairment Centre, explains:

 “Universities are having to go through all their content and that’s been a big driver for change.”

Regional variation

Yet compliance is patchy, says Geena Vabulas, policy manager for assistive technology at the cross-party think tank, Policy Connect, which published a report on the new digital regulations:

“There are pockets of amazing practice - but if you’re a disabled student, the quality of support available to you varies wildly depending on where you study.”

Kent is leading the way, Vabulas adds - and Watson believes rising to the accessibility challenge can have wide-reaching benefits:

“By implementing a small number of permanent mainstream adjustments in 2018, we found we could we could potentially dispense with the need to make more than 2,000 individual adjustments.”

Wilkinson adds:

“As 95 percent of accessibility options on the Blackboard Ally software package are used by non-disabled students as well as those with additional needs, the sector should integrate access options and adjustments into basic pedagogy. That will reduce the need for individual adjustments and support disabled students who either haven’t sought bespoke support or who were ineligible.”

Support for all

Vabulas points to changes at De Montfort University in Leicester and at Goldsmiths in London as further examples of good practice. She notes that Goldsmiths has a lot of arts programmes and a high proportion of neuro-diverse students.

To support them, the university has brought in alternative assessments – so, where possible, they might allow students to present their work as a video rather than an essay. Evidence from one such course, given at a Policy Connect roundtable, suggests a positive impact on the mental health of all students, not just those registered disabled. De Montfort, meanwhile, uses Brain in Hand assistive technology, which supports students with autism, brain injuries and mental illnesses. Vabulas comments:

“Note-taking support, captioning and transcripts from lectures can help students with mental illnesses, physical disabilities and autism. In fact, all students can benefit from these technologies.”

They present an opportunity to make a real difference, too: while figures from the Office for Students1 show that 74 percent of disabled students with a degree go on to employment or further study, among students with social or communication difficulties, that drops to a little over 60 percent.

Jisc’s CEO, Dr Paul Feldman, says:

“Technology has the power to create transformative opportunities that will benefit all learners – whether through subtitled content for students with hearing impairments or virtual reality field trips for learners with limited mobility, funds or time.

Accessible technology can make a critical difference to the student experience, especially for disabled students who haven’t previously had equality of opportunity. It’s time to shift towards a digitally-backed education ecosystem that meets everyone’s needs”.

‘Staff inspire students’

Part of the problem has been a lack of support for university and college teaching staff, as highlighted by the findings of a 2019 Jisc survey2 in which 24 percent of 3,049 further education (FE) teaching staff and 40 percent of 3,485 higher education (HE) teaching staff said they were not provided with any support in the use of assistive technologies. This must change, Feldman believes:

“Staff inspire and guide all students through their learning journey so they must be equipped with the knowledge and ideas to use the right tech at the right time for their own and their students’ benefit.” 

Steps are being taken. Jisc and AbilityNet provide resources and training for staff, and a recent Policy Connect report3 includes recommendations on how to ensure university virtual learning environments (VLEs) are accessible. At Kent, when staff upload content to the VLE, they are given an accessibility score and small changes are suggested that would make the material more accessible. Other solutions, Watson notes, are surprisingly analogue:

“Just reminding people that, in a lecture or presentation, the person who has the microphone should always restate questions asked by the audience makes a huge difference, ensuring that everybody - including those using Hearing Loops – is aware of the question.”

As for assistive technologies themselves, Wheatley says:

“LaTeX it made it super-easy for my lecturers to make learning super-easy for me – and I found that some were quite excited by the challenge.”

Vabulas agrees:

“People within UK universities and colleges are trying hard; they want to make changes to better support students.”

Bolder and braver

The Higher Education Commission Inquiry into the experiences of disabled students seeks to inform further change, because, as Lord Blunkett concludes:

“We could do more to level the playing field. We could be bolder and braver in our use of technology to support students with additional needs. We must embrace the opportunities technology facilitates to make teaching and learning easier, fairer and more inclusive.

I know from personal experience that the learners of the past didn’t always have positive educational experiences or equality of opportunity. I want more for this generation and those ahead, providing the support to ensure that all students, regardless of their needs, will leave university knowing that they can achieve whatever they put their mind to.”

A symposium on 23 March 2020 will discuss government plans to publish a National Strategy for Disabled People by the end of 2020. Subject specialist Rohan Slaughter will attend on behalf of Jisc. Meanwhile, Jisc continues to work with members on developing skills for the workplace of tomorrow.