Enabling technologies

April 16, 1999

Baroness Blackstone's disability bill brings college computers onto the human rights agenda, Alan Newell says.

Information technology has an important part to play in supporting both staff and students with disabilities. More than 4 per cent of students in higher education have registered as having one or more disabilities. The actual number may be closer to 10 per cent. But United Kingdom anti-discrimination law does not give students the protection it extends to employees or customers.

The government is likely to close this loophole soon. Higher education staff will need to be aware of their moral and legal obligations, and should know how to set up processes and practices to provide IT support for students with disabilities.

Everyone can win from the provision of accessible systems and materials. Learning support methods and materials that are accessible to students with disabilities are likely to be better for all students. The cassette tape recorder was originally invented by a company marketing talking books for blind people. Television remote controls were invented for people with impaired mobility.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 makes it illegal for institutions in the UK to discriminate against disabled staff and external customers, and requires "reasonable" provision for their support. In its present form, the Act excludes students, but institutions are required to publish a "disability statement" describing their support procedures.

It is likely that the exclusion of students from the Act will be removed. The Human Rights Act passed last year gives everyone the right to benefit fully from education. As part of the Government's human rights agenda, a Bill to set up a Disability Rights Commission was introduced in the House of Lords on December 3 by the education and employment minister Baroness Blackstone. One of the commission's jobs will be to keep disability legislation under review.

At present an institution may decide to suffer the displeasure of the funding council (which has a responsibility to "take account of the needs of students with disabilities") by, for example, not insisting that lecture notes should be in an accessible form. In future, however, this may constitute a breach of human rights legislation.

The Dearing report, the funding councils' Widening Access and Equal Opportunities initiatives, and teaching quality assessments also focus on the needs of students with disabilities, which institutions ignore at their peril. Other countries have more prescriptive laws such as the Americans With Disabilities Act in the United States. There, disabled students are more likely to sue institutions. The UK is rapidly moving in the same direction.

There is a whole raft of support that institutions are encouraged to provide for students with disabilities. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has recently published general guidelines for "baseline provision". Increasingly, however, institutions are using IT as part of their support for students. It is important that they consider the accessibility of this technology, and how it can help them to provide a proper level of support for students with disabilities.

IT has great potential to provide an effective and efficient way of accessing learning materials for people who are disabled. With forethought web pages can be designed so that the text can be heard in synthetic speech by blind people using screen-reading technology. Keyboard commands can be provided for those who cannot use a mouse. Electronic text can be designed so that it converts easily to Braille, and with the fonts, colours and layout modifiable for people with dyslexia.

Institutional acceptance of word-processed essays and examination scripts means that students who can only write with a keyboard or a special input device can now be fully integrated into a course of study. If appropriate provision is properly organised at a strategic level, it reduces the need for special provision for individuals. Video links can provide a temporary solution for physical access problems.

The downside, however, is that some IT can be inaccessible to these same groups of people. Access to computer-based information by blind people had become relatively simple, until graphical user interfaces were introduced. Initially, these had no accessibility features, and blind people were unable to use standard software packages. Microsoft, Sun, Apple, and others provide accessibility features, but other more specialised software suppliers often do not. Some educational programs and web pages are triumphs of form over content, and not only need the most up-to-date multimedia equipment and browsing software to operate them, but also are often inaccessible to people with disabilities.

If accessibility is considered at the beginning of the design process, it costs very little to provide accessibility features such as text descriptions of pictures and diagrams. It is good if the designer is forced to ask: "What is the pedagogical reason for this picture?" If such considerations are not included at the design stage it may be difficult to add them at a later stage. To comply with the law, institutions may have to rewrite their web pages and computer-based learning packages, or provide an alternative learning methodology. This could be expensive.

Taking into account the needs of people with disabilities will not only fulfil legal and moral obligations, but also provide opportunities for improving educational provision for all students. All students would benefit from a requirement that timetable changes should be posted on the web in accessible format. Computer-based learning material which is properly designed for students with disabilities is likely to be of higher quality and thus benefit all students. Accessible web pages may be less picturesque but they are much more likely to be readable by a much wider audience.

Many IT services departments provide good one-to-one support, but usually as an add-on extra. It would be much more effective if institutions fully considered the needs of staff and students with disabilities within their information and IT strategies. Total support for people with every type of disability can seem an impossible task, but the Act does have a "reasonableness" clause, and better access can be provided relatively easily if this is done early and has a strategic dimension.

The funding bodies' Joint Information Systems Committee has funded the Disability and Information Systems in Higher Education (DISinHE) project to provide institutions with support. The project is based in the applied computing department at Dundee University, which has an international reputation for developing IT systems for people with disabilities. The project is a clearing house for information about such support: DISinHE is developing guidelines for institutions to ensure that this support is embedded in the procedures and practices of institutions, and in particular, within the generic IT support offered to staff and students.

The DISinHE project is building up an extensive website (http://www.disinhe.ac.uk) to assist institutions in this task. The remit of the project is to help institutions to provide generic technical support and appropriate technical infrastructure so there is less need for personalised support for individual students. Deputy principals, pro-vice-chancellors and IT managers are encouraged to visit the site as part of their task of ensuring that provision for people with disabilities is an integral part of the infrastructure of their institution.

Alan Newell is director, DISinHE project and head of the department of applied computing, University of Dundee.

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