A Pounds 1 million centre offering technology solutions for disabled students will be launched by the Open University this autumn.
The Centre for Assistive Technology and Enabling Research (Cater) will have a three-fold remit:
- To develop courses and information and communication technology learning strategies that will be more accessible to disabled students
- To support staff and students with technology problems
- To build a new generation of information technology services.
Ralph Keats, manager of the Disabled Students Office, said substantial government funding had enabled the OU to go ahead with the unit, which will be staffed by up to ten technologists.
"We recognise the part that technology plays in assisting our disabled students and we have always invested heavily in services to support them," he said.
New generation technology to be developed at Cater will include interactive digital audio learning materials, which will combine natural speech recording and electronic text. Thus, a partially sighted student will receive ten CD-Roms per course, instead of 50 to 100 audio cassettes. Software will enable users to go straight to an index, instead of running through the entire tape searching for contents.
The centre will also create multimedia materials, virtual versions of lab experiments and other practical work, and make internet resources accessible to disabled students.
The OU has the largest number of disabled students of any UK institution - 7,600 out of the 180,000. It is administering the government's Disabled Student Allowance, which last September was extended to include part-time students. Applicants can claim up to Pounds 4,155 for specialist equipment.
"Already we have had more than 1,000 DSA applications, which means that overnight we've become one of the largest awards bodies for DSAs," Mr Keats said.
The Halifax building society is funding a mobile assessment bus that will visit OU students living in remote areas to test learning support needs.
Each DSA applicant is assessed. Many assessments will take place at one of the National Federation of Access Centres and a partnership between the Royal National Institute for the Blind and the charity AbilityNet will assess visually impaired students through a network of regional centres.
David Banes, AbilityNet director of operations, said: "The students we see are motivated to learn how to use technology. There are all the physical issues and it can be quite a struggle at times. We focus on how people with disabilities can access computers, and their range of options broadens all the time," he said.
Among the latest advances are increased screen magnification, improved voice output systems and voice recognition. Other solutions include mouse alternatives such as tracker balls and specially shaped keyboards.