Many people in Higher Education (HE) associate Jisc with the Janet connection or the Jisc Collections, but Jisc actually covers many other areas, not least via consultancy and subject specialists. In this blog post, Alistair McNaught, one of Jisc's accessibility and inclusion specialists, reflects on the cost of silos.
Different models of support
Support for disabled students in HE has long been based on a medical model that runs broadly along the lines of 'tell us your disability and we will tell you how we can support you.' The quality of support provided is often exemplary but the model very firmly locates the problem in the student's condition.
What if we looked at it another way? What if the problem wasn't the student's dyslexia or visual impairment or absence through illness? What if the problem was that staff didn't know how to provide resources that minimised barriers for all students, irrespective of their disability? What if the tools and platforms staff and students used every day had excellent accessibility plug-ins and features... but nobody had installed them. Or nobody had told students about them? This second approach is the 'social model of disability'. It recognises that the disability per se is the not the barrier if the environment is inclusive.
Being blind or dyslexic is not a barrier to reading if the resources I need are:
- available digitally
- in an accessible file format
- delivered through a reading tool that includes accessibility features and functions or...
- is at least compatible with assistive technologies
Jisc's accessibility and inclusion specialists visit many organisations, providing a 'mystery shopper' style accessibility snapshot. It involves reporting on five key student facing investments; website, prospectus, learning platform, library/e-book platforms and assistive technology. We found a lot of diversity in the good practices, but a lot of commonality in what could improve.
Snapshot from the sector
Key findings revolved around diminished return on investment due to small omissions; for example:
- Few organisations make effective use of their mainstream provision for accessibility support. For example, the LearningTools plug-ins for Word or OneNote have not been installed, or have not been promoted to students
- Few organisations promote the accessibility benefits of e-books to disabled students or those seeking study skills support
- Advice is rarely provided on reading options (PDF? EPUB? Read online? Download chapter? Download whole book?). Each of these choices influences the accessibility options available and the consequent efficiency of the student reading experience
- Few organisations inform academics about the most accessible ebook platforms and publishers so that they can prioritise these on reading lists
- Few staff or students are aware of the built-in accessibility options in Adobe Reader
- Few staff or students are aware of browser plug-ins that allow readers to change colours, listen to selected text, speed read or navigate long pages by their heading layout
- Disability support and study skills often need better cross referencing to the accessibility benefits of e-books. Study skills guidance rarely references technology at all!
Three things - a call to action
First, look at your own organisation. Is your focus on supporting students over barriers? Or minimising barriers at source? The first approach puts the responsibility on a small team. The second approach gives everybody a creative role - and responsibility.
Second, make sure your digital confidence extends to accessibility. Legislation has shifted the balance from copyrights to human rights. Example 1: You can create - and keep, and share - intermediate copies of publishers files for disabled students. If publisher licensing conditions do not reflect this, they are unenforceable and should be challenged. Example 2: The CLA has updated Clause 9 so that it is now pan disability - it applies equally to motor impaired and dyslexic students as it does to the visually impaired.
Thirdly, take advantage of opportunities. Thursday 17 May is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Have a look at Jisc's collaborative ideas for action - get ideas and add your own. Jisc also runs a series of online training courses to help organisations. These include a 'Reality check' on accessibility evidence and data, an exploration of 21st century 'reasonable expectations', a guided self-evaluation of your policy statements and an overview of e-book accessibility and how to promote awareness to students.
How does this affect the bottom line?
Good accessibility requires a level of staff training, awareness and digital competence that cannot be assumed to already exist so there may be costs. Tweaking the guidance on your learning platform and website is not without cost but what is the value? Here are some starters...
- reduced risk of litigation,
- better return on existing investment for example by
- improved student outcomes
- better NSS scores and
- improved student independence leading to better employability prospects
I hate the phrase, but it really is a 'no-brainer'. It's also a legal obligation that improves your service for everyone.
So as Global Accessibility Awareness Day draws near, start somewhere. Promote it. Take others with you.
About the Author
Alistair McNaught is an accessibility and inclusion specialist at Jisc. He has a particular passion for using technology to make disabled students more confident and independent; an area where he sees digital text playing a vital role. He is a member of the Publishers Association Accessibility Action Group and is currently facilitating the ASPIRE e-book audit which will take place in June/July this year; a crowd sourced evaluation of supplier accessibility statements.