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1st Open and Inclusive Special Interest Group meeting

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 19 Feb 2019, 17:41

I was invited to give a talk at the first Open and Inclusive Special Interest Group meeting (OpenTEL blog) which took place on 11 February 2019.

The Open and Inclusive SIG is made up of two groups: OpenTEL and SeGA, an abbreviation for Securing Greater Accessibility (on a module). The event was open to member of these groups, and anyone who is broadly interested in the subjects of accessibility and inclusion. Importantly, an invitation was also extended to faculty Accessibility co-ordinators.

The group meeting had three parts: a presentation that introduced the idea of ‘universal design for learning’, a presentation by yours truly, and a group discussion that reflected on some of the issues that were raised by the two presentations. What follows is a brief summary of those three sections. I’m presenting a summary here for anyone who might find it of interest, and also to enable me to look back on what happened during the year. 

Universal design for learning

The first presenter was Allison Posey from CAST who began with her talk universal design for learning.

Allison highlighted that some of the disciplines that contribute to universal design are: architecture, neuroscience and technology. Accessibility was presented in terms of: certain adjustments are necessary for some people, but these can be good for all. An example of this is the use of closed captions, i.e. they are necessary for people who have hearing impairments, but they can be used in other situations (such as when a partner is trying to watch television, and the other one is trying to get some sleep). The link to neuroscience was presented in a simple but important way, i.e.: our capacities or our brains are not fixed; they have capacities to build new connections.

Allison presented a number of helpful analogies. One analogy was the idea of making something to eat for a dinner party; not everyone would like to eat (or would be able to eat) what you might choose to make. One solution might be to give everyone a set of ingredients to allow them to create their own dish, or to provide a buffet, to give everyone choice. 

I noted down three broad principles of universal design for learning: (1) provide multiple means of engagement, (2) provide multiple means of representation, and (3) provide multiple means of action and expression (and I understand that expression relates to how students can share their understanding of concepts). A final point is that the burden of access should be placed within the environment, rather than on the learner.

As I’m reading these back to myself, I’m also reminded of the WCAG guidelines (W3C) which use the terms: perceivable and operable.

Reflections on accessibility

My talk had the title ‘reflections on accessibility’. Here’s an excerpt from the abstract that I wrote for the session: “This presentation aims to unpack the term ‘accessibility’ and what it means in The Open University context, moving from a high level (discussions about the aims and objectives of a module) towards low level technical standards that are important to facilitate the use and consumption of module materials. …  Important themes, such as legislation, the models of disability and the challenges that accompany disclosure will also be discussed.” I also said that it would end with a set of personal reflections about accessibility and disability.

Opening questions

I began by asking a couple of questions. The first question was: what is accessibility? Some of the answers were: it is about providing equality of access for people with different impairments and ‘leveling a playing field’. My second question was: why it is important? There are good moral, legal, and economic reasons. An important point was: if we don’t make modules accessible, the university could be legally challenged.

In the next bit of the talk, I presented a ‘straw man’ module that contained some deliberate accessibility challenges: it contained a number of different assessments which made use of technology, made use of different types of materials, and contained activities that required students to participate in fieldwork. An important point was: learning outcomes are important, since these are useful tools that we can use to understand what we need to assess.

Practical considerations

Next up was a slide that asked (and tried to give answers to) a set of practical considerations. The first question was: who is responsible for accessibility? The answer is: everyone, but there is a principle that goes: ‘if you’re in a position to make a reasonable adjustment for a student, then you should go ahead and do this’. 

The next question was: how can we make our content accessible? Here I made reference to learning materials (which linked back to the previous presentation), the environment in which the material is delivered, and touched on technical standards and guidelines. I was trying to convey the message that: even if some material might be technically accessible doesn’t necessarily mean that it is practically or pedagogically accessible.

The third question relates to disclosure: how do students tell the university? If a student tells any member of the university they have a disability they are, in fact, disclosing their disability to the university.

My final question was: how do tutors know what to do? My point here is that there are lots of different types of impairments, and every student is different. To help tutors, every student has what is known as a DAR (disability and accessibility) profile which offers some top-level information that might be useful for a tutor. A tutor then can ask their line manager for further advice and guidance.

Personal reflections

During the final part of the session, I shared something about my own experiences of having an impairment (a speech impairment; a stammer) which has (at times) been disabling. I shared a story about how I became an interaction design tutor, which was a module that contained some really useful materials about the importance of designing accessible interfaces. The experience on this module helped me to join a research project at the university that was all about trying to create an accessible virtual learning environment. Off the beck of this experience, I began to tutor on a module that was about how to develop (and support) accessible online learning.

All these experiences helped transformed my own sense of identity. The social model of disability, which featured in the two modules that I mentioned, helped me to shift my perspective. It helped me to see my impairment for what it was, and accept that I had ‘an invisible disability’. This helped me understand that disclosure is a personal negotiation, and with disclosure comes power. 

Just as Allison had mentioned that universal design for learning was a subject that drew on multiple disciplines, I concluded by talking about a subject called disability studies. Disability studies is also interdisciplinary, and has connections to different civil rights movements. It’s a subject that I find increasingly fascinating, especially since it sometimes exposes me to ideas and debates that can be very different to subjects that are found in my home discipline of Computer Science.

Discussion session

At the end of the meeting, we were asked the following questions: (1) what are the main take-away messages from the talks? (2) what do you think we already do well in the OU? (3) what changes could we make, at a practice level, that would enable us to do better?, and (4) what support would we need to make these changes?

At our table we discussed recent challenge regarding the provision of alternative formats. I’ve heard that there has been a significant demand for alternative formats. Being a student myself (I’m currently studying EE812 Educational Leadership), I know that there has been delays in getting printed materials to some students.

I also noted down that there was a discussion about mental health, and not fully appreciating what the implications are for tutors. I think this is a fair point, and there is a need for more training and guidance in this area, but a thought is that the needs for every student is likely to be different.

During the discussions I remember that someone referred to the importance of legislation. This reminded me of an earlier discussion with Kate Lister, who facilitated the event, who drew my attention to new legislation that universities must follow to ensure the accessibility of learning environments (PDF, policy briefing). 

Reflections

I was really surprised at how well the two presentations complemented each other despite there being no more planning than the sharing of abstracts. Also, a lot of themes were covered in a relatively short amount of time.

In some respects, this was one of the most personal presentations I have made on this subject. I tried to connect the academic with the personal. I was initially slightly worried about it would work, or might be received.

One of the most significant points that I wanted to make was about disclosure, and now some students might have to work to interrogate the concept, negotiate their own understanding of it, and navigate their way through it. There are links here with Allison’s talk where there was a suggestion that disability (or impairment) is a state that can change. This is also my experience too.

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STUC conference: SOAS University of London

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 18 Feb 2019, 13:37

Looking back to when I was a teenager, had I sat down and thought really hard about all of the different challenges that I would face as an undergraduate student, I might not have decided to go to university.

The reason for this is that I had a severe stammer; I had a real difficulty saying my own name, or ordering anything at a restaurant or shop. These simple facts have profound implications: communication is a human necessity, and its importance during education cannot be understated.

Some of those challenges I would face at university were obvious: making presentations so I could complete assessments and participating in group work. There were less obvious challenges, such as meeting new people and participating in clubs and societies. If truth be told, there were these days that I just wanted to hide away from the world, but for whatever reason, I didn’t. I just got on with it. I got on with it, since there were no other choices.

On 19 January 2019 I attended a conference at SOAS in London by a charity called STUC, an abbreviation of ‘Stammerers through university consultancy’. STUC has a tagline, which reads: ‘supporting university students and staff who stammer’. 

STUC was formed by Claire Norman, a languages graduate. As a student Claire was struck by the lack of constructive advice that her university gave her when she was required to complete a French oral examination. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but the advice was something like ‘slow down’, or ‘breathe’ (bits of advice that others have, indeed, been given me over the years). Her idea was to create an organisation that could offer help and guidance to universities with a view to (ultimately) helping their students.

The conference was the first of its kind, and was sponsored by Professor Deborah Johnston, PVC of Teaching and Learning at SOAS. It featured a series of half hour talks, and then was followed by a panel discussion. What follows is a short summary of each of the talks, followed by a quick summary of some of the points during the panel discussion, and then a set of closing thoughts and reflections.

Presentations

After a short presentation by Rachel Everard (BSA website), who is the service director of the British Stammering Association, it was onto Iain Wilkie. Iain is a former partner of the consultancy E&Y. He spoke about ‘thriving at work with a stammer’, and made an interesting point about leadership. Leadership not only involves leading, it also means addressing and discussing potential, actual or perceived weaknesses. This requires us to have courageous conversations with others, with a view to connecting and informing. Implicit in these points was the importance of understanding (and embracing) the social model of disability.

Abed Ahamed (BSA website) is a secondary school teacher, and is a PWS (person who stammers). Abed shared some phrases that resonated with me, such as ‘speak to thrive rather than survive’ and ‘talk and connect with others’. What struck me was Abed’s determination to become a teacher. I remember him saying teaching was a ‘second option’ for some of his peers, whereas for Abed, it was a primary motivator and objective. A personal reflection is that when I was his age, I had completely ruled out teaching as a career choice (only to embrace it years later when I became appointed as a part time tutor for The Open University).

Next up was Lindsey Pike from the University of Bristol. Lindsey spoke about the importance of staff networks (Bristol University) within a university that can offer support for different groups of staff. I was interested to hear that there was also a network for staff who stammer at Bristol. For a brief period of time (before other commitments needed to take precedence) I was a member of an OU network called EnablingStaff@OU (OU equality and diversity resources page). A further personal reflection was that the power of the network (of course) comes from its members, and the personal contacts that each member has. A further thought is a wider set of networks can also be gained by joining a trade union, which can help with institutional and national issues regarding accessibility and disability.

Grant Meredith gave the first talk after the lunch break. I’ve met grant a couple of times: one at a BSA conference (where he talked about being a dean at the university where he worked), and briefly during a trip to Melbourne. Since we last met, Grant has been carrying out his doctoral research that is exploring the experiences of Australian students who stutter. One of the points I noted down included the idea of ‘concessional bargaining’, which is where students might trade off potential grades against speech avoidance activities.

After Grant was Claire Tupling, Senior Lecturer in Postgraduate Studies at the University of Derby. Claire's presentation complemented Grant’s very well. Through her university, Claire gained a small amount of funding to carry out research into the experiences of university staff who stammer. Claire’s research fits into a subject that can be called Disability Studies ‘which sits between social sciences and the humanities’, and addresses themes such as how disability can be socially constructed. I noted down the phrase: “the academic workplace is frequently a key site in the construction of individuals’ disablement”. Some of the themes that I noted down from Claire’s talk included people becoming ‘accidental academics’ and there being ‘additional labour’ that accompanies (and may counter) the potentially disabling effects of stammering. 

The final talk was by Deborah Johnson who spoke about ‘stammering and inclusion in the rapidly changing context of universities’. Deborah referred to research by Boyle, Blood and Blood (2009) about the ‘Effects of perceived causality on perceptions of persons who stutter’, the challenges that accompany group-based assessment and the importance of inclusive learning and teaching. Another point to bear in mind is that, in some cases, potential pedagogic innovations may negatively affect people who stammer.

Panel discussion

The panel discussants included Claire Norman, myself, Beulah Samuel-Ogbu (SOAS Disabled students and carers’ officer), Mandy Taylor (trustee of the BSA) and Rory Sheridan (former UoA student, and visual artist).

Claire had prepared some questions for us to discuss, just in case there were silences from the audience: “(1) would any panellists like to share a university-related experiences? (2) what should students or staff do if the university’s Disability Support is not providing sufficient help? (3) why aren’t university Mental Health Support and Disability Support teams collaborating more? (4) In what ways can the Equality Act 2010 assist students and staff who stammer? (5) What would you advise if a student didn’t want to choose a preferred module because the assessment methods were heavily emphasised on speech?” Even though we all had questions, we need not have worried; there was a lot to talk about.

Some points that I noted down were: the importance of removing ‘fluency’ from assessment criteria (instead, this might be replaced by ‘effectiveness of communication’), that stammering can affect non assessed work (since students and tutors might have discussions to help with essays), and that inclusion relates to organisational culture, and thinking about inclusion for PWS can have a positive effect on all students.

Reflections

In some respects this was the first ‘academic’ conference that I’ve been to that has focussed on a single disability (I’ve put the term ‘academic’ in quotes, since although talks were given, papers were not presented, but everything that was said was linked to the academic context).

I sensed that although we had talked about many different issues and felt there was still a lot to talk about, and a lot of practice experience to share between the different groups of people who attended (parents, speech and language therapists, university staff and students). There’s a lot that can be said about assessment and how to help students become settled. Interestingly, the theme of mental health emerged a number of times (the link here is that people who stammer can sometimes be affected by mental health issues).

Attending this conference made me reflect on the good points and the challenging points of my own university experiences. Some suggestions and actions were thoughtful and appropriate: some reasonable adjustments were made without question or debate, and were very welcome. Other actions were thoughtless and inappropriate: one tutor suggested that his church might be able to offer ‘a cure’.

A personal opinion is that there may well be value in connecting up with other disability groups or organisations; I feel that more influence can be gained if different groups work together. This said, it’s important to find a way to ensure that the educators are educated and myths are dispelled. Organisations such as STUC can play an important role with both of these tasks.

For further information, do feel free to check out the STUC Twitter stream. Also, if anyone is interested, the following hashtags were used in the event: #silenceoncampus and #getSTUCin.

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Locations and equality: everyone has a place

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 23 Feb 2016, 08:56

I have loads of different interests. Computer science, motorcycles and writing are just three of them. There is one interest that cut across different aspects of my life, and that is the academic subject of disability studies. I’m personally touched by the subject and I tutor on a module (H810 accessible on-line learning) that relates to disability and accessibility.

It’s because of this interest, that I joined a London regional equal opportunities and diversity (EO&D) group when I started working at the OU in London.

The EO&D group is a body of staff that promotes Equality and Diversity in the London and South East Open University regions.  The group was formed as a result of a university wide initiative to ensure that university staff are aware of Equal Opportunities and Diversity issues.  Following the official end of the project, the London group remained, primarily because the issue of cultural diversity is especially significant in London.

Even though the group doesn’t have any specific power or authority, it is a group that (in my opinion) is pretty important: its strength lies in the commitment of its volunteers and the networks that they have fostered. The group offers a safe space for staff to raise issues and concerns. It has also been a group that has discussed and debated the implication of university policies. The group has also been responsible for running a series of thought provoking events; we held an event to raise awareness of mental health issues, and recently held event that invited a series of speakers who aimed to challenge our perceptions about a range of different issues.

Closure of regional centres

Some members of the London and South East region equal opportunities and diversity group collectively made a submission to what the university called the locations analysis project. The submission contained a series of points that expressed concerns about what the impact on equality and diversity might be if many regional centres in England closed.

Following a recent EO&D meeting, it was decided to make this submission public. The members of the group are a great bunch: they want to support students, the university, and its mission; but like many of us, they worry about the impact that substantial organisational changes may have on the students that we work to support.

The following points are, pretty much, unedited from the original submission. One additional point has been added, and this relates to student retention, national flexibility and study support. I personally welcome the opportunity to see some of my students for additional support sessions which take place in the Camden office, and I worry that this ability to see real students might be taken away from me.

Submission to the project

This document summarises the position of some of the members of the group and requests the Locations Analysis (LA) team consider a number of very important issues that directly relate to Equality and Diversity.  These points, in turn, relate to the university as a whole. 

Members of the EO&D group rejects the notion that the locations analysis will improve the student experience and help the university to support students.  Instead, the proposals have the potential to undermine the university’s mission. During a meeting, the following points were raised:

  1. Some groups of students will be disproportionately affected. These include: students with disabilities, offender learners, students who are studying within secure institutions (such as psychiatric hospitals), and vulnerable adults.
  2. The London region is the home for an accessibility assessment centre.  In the LA proposals, this centre will be closed, requiring students to visit other centres.
  3. The regional centre is used to run examinations for protected groups of students, such as offender learners who have been released on licence, students who have disabilities, and vulnerable adults.  Since the examinations are run on the university’s premises, the academic integrity and accessibility of venues can be assured.  This facility will no longer be available if the locations analysis plans go ahead.
  4. Detailed in depth knowledge is required to match invigilators to students who have disabilities. This knowledge is based around the location of the invigilators, and the location of the student. This knowledge will be lost if the LA plans, as they stand, go ahead and staff are forced to take voluntary severance, putting the student experience and successful running of examinations at risk.
  5. Detailed in depth knowledge and personal relationships are needed to be built between the university and education officers in prisons and secure units. If these links are lost due to the LA proposals, this will directly and negatively impact on the student experience.  Allocation of tutors to prisoners and vulnerable students very much depend on local knowledge and links to faculty staff, who know about local tutors who are willing and able to support different groups of students.
  6. There will be direct impacts on the university’s ability to check, assess and validate the accessibility of examination and tutorial centres.
  7. The LA proposals will make it more difficult to ensure that tutorial centres and exam centres can more readily respond to individual and unique accessibility adjustments.
  8. Vulnerable students, and students with disabilities will no longer be able to visit the regional centre to gain first hand practical advice from faculty staff and advisors.
  9. Widening participation is both a university and a national policy. Closing regional centres in demographically diverse areas will make it more difficult to plan, instigate and organise focussed widening participation events.  In essence, the LA scheme will make it more difficult to respond to changing and unique differences between diverse parts of England. 
  10. The experience from the closure of East Grinstead clearly suggests that women are disproportionately affected purely because of the number of women who work in regional centres.
  11. The closure of the regions will significantly affect staff who have caring responsibilities.  These members of staff will be unable to readily relocate to another centre, if this option is open to them. 
  12. The following members of the EO&D group holds the view that the LA plans will significantly affect the university’s ability to institutionally take account of the national diversity within England.
  13. The university considers student retention to be a strategically important issue. Not having regional centres will reduce the university’s ability to run, plan and schedule any future nationally focussed retention or recruitment initiatives or programmes. Programmes might include face to face induction sessions and study skills workshops to support level 1 students, or students who may be struggling with different aspects of their studies.

Final points

Most of the points that are here are not about staff; they are about students. I could write a lot more about other impacts, such as our institutional ability to support our diverse group of associate lecturers. I also worry that in dismantling a lot of our organisational structures we will lose a lot of what is good about our organisation: the knowledge and expertise of those who support our students.

When this submission was made, the EO&D group requested that the locations analysis team freely publishes an equality analysis to clearly spell out how they plan to address equality issues and diversity issues. Planning for the closures is going ahead before anyone has seen sight of this analysis.

I look forward to seeing it when it is available. I hope it is available soon.

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Don’t close our regional centres

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 24 Sep 2015, 19:45

The Open University has twelve regional centres that are located throughout the United Kingdom.  After the closure of a regional office in East Grinstead, which served the South East of England, the university embarked on a review of its regional centres.  On Tuesday 15 September 2015, the university announced that a locations analysis project, as it is called, was to recommend the closure of seven out of the nine centres in England.

This blog post is, essentially, my own personal response to the recommendation.  One thing that I will say is that I do work in a regional centre: in the London office.  I should also say that I’m not a manager (in the sense of what happens in a regional office), but my perspective is informed by having seen a lot of the great work that happens in London.

The university review states that the closures are primarily motivated by a noble desire to enhance the student experience and the closures are not related to money.  As someone who is on the ground, I find it very difficult to see how students experience will not be affected.

What follows is a set of views about what the regional centres actually do.  These points are, of course, my own opinions.  What I could also do is write loads more about the concept of student support teams (SSTs), activities that relate to associate lecturer alignment with SSTs (and these also directly relate to the closure of regional centres), but I’m keen to keep this all pretty simple: I don’t want to slip into baffling OU jargon.

So, here goes.  Here are my points and observations.

The London office is a busy place

I’ve heard it said that the regional centres are underutilised. From the London perspective, this is just not true.  There is always stuff going on, and the vice chancellor would see it if he took the time to come down and have a chat with some of his staff who work there.

Granted, some of the desks for the faculty people are sometimes lightly used, and this is because they’re either travelling to and from Milton Keynes (the OU’s head office), or have got their head down at home writing module materials at home.  

But, if you look a little bit closer, they are there and they do come in, especially to work with their academic assistants in associate lecturer services to sort out a whole range of different issues, such as associate lecturer recruitment, interviews, appraisals, timetables, tutor-student allocation actions, emergency and illness cover for tutors…  There’s a whole long list of these things.

There are three floors in London.  On the ground floor: there are a bunch of meeting rooms.  These are often occupied by central academics from Milton Keynes who run meetings and projects.  On the day of the locations analysis announcement, there was actually a music conference that was running in the next room.  Plus, the rooms are heavily used as tutorial rooms.  The meeting rooms (on all levels) are so heavily used, you are encouraged to book very early.  Sometimes, there just isn’t the space.

On the first floor, we have the advisors and learner support people for the student support team.  You have people sorting out examination arrangements.  You have people sorting out disability issues.  You have people sorting out examinations for people who are held in secure units or prisons.  You have people offering careers advice.  You also have a number of faculty staff.

On the second floor, there are the associate lecturer support staff: these are the really important people (who should be celebrated and cherished) who actually do the job of putting students in groups.  There are also people who book venues and sort out timetables.  There are people who help to organise interviews (as mentioned earlier) and reassure students and tutors.  

Associate lecturer (AL) services are a really important aspect to the university for the simple reason that associate lecturers are fundamental to the university’s success.  The AL services people also play a valuable role in helping to support associate lecturer development activities, but that is something that I’ll come onto later.

There are two other things worth mentioning: there are two projects that are hosted in the London region: a literary magazine, and a music research project.  These seem to be forgotten about.

In essence, the Camden office is buzzing.  It always has been.  It serves the most populous part of the United Kingdom.  To consider its complete closure (which is what has been announced) is, in my view, madness.

Supporting disabled students

The Open University has a social mission: its slogan is that it is open to people, places, and ideas.  If it loses a substantial link with place, it will lose its link with people too.  One really important dimension is the importance of supporting disabled students.  Supporting disabled students is, of course, a legislative imperative.

Here’s an interesting fact.  The university has nineteen thousand students who have declared a disability, and this number is increasing (SeGA project).  A disability can mean anything from a temporary condition or illness (where a student can become temporarily disabled), a chronic condition (such as diabetes), a physical impairment or mental health issues.

And here’s an example.  On a number of occasions students have visited me at the London regional centre to have a chat (and I’m sure they drop in to chat to advisors and learner support people too!) In these instances, I’m able to offer reassurance and think about which tutor might be best able to support the needs of an individual student.  I would then be able to facilitate the development of a tutor-student relationship.

Would I be able to do that if a student couldn’t visit me?  No.  Does the suggested changes help to enhance the student experience?  No.  Would I be able to head over to the specialist disability advisor who works in the region for some advice about how to approach a particular student?  Again, the answer is no.   Would everything become a whole lot more difficult if I had to do everything by phone: yes.  Plus, some students might not wish to use the phone, or have a disability that prevents them from using the phone effectively.  This isn’t just an argument that I’ve just slotted in here: I used to be one of those people.

There are lots of different issues that link to the issue of students with disabilities, such as the importance of associate lecturer staff development and the accessibility of rooms.  Another really important role that the region performs is planning home exams for students who have disabilities.  The staff in the region work hard to match local invigilators with local students.  Regional staff also need to consider personalities: sometimes a student may be more comfortable with a known invigilator than a stranger.  Knowing this depends on local knowledge: knowing the students, knowing the invigilators, and knowing where everyone lives.

There is something else that the London office does: disability assessments.  If a student applies for the disabled student’s allowance, they will be invited to be a part of a disability assessment.  This is where a professional assessor helps a student to choose a set of assistive technologies and tools that can best suit the study needs.  If the London office closes, this facility will also have to close.  This will, without a doubt, affect students.  I’ll again emphasise a really important point: there is a legislative imperative that the university needs to adhere to.

A final thought on this section is that the project teams has been asked for a document called an equality analysis.  This is a document that is to describe what the university will do to mitigate against the impact that the changes will have to students who have disabilities.  Key points will be: how can associate lecturers run special sessions (more of this point later), and how can the university best guarantee the accessibility of rooms where venues can be hundreds of miles away from centres?   I’ve also heard it said that any closure of a regional centre will affect more women than it will men, due to the number of women who work in these centres. 

Offender learners and students in secure units

I’ll go back university to the mission: people, places and ideas.  A really important aspect of the university’s provision is the ability (in some situations) to offer distance education to people who are located in secure units or prisons.  The distinction between the two are important: secure units might be psychiatric hospitals, for instance.

I hold the liberal (and human) view that education is a right and we should strive to offer it to all.  From what I understand from colleagues within the university, the regions do a huge amount of work to help education in different kinds of institutions happen.  A point is that secure units, whatever they may be, have to be located somewhere.  Also, the relationships between an institution, their education officers and the university have been built up over a considerable period of time.  Plus, when people move on, new relationships need to be built, and the best way to do this, and to understand the challenges is to have opportunities to visit institutions and meet staff.  HMP Swaleside in Kent is a very long way from Milton Keynes or Nottingham.

I’ll make the point again: local knowledge about tutors, institutions, education officers and individual students are important.  This is knowledge that has been built up over considerable time.  Destroying it by dismantling the regional structure is a profound risk to the good work that the university does. 

I’m not directly involved with tutoring students who are held in secure units, but a really important aspect of my job is connecting people together.  One thing I do is keep a rough list of tutors who might be prepared to work with students who are located in different types of institutions.  Although I haven’t had many opportunities of tutoring these students, this is something that I would certainly do.  I would do it because it’s important.  Plus, I feel supported by the regional structure, and by colleagues who know the ins and outs of different institutions.

I’ve hinted at the issue of exams here again, so let’s tackle this issue head on (bearing in mind that I only know a little of what happens in this part of the region).

Exams

Exams has been mentioned earlier.  It is something that is so important, that it deserves its own heading.  In the university, you cannot meddle with exams, and for a very good reason: if you do, you mess around with academic integrity.  As mentioned earlier, the regions play a fundamental role in getting exams sorted out.

Will someone drive all the way from Manchester to check out an exam centre in Cornwall?  Will there be someone who will travel from Milton Keynes to Hastings to make sure that an exam centre is accessible and is appropriate according to academic guidelines?  How will the university go about organising and recruiting invigilators?  Will the university outsource invigilation to some other organisation?  (I admit to not knowing how this exam stuff happens: it just happens, and it seems to happen very well)  My point is the devil is in the detail, and the university has said that the detail was out of scope.

Here’s an interesting example of how the London regional centre (and presumably other regional centres) are used.  At a number of different points of the year the London region hosts exams (again, expect that other regional centres do this too).  Why? I guess there a couple of reasons: but two reasons are to cater for people who have additional requirements (disabilities), or people who have been unable to take an exam in another location, perhaps due to licence restrictions, having been released from a prison.  A regional centre is a really good place to run these exams, since there is support, it’s a controlled environment, and the university can be confident that the examinations are well run.  As every academic (and administrator) worth their salt knows: you don’t mess with exams.

Here’s something else that I’ve learnt.  I’ve heard that following the closure of the South East Region in East Grinstead, the London region has had to take control over a huge amount of exams for a part of the country that I’ve mentioned has a pretty big population.  In terms of administration, this has been a big challenge, but the staff have done the best job they can.

As suggested earlier, the regions also organise and run home exams, where students have to be matched with invigilators.  In fact, when we’re talking about invigilators, we’re not talking about, say, sixty or so.  We’re talking about six hundred invigilation contracts, and to set up each contract requires an experienced administrator to complete a whole bunch of different forms. Also, these really important exam arrangements are managed by a very small group of people in every region.  I’ve heard it say that you need to go through at least two administration cycles (or, two years), to get a handle on what needs to be done.

The point to this section is that the regions play a fundamental role in the management of exams for all students.  These also include students who have disabilities, students who have been in institutions, vulnerable adults, and students who have had to contend with illness.

Associate lecturer recruitment, induction and appraisal

I’ve already mentioned that associate lecturers are really important to the university’s success. There are a couple of elephants in the room, and one of these are: in a world where everything is virtual, how do you go about interviewing associate lecturers?  

I do quite a lot of interviewing, and nothing beats seeing the whites of their eyes: if an AL comes across as being friendly, personable and knowledgeable, then there’s a good chance that they’ll be the same with our students.  Plus, how do we check their degree certificates and passports?  Due to government worries about immigration, we’ve got to scrutinise AL documents really carefully – and I can’t emphasise how important this is.

I’ve heard it said that perhaps the post office or solicitors could authenticate documents on our behalf, but I think that is a nonsense solution.  Our associate lecturer services people see a lot of degree certificates and can spot a fake a mile off.  Do we expect some operative in a post office to see fakes?  I don’t think so.

My point is: we need physical space to interview people, and we need people to check documents.  If someone is considered to be appointable, will they have to send off their documents to one of the two remaining regions?  Will there be a new role where someone has the job of eyeballing passports and degree certificates all day?  I would personally feel very uncomfortable sending my passports and certificates in the post.  Invariably the worst will happen: things will get lost.  In fact, I have personally not accepted a consultancy contract for the simple reason that I didn’t want to be separated from my passport, and I expect many tutors will feel the same.

Another point is the importance of induction of new associate lecturers.  It takes time to get up to speed and nothing beats a face to face chat. The last induction sessions I have personally run have taken place in the London centre, and I’m sure they take place across the country. Inductions are also an opportunity for a staff tutor (their line manager) to get to know their associate lecturer: it’s an opportunity to create the important ‘social glue’ that makes everything work.  It’s our opportunity to learn more about their skills, motivations and experiences, and when we do this, we’re able to help more.  An induction session cannot take place over the phone or on-line.  If you did this, personal line management relationships would be significantly impoverished.

A final point in this section is about appraisals, or CDSAs.  Now, it is true that most of my appraisals take place over the phone, but I understand it that tutors can also request to have a face to face appraisal.  In fact, if an associate lecturer has a disability, there is no reason why this can’t be requested as a reasonable adjustment.  I remember that two of the most useful appraisals I have conducted have been face to face.  It’s easy to say, ‘we can all go virtual’, but if this happens, we will lose those important moments of human connection which makes doing the job so important.  A corollary of this is that many of us choose to teach or tutor precisely because there is such a human aspect to our role.

Associate lecturer development

One of my roles is to help on a committee that run these associate lecturer development events.  These are great opportunities to get tutors together in the same place to share war stories and teaching practice.  It’s also a great opportunity to reconnect with our tutors, for tutors to reconnect with each other, and to share updates about the university.

To date, all the associate lecturer development conferences that I have been to have been connected to individual regions, and this remains to this day.  If the regional structures go (as invariably they will), I fear for the continuing level of staff development that we can offer our tutors.  I learnt to teach through the AL development conferences; I learnt how to run face to face tutorials, and how to provide effective correspondence tuition.  I have also learnt through stories that other tutors have shared with me.  Face to face associate lecturer development is of fundamental importance.

Like so many of these comments, my point here is simple: removing all but two English regional centres runs the risk of significantly impoverishing the training and development opportunities that we offer our essential associate lecturers.  In turn, this will invariably have an effect on the quality of teaching that is offered by our tutors.

I can anticipate a counter argument along the lines of: ‘we have no plans to stop AL development’, but this answer just isn’t good enough.  There has been no comment about any alternatives about how to arrange or plan for an alternative.  A decision that is not based on any consideration of implementation issues is a decision that is foolish.

Implementation of the group tuition policy (GTP)

The group tuition policy is a plan to enable students to have access to a wider range of learning events.  These might be on-line events or off-line events.  I’m one of the fans of the policy.  In fact, in the London region we’ve been running a version of it for some of the high population computing modules. 

Planning for the GTP is especially important, since staff tutors (along with module teams) need to figure out a programme of events that will be delivered throughout the presentation of a module.  Some tutors might have specialisms in aspects of a module; the GTP allows tutors to play to their strengths, which can (in theory) help with student learning and student experience.

There is one thing that we need to do to plan effectively: and that is to have discussions; to learn about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and our personal timetables and abilities.  In the current world, we can all have meetings in the regional centre, but I would have no idea what would happen in the new world.  Again, a huge amount of detail is lacking, and this isn’t good enough.

Tutorial venue booking and management

I don’t know as much about this subject as some of the others (since it’s not my role), but I’m willing to take a punt on the importance of place when it comes to booking tutorial venues.  Plus, I’ve also heard the VC talking about the face to face tutorial provision is going to remain important, which is something that I’m very relieved about.

I’m going to go on a slight diversion: I’m a great believer in face to face tutorials for a number of different reasons.  I’ve heard people saying that the attendance can be quite low for some sessions, and I’ve witnessed this first hand.  Some tutorials can have very few students, but others (if they are planned properly), can have very good numbers.  Even before the planning of something called the Group Tuition Policy, the London region have been running tuition events that have attracted good amounts of students (of course, each region is different: in terms of geography, London is very different to, say, Wales or Scotland). 

Here’s a point that I would like to make (and I’m making it to pre-empt any potential management decision to say ‘we can do everything on line’).  Face to face tutorials are important for all students, whether they come along or not.  When a tutor delivers a tutorial, they have to know their stuff.  Also, those students who attend tutorials are likely to be highly motivated, which means that they are likely to ask difficult questions.  Face to face is important because it forces tutors to be at the top of their game.

So, on to the point of the venues.  Successful events are created through successful relationships.  In London, we know the chap who runs the London School of Economics Centre. He’s a really nice guy, and will do whatever we can to help, and he is really responsive to all the requests that come his way.  Can we build same relationships between the venue manager and those mysterious ‘venue booking people’ who may end up working in Milton Keynes, Manchester or Nottingham?  I can’t answer this question.  Plus, it will fundamentally hinder our ability to respond to one off requests to cater for people who have additional requirements.  As mentioned above, this isn’t just a nice to have: it’s a legislative imperative.

As suggested earlier, the devil is in the detail, and we haven’t see any detail.

Special tutorial sessions

Sometimes, students need a bit of extra help.  What tutors can do sometimes is have a chat with a student over the phone, offering something that is known as a ‘special session’.  Sometimes, this just isn’t enough, especially if a student is suffering from anxiety or has a disability, for instance.  In London, tutors can contact their staff tutor and asked to book a meeting room to hold a one to one tutorial session.  The London centre is, of course, a safe space for both students and tutors alike: there are always staff milling around, and the area may well be familiar to both students and tutors alike.

Will we be able to have the same kind of flexibility to support students if the regional centres close?  I suggest not.  It could be the case that we might be able to rent temporary office space somewhere to run special sessions, but can we guarantee that they are safe, or guarantee that they are accessible?  This necessitates a whole new set of administrative procedures, protocols and processes: venues would be need to be scrutinised, and venues may well change – and it may not be possible to guarantee both privacy and security in office space that is rented by the hour.

I’ll come back to my earlier point: the devil is in the detail.  All I can see is problems and issues. 

Degree ceremonies

Twice a year I help out at the London graduation ceremony, which takes place at the Barbican centre.  These are always great events, and it’s a pleasure to be there.  London regional staff always play an essential and important role in these events. Before the day, staff accept registrations and answer questions that are asked by students.  On the day, regional staff man the registration desks and work closely with qualifications and ceremonies team to make sure that everything run smoothly.

If the regions were to close, there would be an obvious knock on effect: colleagues at Milton Keynes would have to take up a lot of the slack.  They would have to find people to man the registration desks, find graduate presenters, and hall ushers, and have extra people who help to make the day what it is.  

The point here is simple: a lot of work would have to be moved and transferred, and there is no indication about how this would be done.  There has only been a nebulous statement that everything has to be done within a year. 

Outreach and widening participation

During a faculty committee meeting, I spoke up and said: ‘we are a national university, we’re not just a university that is based in Milton Keynes’ (which, of course, connects back to the ‘places’ bit of the university mission).  My point is that reducing our national coverage would also reduce our reach.

Widening Participation is something that I have to confess that I don’t know too much about, but it is something I personally believe is really important.  I don’t come from a well off background, and I’m thankful of the opportunities that have come my way.

I have a colleague in the London regional centre who runs these events for students who are interested in study.  She recruits experienced tutors to go and have a chat to potential students about what it means to become an Open University student.  She has press ganged me into participating into these events too!  I have even ended up tutoring one of the students that I have spoken to.

The regions are brilliant bases for co-ordinating outreach activities into the local community.  A point that I would like to raise on this issue is that we could be using our regional centres a whole lot better when it comes to this subject.  In the last four years I’ve been subjected to perpetual change in my role.  I also feel that outreach activities (which should be a much more important aspect in the OU’s current work activities) are not valued as much as they could be.  I would personally like to do more of this kind of work, and to do this, my first port of call would, of course, be my colleagues in the regional centre.

With fear of sounding like a broken record: dismantling the regional structure in its entirety would damage our collective ability to do outreach work that is fundamental to the university’s mission.

Walk-in enquiries and regional reputation

I mentioned earlier that the London regional centre is busy.  It’s not just busy with staff, it’s also busy with students too.  There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t see a student in the reception area, using a telephone to speak with someone in Milton Keynes.  Sometimes, regional colleagues come down stairs to chat with students, to offer them impromptu advice.  

This is something that I’ve done too: I’ve spoken about various computing modules, and I’ve taken them to the regional library to show them the module materials.  (I understand that other regions have a library too).   A counter argument is, of course: ‘oh, but there are not very many people who come in to the offices’.  This is a fair point, but a response to that is: ‘should we really aspire to go with the lowest common denominator?’

Regional centres are advertisements in their own right: they mark the presence of the institution, but these are locations that also have functions that can’t be relocated with lots of extensive thought and planning.  They have taken decades to put together, and we won’t know for certain about the impact of their loss until they are gone.

Institutional risk

London is now the home of the remnants of the East Grinstead office.  I’ve heard it said that there have been very few people who have transferred from one office to the other.  One colleague has told me that over half of the academic staff have left, and ninety percent of the administrative support staff have gone.  Decades of experience has, quite literally, walked out of the door, and it’s impossible to put a price on the loss of this expertise.

As yet, we are not yet fully aware of the impacts on the student experience that this closure has had because of the timing of the recommendations.  It is also arguable that it could take a couple of years of the true impacts of the closure to be felt. 

From my own perspective, I know that my regional colleagues are under extreme pressure due to the constant changes they have had to work through.  If people are put under pressure, mistakes will inevitably happen, and everyone will make sure that everything is put right to the best of our abilities to ensure that students are not affected.

Here’s another personal reflection: I’m a pretty young guy.  I can deal with stuff.  I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for stress, but I’m beginning to suffer from change fatigue.  I’m beginning to get tired and have started to think ‘what have I got to do now?’ and ‘when will thing settle down to a steady state?’  The issue of change fatigue was something that was mentioned by another colleague.  I’m feeling the strain, and I’m getting tired.  But what keeps me going is the knowledge that I’m doing a good and important job. 

I’m really worried that people are going to break; that people are going to get sick, and that people will be confused by complex IT systems.  Plus, all the timescales to make all the changes are extraordinarily extreme. 

I’m no management consultant, but from my position ‘in the trenches’, I’m shaking my head partly out of desperation, but also out of fear for the forthcoming administrative apocalypse if the current recommendations are ever implemented.

Here’s my most important reflection, and one that is directly related to the student experience: I can see that this proposed reconfiguration is going to push people to their limits; people will leave; there will be endless mistakes; there will be confusion, and the net effect is that the students will be substantially affected. 

Some fundamental concerns

I’ve read somewhere that the locations analysis project has seen no alternative visions for the regions.  I do know that there has been a period of formal consultation about the project, but I’ll like to give a personal opinion about this.

For me, the locations analysis has been just one of very many initiatives that have been thrown my way.  By and large, I’m doing what I can to keep up.  I’ll put it like this: I have been too busy with day to day admin and issues to have a moment to consider how things are run differently, and perhaps other people have the same views.

Have I been invited to a workshop to consider the different ways in which the university might imagine a regional structure that would serve the university in, say 2020?  No.  Would I go if there was one?  Yes.

There is one main concern that I’ve mentioned before that I do find astonishing.  It is this: how can a recommendation be suggested without any thought about how it could be achieved?

In conclusion

Although all of these thoughts, opinions and comments relate to my own experience of a staff tutor in the London region, there may well be lots in common with many of the other regions: Oxford, Cambridge, Gateshead, Bristol, Birmingham and Leeds.  (Not to mention also Nottingham and Manchester regions, which would be irrevocably changed if these proposals do go ahead).

Here’s an important concluding message: I personally challenge senior management to come up with some more sensible thinking.  I also urge management to dispense with the current plan.  In my opinion, the current proposals are an uncomfortable combination of folly and vandalism.  Plus, they don't seem to take into account many of the essential functions that take place in the regional centres.

We’re not just talking about what is good for the university, we’re talking about bigger issues: we’re talking about reducing the extent to which we collectively fight and work for social justice.  The current recommendation suggests that we’re talking about reducing the mission of the university, which has always been about open to people, places and ideas.  Let’s not have an idea that attacks places in such an outrageous way.  This idea, of course, will directly affect people. And the people I’m talking about are, of course, our students.

Acknowledgements: many thanks to two colleagues who took the time to quickly proof read this blog post during what is the busiest and most intense time of the year – I really appreciate it!  Also, any remaining grammatical mistakes, operational misunderstandings or tryping mistakes are entirely my own.

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Disability Conference, 13-14 May 2015 – day 2

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 5 Jun 2018, 11:56

This is the second in a series of two blog posts about the 2015 Open University Disability conference. 

Keynote: the disability delusion

The first keynote of the day was by Tom McAlpine OBE who is a chair of a charity called Moodswings (charity website). Tom’s talk began by taking us into the history of the current disability legislation, highlighting that there has been (and continues to be) a stark difference between attention given to physical and mental health disabilities. 

He presented the audience with an interesting yet important question which was: ‘who is disabled?’  This question was linked to two philosophies which are connected with the social model of disability; the view that ‘either everyone is disabled, or nobody is disabled’.  Another interesting point was about the link between welfare and disability, and extent to which ‘austerity’ is affecting the lives of people who have disabilities: ‘it’s going to be worse than everyone imagined’.  The point was made that there should be a ‘proper use of resources’.  Individuals, it was argued, should only take as little from the state as they need. 

During Tom’s talk, I made the following note: ‘if we’re going to be fair, we shouldn’t pretend that everyone is disabled’.   I don’t think this is what he said word for word, but instead, it might be more of my impression of the point that he was trying to get across.  It is a view that I, fundamentally, take issue with.  It is a view that equates disability with the consumption of resources, and I think that the whole subject is a whole lot more complex.  You can have a disability (or an impairment of some kind), and get on with living your day to day life, and may have no recourse to need additional resources.  All you might need to get by is a bit of respect and understanding from others who are around you.

Tom’s talk was pretty provocative, and led to quite a bit of debate amongst colleagues who I spoke to.  This, I felt, was a sign that the keynote had done its job (irrespective of whether or not I personally agreed with some of the views that were expressed).

Workshop: Student mental health – whose responsibility?

The first workshop I signed up for on the second day was also by Tom.  Tom opened by stating that mental health issues may manifest themselves during study, due to change of circumstances or due to things that happen during life. He also mentioned that it is important to consider the difference between pre-existing mental health issues, and that sometimes the pressures of studying may make some students (who may be predisposed to illness) unwell.

Another point I remember was the importance of appropriate boundary setting.  This is linked to the point that there are limits to what the university can do: it can only provide help and guidance regarding study and academic issues.

During the talk I made the note: ‘wellness is a continuum’.  This was a theme that was highlighted during the London region diversity day that was specifically about mental health issues.  This part of Tom’s workshop offered a reminder that everyone can move between and onto different parts of a mental health continuum.

During the workshop, Tom also offered some controversial opinions about certain illnesses and also the roles of some tutors.  It was clear that he had particularly strong opinions, and my own opinions (which were also pretty strong) were somewhat different.  Education can be difficult whilst at the same time being transformative.  My own view is that a positive relationship between a student and a tutor is important (if not essential) to facilitate the exploring of different perspectives and views that can lead to a transformation.  I doubt very much that Tom would disagree with this view.  Our difference of opinion relates to judgement as to whether a tutor is doing something wrong if a student feels compelled to contact a tutor for support for unexpected issues.  My role is then to support that tutor, and to do my best to work with other colleagues to communicate boundaries.

In some respects Tom’s session was more of a chat than a workshop.  It was different to what I had expected, but is no better for it; there were many colleagues who were very free to express their opinions about a range of different issues.

During the session, we were reminded of a useful resources, a OU published booklet that is entitled: Studying and staying mentally healthy (OU website).  I heard that this resource is going to be made available to all students, not just students who may have disclosed a mental health issues.

Workshop: Universal design for learning – built in accessibility

The final workshop of the conference was facilitated by Heather Mole, who I managed to have a good chat with during the conference.  Heather is currently working on a really interesting PhD, which she might have mentioned during her workshop.  She has been looking into the privilege of sign-language interpreters, since they cross the boundaries of two different cultures: the Deaf culture, and our hearing culture.  This made me reflect about the connections between disability studies, other subjects, and other civil rights areas.

Heather began by playing an excerpt from a short film by Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor called An Examined Life  (YouTube)  As the film played, I made notes of the terms ‘normalising standards of our movements’, ‘disability as a political issue’ and ‘talking of language’.

I then remember some discussions about the different models of disability: the social model and the medical model.  Heather also mentioned the work of Tom Shakespeare, who is both an activist and a scholar.  Another philosophical model that was mentioned was the interactional model, which is an acknowledgement that an actual impairment is important.  I understand this model to be a combination of the social and medical models.  As Heather was speaking, I realised that I needed to do some reading!

I made an interesting note that accessibility can be thought of in two different ways.  There’s the accommodation approach, where there might be the need for an alternative way of doing things.  This could be thought of a ‘consumable’ approach.  For instance, a module team or a teacher might make a resource that was specific to an individual learner.  Another approach is universal design, which can be considered, broadly, as more ‘sustainable’: accessibility is considered from the outset and is considered at the design level.

We were told that a chap called Ron Mace created what is known as seven principles that guide ‘universal’ architectural design.  These principles are: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, tolerance for error, low physical effort, size and space for approach and use, perceptual information (i.e. alarms that offer information through different modalities: they emit a sound and flash at the same time).  

These principles can be applied to an educational context; educators can consider both the universal accessibility of their learning resources, and the systems, products or devices which allow the learning resources to be consumed (we might think of ‘products’ in terms of a series of web pages, an ebook, or a physical paper based book).

During this final workshop, we were directed to a couple of websites.  One of them was called the Centre for applied special technology group (CAST website).  Another organisation that was mentioned was the National Centre on Universal Design for Learning (UDL website).

Final keynote: an accidental comedian

I’ll give a cheeky admission at this point: it was yours truly who gave the final keynote.  The keynote had two parts: a story, and then a performance.  My point was simple: we can achieve more than we ever thought possible if we offer other people encouragement.  In some respects, this is exactly what so many people within the university try to do: academic staff, support staff, and associate lecturers; we do our best to offer encouragement and support for those who are studying.

Final thoughts

One thing that always strikes me about these conferences is the range of different subjects, workshops and speakers.  This year there were keynotes that delivered different perspectives, and workshops that presented a broad range of topics.  I personally found the workshop about the ‘tech’ particularly interesting (I think because I’m a ‘tech’ sort of guy), and I also found the talk on autism interesting, if only to remind me that there is a wealth of advice and resources that I can draw upon. 

There was an implicit theme and an implicit concern that seemed to run throughout the conference: the sense that things have become more difficult for people who have disabilities, and things are going to continue to become even more challenging.  The underlying story that catalysed the expression of these concerns was, of course, the recent change in government.  Resources, it was argued, are limited, and it’s important to ensure that they are used as effectively and efficiently as possible.

After the conference, I asked myself a quick question, which was: ‘what else could there have been?’, or ‘what would I find really interesting?’  Over the last couple of years, I’ve been increasingly aware of an emerging academic subject called disability studies.  Whilst the objective of the conference has strong and really useful practical focus, I can’t help but feel that a more academic perspective might add something to aspects of the conference.  Disability studies connect to different civil rights movements, the role of the media, analysis of barriers, and how the situation for people with disabilities is different across the globe. 

One thing that was really great, and has always been great, is the presentation of personal perspectives: the student voice is, of course, really important.

Finally, PowerPoint and other resources from the conference (conference materials) are available to internal university people, but if you’re reading this from outside the university, if there’s anything that is of particular interest, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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Disability Conference, 13-14 May 2015 – day 1

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Jan 2019, 09:38

Every year, the university runs an internal conference for staff who are directly involved with supporting students who have disabilities.  This is a series of two posts which aims to share my ‘take’ on the 2015 conference.

I think this must have been either the third or the fourth time I’ve been to this event.  In some respects my involvement (and attendance) is slightly accidental since the conference isn’t technically open to academic staff.  Instead, it’s open for those who help or advise students, or help academic module teams to make sure their modules are as accessible as they could be.

I’m very grateful that the conference organisers have allowed me to attend.  In doing so, I can not only share some of the conference themes to the tutors in the London region that I help to support, but also some of my students who study H810 accessible on-line learning (OU module summary).

Opening Keynotes

There were two opening keynotes: one by David Knight, and another by Tony O’Shea-Poon.  Unfortunately I missed David’s presentation, since I fell asleep on the train from London and ended up in Coventry.  I did, however, catch the end of Tony’s presentation.  One of the things that I took away from Tony’s presentation was that there are on-going changes to rules due to government policy.  Those that are affected by disablement can be the hardest hit by change.

Workshop: Improving accessibility for all

The first conference event I went to was facilitated by Adam Hyland, Atif Choudhury and Tim Blunt.  They all help to run an organisation called Diversity and Ability (website), or DNA for short.  DNA is a social enterprise created by and led by disabled and dyslexic learners for the sole purpose of providing support, strategies and assistance.

During the workshop we discussed how different apps could be useful and how students could gain an awareness of different study strategies.   We were directed to a resources page on the DNA website which presents a summary of different types of assistive technologies.   Students can uncover different ways of doing their research, composing text and answers, carrying out proof reading and taking notes during class. 

It isn’t all about technology – it is also getting people involved, and helping learners to make the best use of technology that is available to them.   It’s also about empowerment and building self-esteem.   It’s also important to connecting different aspects (or issues) together, such as the choice and use of assistive technologies and the development of study skills.  I made a note of an elephant in the room’: there are inherent anxieties that accompany working alone.

A significant part of the workshop was dedicated to looking at different tools such as Evernote and Zotero (which was recently highlighted by JISC, an organisation that supports universities).  Another tool mentioned was Calibre, which I think I might have mentioned in an earlier post that was about using the Kindle for studying.  There was also something called Orato,  an application that allows users to select a portion of text, which is then read out loud by your computer.

Different tools can be used to do different things.  Students are, of course, regularly asked to write assignments and compose essays.  To help with this there are a number of composition tools, such as iThoughts (toketaWare website) and XMind, which are tablet and Mac based.

Another important task, is proofreading.  One tool that could help with this is a product called Grammerly which can be built into Chrome or Firefox browsers.   You might also could also use Google Docs (since iOS devices have text to speech functionality), and CereProc Voices to listen to what you have written.  Apparently you can download two high quality voices: one male, another one female.

Writing and editing is all very well, but is there anything to help with the making of notes in class?  Apparently, there is.  We heard about Sonocent Audio Notetaker, which allows you to visualise different sections of a recording and add annotations sections, so you know where to find stuff.  (I can’t help but think that this might be a really useful research tool for social scientists).  Another tool is called Audionote (Luminant software).

You’ve made notes during your class and have completed all your assignments.  An inevitable part of study is, of course, the exam.  There are, apparently, tools that can help.  The presenters the workshop mentioned a number of flash card tools, such as Studyblue, Quizlet and Anki.  The one they talked most about was Quizlet, since apparently this has a text to speech feature.  Interestingly, some educators have been known to create StudyBlue decks.  As these products were described, I thought to myself, ‘why didn’t I think of creating these tools?’

Revision takes time, which means that time management is important.  To help with this Google calendar was recommended.  It was interesting to hear that Google Calendar could, apparently, be synchronised with Outlook calendars, but this isn’t anything that I have ever tried. 

Students also need to organise their files and records.  We were told of a tool called Alfred (Alfredapp website), a productivity tool for Macs.  Other tools that were mentioned included cloud storage tools, such as Google Drive, Drop Box and One Drive.

The remainder of the session was about the referencing tool Zotero. We looked at how to download a reference template (there is one for the OU Harvard format), and apply it to web links, books for which we had the ISBN number for, books that we found on Amazon, and papers from jstor.org, a ‘a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary sources’.

There was a lot to take in during this session.  I had heard of some of the tools and products before, but not all of them.  One really useful aspect of the session was to learn how Zotero could be used, and also to be talked through the different sets of tools that students could use.  A really important ‘take away’ point was that assistive technology, in whatever form it takes, is always changing.  There is also great value in the ‘free’ or low cost products that exist.  I began to realise that assessors (those people who offer advice for students with disabilities) have a tough job in terms of keeping up with what might be the best tools for learners.

Keynote: Autism and Asperger’s in Higher Education

The second keynote of the conference was given by Lyndsey Draper from the National Autistic Society.  Lynsdey kicked off by giving us an interesting and surprising statistic – that over the last 10 years, disclosure of autism increased by 100%.  Another interesting fact was that autism is the only disability in the UK that has its own specific legislation.

After briefly describing what autism and Asperger’s syndrome is, Lyndsey spoke about some different theories about it.  From what I remember, I understand that there is now a consensus that there is a genetic component. 

We were also given some interesting statistics: it affects 2.8 million families and 1.1% of the population.  The diagnosis of women is apparently increasing, but a diagnosis can also be masked by other conditions, such as the eating disorder anorexia, for example.  (I remember reading some research by Simon Baron-Cohen a couple of years ago about a potential link between anorexia and autism; the systematising and food obsession represents a behaviour trait that has parallels with some behaviours that can be observed in autism).

A further interesting point was that how differences can manifest themselves may depend very much on the environment.   Lyndsey made the point that the term Asperger’s syndrome was being replaced in favour of Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, for short.

As Lyndey was talking, I remembered a phrase from a session that I went to the previous year.  It was: ‘if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met only one person with autism’; the point being that everyone is very different.

So, what might the challenges be when it comes to higher education? Students may struggle with social communication, or, specifically, understanding the unwritten rules of communication.  Smalltalk, it was said, can be considered to be illogical or complicated.  Students also might find it difficult to understand the perspectives of others.

These things said, people who have ASD are known to have some key strengths: attention to detail, a methodical approach, good memory for factual information, problem solving skills, numerical skills, and are reliable and resourceful.  As well as having a different way of thinking to others, another strength can be deep specialist knowledge and skills.

From the academic perspective, we need to acknowledge the significance of the social perspective.  There is also an obvious necessity to provide clear unambiguous feedback (which should, of course, be offered to all students too!)  In terms of adjustment, an important activity could be to try to facilitate contact between students and staff, interpret academic speaking and writing, using of checklist and offer clarifications as to what is required.

Workshop: Supporting students with autism in higher education

In addition to the keynote, Lyndsey also facilitated a workshop (which I had signed up to go to).  Like her keynote presentation, it was also filled with really interesting facts.  Apparently, students who have a diagnosis of autism are less likely to drop out than other students, i.e. 6.9% versus 10%.

In terms of the disabled student’s allowance (which is funding from the government to help students to study), students who have ASD may not benefit from the use of technology than other groups of students with disabilities.   Instead, students with ASD benefit from mentors and study support.

In the workshop, we were again given a little bit of history.  We were told about Kanner or ‘classic’ Autism, and Asperger’s syndrome, and the differences between them.  We were then asked about our perceptions and understandings.   A key phrase I noted in my notebook was: ‘everyone is completely different’, and that what is ‘good practice for autism is good practice for everyone’.

In terms of training: clarify roles, such as turn taking and eye contact.  We were offered a challenge: ‘can you imagine how much effort it would be to continually control eye contact all day?’  There is also the challenge of metaphor and idiom.

Other issues that can emerge include anxiety, depression, perfectionism, single focus or attention on something.  Some students might need prompts on how best to manage their own time. 

It was time for an activity.  We were asked a question: what difficulties might students have and what strategies might be used to overcome them? On our table we chatted about getting students to talk to each other, the challenge of choosing a module, and the ambiguities of language.

A number of points were mentioned during a plenary discussion.  These were the importance of clear feedback and the need to be consistent and specific, the sharing of good practice, and how some students may need transition support between different institutions and levels of study. At the end of the session we were directed to the National Autistic Society website, should we need more information about anything.

Keynote: Education for a new me

Steve McNeice was once a triathlete.  He took us back to a day when everything in his life changed.  He was out on a swim when he realised that he wasn’t very well.  He told us that he had acquired a profoundly serious bacterial infection.  He went to hospital and fell into a coma.  He woke up seven weeks later, with both legs amputated above the knee.  Apparently 95% of double above knee amputees don’t walk.  Seventeen months later, Steve told us that he walked out of the hospital.

I won’t even try to do justice to Steve’s presentation and the effect that it had, both on myself and others who were in the room.  Here was someone who was talking about how his life had changed dramatically.  He went from being active and able bodied, to having to learn how to walk again.  Despite all this, and as he told us his story, he exuded positivity and good humour.

Apparently some people who use prostetic legs can use up to 300% more energy than able bodied people.  As he talked, he walked up and down at the front of the presentation room.  ‘I swim three times a week, and you see all kinds of people at the pool.’ Steve said.  ‘Some of them look and they think, ‘oh, what a shame’, and then I lap them’.

He told us about the seemingly innocuous challenges of going down stairs, navigating escalators and stepping over things.  All these activities that so many of us take for granted, Steve had to re-learn how to do them.  He shows us numerous video clips where he fell over, negotiating a hill.

‘While I was going through rehab, I was studying for a degree’, he told us.  He studied German.  A part of his illness meant that he became deaf in one ear, and partially lost hearing in another.  An adjustment was the request to sit on a certain side of a room.  One thing that he said he needed to work on was listening: so, he studied German.

‘I used the OU to learn about my condition.  I studied T307, designing for a sustainable future.  I designed some sockets for my prostetic limb’.  He told us that he took ownership of his lifelong condition by setting lots of educational goals.

Through these OU conferences, I’ve come to seen that having a disability can open doors to new experiences, rather than close them.  Steve told us that he has contributed to events at the house of commons and is a member of the all-party parliamentary limb loss group.

He told us that he is now studying Italian.  He also lectures at different universities to give something back to physiotherapists, the occupation that offered him so much help.  I also noted down the following words: ‘rehabilitation is an on-going process, and something could change at any point’.

Like so many of us at the talk, I was struck by his spirit of determination.  I also took away the thought that, perhaps, I ought to do slightly more to ‘give back’ to the profession that has tried to help me with my own condition or situation.   His talk also emphasised the transformative effect of education.  I couldn’t help but worry that the increase in higher fees this might potentially prevent or deter some students from studying modules and subject that may influence their lives for the better.

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Accessibility training away-day

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This is quick blog post about an event that I went to in November 2014.  I know that this feels like a long way away, but I haven’t forgotten about this event: it was one that was pretty memorable (but more of that later).

The event was an away day for the Faculty of Arts; it was a training day, and the afternoon (which was the bit that I went to) had a very particular focus: accessibility and disability issues; specifically, what certain members of the university could practically do to help students.  Although some of the fine details are now a bit sketchy (due to the relentless passage of time), I did make some notes, so here’s a quick summary of the sessions that I (sort of) gate crashed.

Barriers and reasonable adjustments

The first afternoon session was by Heather Kelly and Laila Burton.  It began with some numbers: about 12% of students in the Open University have declared a disability (for the faculty of arts, this number is slightly higher, at 15%).  In terms of raw numbers, I think we’re looking at around ten thousand students.  To put things into perspective, other universities can have that same number of students across every faculty.

Every university is legally required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to educational materials to ensure that they can be consumed by students who have disabilities. 

The presenters asked us an important question: who is responsible for making these reasonable adjustments?  There were a number of answers: the module team, associate lecturers, the securing greater access team, and others too!  An important principle (from what I remember from another presentation) is that those people who are in a position to make an adjustment should just go ahead and do it.  This is a principle that relates to tutors, those who line manage tutors, and those support the delivery of a module, and members of a module team.

All this said, what actually does ‘reasonable adjustment’ actually mean and when we do we have to make one?  There are a number of things that need to be taken into consideration: is the student at a substantial disadvantage because of their disability? Is it practical and effective to provide an adjustment?  Is the adjustment something that could be provided as a part of the disabled student’s allowance?  If not, can an adjustment be provided that is reasonable in terms of costs and/or resources?

To understand the concept of reasonable adjustment further we were asked to discuss a number of scenarios in small groups.  Our group looked at two scenarios: the case of students using the library website, and the question of whether a different assignment question could be offered if a student objected on religious grounds.  By discussing these scenarios I learnt that the library can offer a service to help students with literature searches.  When it came to the assessment issue, an adjustment was not considered to be reasonable if it meant that a fundamental learning objective would not be assessed.

Towards the end of the session we were told about different sources of advice and support.  The university has a number of accessibility specialists (some of whom work within each faculty).  There is also the disability resources team, and a group called the accessibility referrals panel (ARP).  The ARP is a university body that comprises of a number of experts who can offer some advice on accessibility issues.  For instance, if anyone isn’t sure about whether an adjustment is appropriate, it can be referred to the panel, which can then form a judgement about the best course of action.

A final point was about the importance of recording decisions.  This is important during module production or module presentation, or put another way (in non-OU speak), when a module is being designed or written, or when it is being delivered to students.  Recording your decisions has two purposes.  Firstly, the university has a trail of what has been done should reasonable adjustment decisions ever be challenged.  Secondly, it allows experiences and cases to be shared with others.

Disability advisory service

After a short break, we had an option of choosing from a number of parallel sessions.  I went to the session that was facilitated by Julie Young, manager of the disability advisory service.  Julie spoke about the support for disabled students and the role of the service. We were told that the service can offer specialist advice for dyslexia, mental health issues, visual and hearing impairments.

During the session I made a note of the term ‘assessment’.  Assessment, in this context, isn’t an assignment that a student has to complete or any kind of exam.  Instead, an assessment is (as far as I understand it) is a discussion that enables a professionally trained assessor to understand the impact of one or more impairments on study.  Assessments can lead to recommendations of assistive technologies, and also the creation of a useful record (or disability ‘marker’) which can then offer information for tutors, helping them to understand what reasonable adjustments might be necessary.

Visit to the access bus

After another break, it was time to brave the elements and head outside to ‘the access bus’.  Despite this event being more than a few months ago, I have one overriding memory of this part of the day: it was bitterly cold.  A large van was parked in the hotel car park.  The van had been converted to what is, essentially, a mobile office that was is packed with different types of technology.  This mobile office can be used to carry out assessments: it is where students (and potential students) have opportunity to play with and learn about different types of assistive technologies.

During our short time on the bus we were shown different types of keyboards, different types of assistive software (such as screen readers and screen magnifiers), and some speech recognition software.  I have played with screen magnifiers and screen reader software before, and some other software called Read and Write that can be useful to some students who have dyslexia.  I was, however, quite fascinated by the speech recognition software and I was impressed by its performance.  (This said, it was demonstrated by a skilled operator, and had been pre-configured so that it could recognise a particular voice).  I left the session thinking, ‘I wonder whether I could ever use voice recognition software’.  I’ve never tried to.  I have deliberately avoided it.  But perhaps I ought to pluck up the courage to give it a go.

A personal tale

The final session of the day was by a member of the university who also does a bit of stand-up comedy on the London open mic circuit.  The comic started by confessing that he had a hidden disability: a speech impediment, a stammer.  He told a short story about how he started on the open-mic circuit, and he told us a little about who inspired him: a friend who is now eighty, and a professional comic who gave a performance at the Disabled Student Services conference three or four years ago.  This then led to a ten minute stand-up comedy routine that was about the day to day challenges of dealing with that particular hidden disability.  There is a huge risk with doing things like this: it could either go terribly, or it could go well; telling jokes in the workplace could get the presenter getting into all kinds of trouble.

My confession is that I was the comic. 

Had anyone told me four years ago I would be at that event, giving a talk to the arts faculty about my weird hobby, talking about my struggles with talking, I would have said they were delusional. 

The story and my performance connected to a point that I wanted to make: when given sufficient support and motivation by others we can surprise ourselves by doing things that we never thought we would be able to.  By considering issues relating to disability, the design of modules and what reasonable adjustments we might be able to make, we all collectively learning what needed to be done to make things easier for all learners. 

In some ways, the event was about what we could do, both individually and collectively, to help others to achieve.  In other respects, the away day was also about connecting to others, and getting a little bit of motivation too.  I was glad to be a part of it.

Final thoughts

There were a couple of key points that I took away from the day: a reminder about the principles of reasonable adjustment and a reminder about who to ask when you need help about something.  It was also a reminder about how seriously the university treats these issues.  It was also interesting to look around the access bus.  I remember from this session that the faculty staff that went along to this event had loads of questions about different bits of technology, what they did, and how they worked.

Another useful part of the day was, in essence, a reminder.  A reminder that if you don’t know how to tackle a particular problem, then there colleagues within the institution who might be able to offer some useful help and advice.

 

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Open University Disability Conference 2012

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 19 Nov 2012, 18:27

On 14 November 2012 I attended the Open University Disability Conference held at a conference centre close to the university.  The last time I attended this event was back in 2010.   I wrote a summary of the 2010 conference which might be useful to some (I should add that I've had to mess around a bit to get a link to this earlier summary and there is a possibility that this link might go to different posts since I can't quite figure out how to get a permalink, but that's a side issue...)

The conference was a two day event but due to other things I had to be getting on with I could only attend one of the days.  From my experience of the first conference, the second day tends to be quite dramatic (and this year proved to be no exception).

The legacy of the Paralympics

Julie Young from Disabled Student Services kicked off the day by introducing Tony O'Shea-Poon, head of equality and diversity.  Tony gave a presentation entitled 'A lot can change in 64 years' which described the history of the Paralympic games whilst at the same time putting the games into the context of disability equality.

During the Paralympics I remember a television drama that presented the origins of the games.  Tony reminded us that it began in 1948 at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital.  The first ever Paralympic games (with the 'para' meaning 'alongside') taking place in Rome in 1960.

One of the striking aspects of Tony's presentation is that it was presented in terms of 'forces'; forces which have increased the awareness of issues that impact upon the lives of people with disabilities.  Relating back to the origins of the games, one force is the allies of people with disabilities.  There is also the role that role models can play, particularly in popular media.

Two other forces include disabled peoples involvement and the disability rights movement.  Tony spoke about something that I had not known of before.  During the late 1980s I remember a number of public 'telethon' events - extended TV shows that aimed to raise money for charitable causes.  In 1992 there was a campaign to 'block telethon'.  This is a message that people with disabilities should have rights, not charity.  This connects with a movement away from a more historic medical and charity model of disability to a social model where people with disabilities should have an equal rights and opportunities within society. Tony also mentioned the importance of legislation, particularly the disability rights commission, explicitly mentioning role of Sir Bert Massie.

Tony brought us to the present day, emphasising not only recent successes (such as the Paralympic games), but also current challenges; Tony drew our attention to protests in August of this year by disabled people against government cuts.   Legitimate protest is considered to be another force that can facilitate change.

Deb Criddle: Paralympian

Jane Swindells from the university disability advisory service introduced Deb Criddle (Wikipedia), paralympian gold and silver medallist.  Deb gained one gold medal and two silver medals in London 2012, as well as gaining gold medals in Athens.

This part of the day took the form of a question and answer session, with Jane asking the first questions.  Deb reflected on the recent Paralympic games and described her personal experiences.  One of the key points that Deb made was that it was great that the games focussed people's attention on abilities and not disabilities.  It also had the effect of the making disability more normalised.

One thing that I remember from living in London at the time of the Olympics and Paralympics is that people were more open to talking to each other.  Deb gave us an anecdote that the games created opportunities for conversations (about and with people with disabilities) which wouldn't have otherwise happened.  

Deb said that she 'wasn't expecting the support we had'.  On the subject of support she also made an important point that the facilities and support services that are available within the UK are very different to the facilities that are available in other countries.  At the time of the Paralympics I remember reading stories in the London Metro (the free newspaper that is available ever week day morning) about campaigners who were trying to obtain equipment and resources for some of the competitors.

Deb also shared with us aspects of her personal story.  She said that through accident and circumstance led to opportunities, journeys, growth and amazing experiences.  What was once a passing interest (in equestrianism) became a central interest.  Deb also spoke about the challenge of confronting a disability.  One of Deb's phrases strongly resonated with me (as someone who has an unseen disability), which was, 'I hadn't learnt to laugh at myself'.

Deb is also an OU student.  She studied at the same time as training.  Deb said, 'study gives you something else to focus on... trying too hard prevents you to achieving what you need to [achieve], it is a distraction in a sense'.  She also emphasised the point that study is can often be hard work.

I've made a note of a final phrase of Deb's (which probably isn't word for word) which is certainly worth repeating; its message is very clear: 'please don't be overwhelmed by people with disability; people coming together [in partnership] can achieve', and also, 'take time to engage with people, you can learn from their stories, everyone is different'.

Workshops

Throughout the conference there were a couple of workshops, a number of which were happening in parallel.  I was only able to attend one of them.  The one I chose was entitled 'Asperger's syndrome: supporting students through timely interventions', facilitated by Martina Carroll.  The emphasis on this workshop was about providing information to delegates and I've done my best to summarise the key points that I picked up.

The first point was that people who may have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome can be very different; you can't (and shouldn't) generalise about the abilities of someone who may have a diagnosis.   

The workshop touched upon the history of the syndrome.  Martina mentioned Leo Kanner (Wikipedia) who translated some work by Hans Asperger.  Asperger's is understood as a developmental disorder that has a genetic basis (i.e. highly heritable). Martina mentioned a triad of impairments: communication difficulties (both expressive and receptive), potential difficulties with social interaction, and restricted and repetitive behaviours.  A diagnosis will be considered to have two out of the three potential impairments.

Martina also touched upon that some people can have exceptional skills, such as skills in memory and mathematics, but again, it is important to remember that everyone is different.  Due to the nature of the triad of impairments, co-existing conditions need to be considered, such as such as stress, anxiety and depression.

A final question is what accommodations can be made for people who have autism? TEACCH (Wikipedia) was mentioned, which is an educational model for schools which has the potential to offer some useful guidance.  One key point is that providing learning materials that have a clearly defined structure (such as the module calendar) can certainly help everyone.

Towards the end of the session, there was some time for group discussions.  The group that I was (randomly) assigned to discussed the challenges of group work, how important it was to try to facilitate constant communication between different people (which include mentors and advocates) and challenges surrounding examinations and assessment. 

There are a number of resources that were mentioned that may be useful.  I didn't know this, but the Open University runs a module entitled Understanding the autism spectrum (OU website). The module is centred around a book by Ilona Roth called Autism in the 21st Century (publishers website).  Another resource is Francesca Happe's Lecture at the Royal Society, entitled When will we understand Autistic Spectrum Disorders? (Royal Society website) I really recommend this lecture - it is very easy to follow and connects very strongly with the themes of the workshop.  There is also the National Autistic Society website, which might also be useful.

Performance

The final part of the day was very different.  We were introduced to three stand-up comics.  These comics were not disabled comics, they were comics who just happened to incidentally have a disability.  Comedy has the ability to challenge; it allows others to see and understand instances of people's lives in a warm and undeniably human way.  The 'something' that we all have in common with each other is an ability to laugh.  When you laugh at a situation that is tough and challenging and begin to appreciate the absurdity and richness of life. Tough situations don't seem as difficult anymore; laughter gives you a power to rise above a situation.  In a way, the conference reflects this since it was all about sharing experience with a view to empowering and helping people.

The comics were Steve Day, Liam O'Caroll and Lawrence Clark.  All were fabulous, but I especially enjoyed Lawrence's set which I understand was a show that he took to the Edinburgh Festival.  His set had a theme based on the word 'inspiring'; he successfully sent himself up, along with others who may be inclined to use that word.

Reflections

Julie Young closed the conference by emphasising some of the themes that were explored through the conference.   Julie emphasised the importance of working together to deliver a service for our students and how this is connected with equality and rights.  A key point is that the abilities our students are what really matters.  Julie went on to emphasise the continued need to listen attentively to those who we serve.

With conferences that have multiple parallel sessions you can sometimes feel that you're missing out on something, which is always a shame.  During the lunch break, I heard how other delegates had appreciated hearing from students talking about their experiences of studying at the Open University.  Personal stories allow people to directly connect with the challenges and difficulties that people face, and whilst on one hand there may be successes, there are other situations in which we don't do the best that we can or support for people doesn't arrive on time.  Conferences such as these emphasise the importance of keeping our attention on students with disability whilst at the same time emphasising that different departments of the university need to talk to each other to ensure that we can offer the best possible support.  Talking also permits us to learn more about what we can do to change things, so meetings such as these are invaluable.

I also have a recollection from the previous conference I attended.  I remember talking to someone (I'm not sure who this was) who seemed to express surprise that I was from a 'faculty' (i.e. an academic) as opposed to a part of the university that was directly involved in support of students (I tend to conflate the two roles together).  I was surprised that my presence caused surprise.  Although this year I felt that there were more faculty representatives coming along than perhaps there were before, I do (personally) feel that there should be a broader spectrum of delegates attending.

All in all, I felt that I benefitted from the day.  I met people who I had never met before and the objectives of facilitating communication, sharing practice and re-energising delegates had clearly been met. 

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Disability history month

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 9 Dec 2011, 10:40

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The second UK disability history month has run (or is currently running, at the time of writing) between 22 November and 22 December.  During this month I managed to attend two events.  I'm going to summarise both of them within this short post with the hope that it could be of interest to someone.

There are a number of reasons why I wanted to play a small part within the week.  The first is that over the last couple of years I've been involved with a research project that has been exploring how technology might be able to be used to make a difference to the lives of people with disability.  Secondly, I tutor on an Open University module that explores some of the strategies and approaches about how to best use technology and to make some aspects of learning and teaching as inclusive as possible.  The third perspective is one that is personal, since I am afflicted by a condition that can be considered as a disability under current legislation.

The first event I attended was held at the TUC headquarters in London.  This event was subtitled 'why we are failing disabled people' and addressed the subject of disability hate crime.  The second event was sponsored by the UCU, the University and College Union that represents the interests of lecturers and teachers within further and higher education.  I couldn't 'attend' this second event in person due to work commitments, but the event was recorded by the Open University.  (You might be able to access this presentation, but I'm unsure whether you can do this from beyond the boundaries of the university systems).  This second event was more about contexualising disability history and celebrating their civil rights achievements.

SCAPEGOAT, TUC headquarters, London

The main speaker for this event was Katharine Quarmby, a journalist who has done extensive research into disability hate crime, publishing a recent book on the subject entitled 'Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people'.  Katherine gave a powerful and shocking account of incidents of disability hate crime, a small number of which I remembered from media coverage.

During her research, she reported she studied over 100 cases.  Some of the crimes were perpetrated by people who were considered to be friends with a victim, so called 'mate crime'.  Katherine connected her presentation to both contemporary and historical issues.  The historical issue being the way that disability has been perceived, the contemporary relating to the perception towards enabling benefits, such as the disabled living allowance.

One point stood out for me, and this was that the reporting of this type of hate crime is on the increase, but another view is that perhaps those incidents that have been recorded may well be the tip of an iceberg.

The other main speaker of the day was Stephen Brookes, who is co-ordinator of the National disability hate crime network.  Stephen began with a definition which is 'disability hate crime is any criminal office which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a persons disability or perceived disability'. 

One slide that Stephen used, entitled 'we are not...' stood out for me.  It contained the words, 'more vulnerable than everyone else, so don't label us', 'the problem', 'in the way. It's not our fault for being there!'.  Stephen went on to present a couple of specific cases, and then emphasised the point that tackling the issue is the responsibility of everyone and many different authorities and organisations.

Stephen also mentioned a report that he has been involved with, which is entitled Inquiry into disability related harassment, which can be found on the Equality and Human Rights Commission website.

Towards the end of the day there was an hour long plenary session where members of the audience could address each other and the panel.  One of the points that I clearly remember is a delegate who introduced the term, 'disability hate incident' (I think I have remembered this correctly).  These are incidents of subtle discrimination through maliciousness, ignorance or carelessness.  It was argued that the incidence of these events are significantly higher than that of crimes, which are, of course, considered to be under reported.

This point really got me thinking about my own experiences, how it relates to the social model of disability (wikipedia) and how to facilitate change either within an institution or wider society.  Other issues that were raised were equally important, such as the issue of employment and the role that prejudice may play.

I won't say this event was one that was enjoyable, since that wouldn't be an appropriate word for it.  I would say that it was challenging, and from this perspective, it was entirely successful.

Celebrate Disability History Month

The second event that I attended was recorded.  As mentioned earlier, I was able to access a recording of a presentation by Richard Reiser, co-ordinator of the Disability History Month, made at the Open University on Monday 28 November 2011.

Richard gave a very clear presentation about how disability has been perceived throughout different periods of history.  Richard spoke about the time of ancient Greece and Rome, moving onto medieval period, towards the Elizabethan period, through the Enlightenment to the present day, whilst speaking about the Nazism and the role of asylums and associated legislation.

Richard then moved to present a powerful exposition of the disability rights movement.  Richard also made explicit reference to the notion of language, with a view to how the choice of language relates to perceptions throughout society.

Exploring and choosing appropriate language is related to education, and suggested that more needs to be done, especially if eight out of ten children who are disabled report bullying.  Richard concluded by saying that we need disability history month to provide a focal point to help us to understand common ground and to facilitate the change the perceptions.

Reflections

There was a lot packed into these two presentations, and credit must go to the organisers.  The first thing that struck me was the extent of union involvement, and the number of union activists that participated.  The materials that were distributed at the first event, were impressive, i.e. a booklet about the use of language, a booklet entitled 'a trade union guide to the law and good practice', and another booklet entitled, 'representing and supporting members with mental health problems at work'.

A number of different themes (over these two presentations) jump out at me.  The first is the notion of 'struggle'.  I remember a number of different metaphors being used to describe both the experiences and situation, such as 'the tip of the iceberg', and that people are involved in a 'flight' for equality.  Such words, I believe, are very apt, and reflect a relationship between disablism and other civil rights movements.

On the subject of metaphor and words, an important theme is, of course, is language and its use, purely because of the implicit meanings that innocuous words and phrases may convey.  The third and final issue relates to that of responsibility, responsibility in the terms of being able to challenge inappropriate views and behaviour of others.

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