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.
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.