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Disability Conference, 13-14 May 2015 – day 2

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 5 June 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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Christopher Douce

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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Christopher Douce

Disabled student services conference 2014 – day 2

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Jan 2019, 09:39

Keynote: positive thinking

The first keynote of the day was by motivational speaker, David Hodgson.  The title of his session was, ‘the four key ways to happiness and success’ (which was a really very ambitious title, if you ask me!)  I’ve seen David talk before at a staff development day in London, where he encouraged us to reflect upon our Myers-Briggs personality profile.  Apparently, this was the focus of a later workshop that he ran later during the morning.

So, what are the four key ways?  Thankfully, I was sufficiently caffeinated to be able to take a note of them.  They are: (1) know yourself (and the great things that you’re capable of), (2) having self-belief, (3) have a plan (of some kind), and (4) have a growth attitude.   Of course, I’m paraphrasing, but, all in all, these are pretty good points to think about.

David also presented us with a quote from Abraham Maslow, who proposed his eponymous Hierarchy of Needs (Wikipedia).  The quote goes:  ‘If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.’  Maslow might have accompanied that quote with a wagging finger and the words, ‘you really need to sort yourself out’.  I had these words rattling around my head for next two days.

Workshop: Learning design for accessibility

The first workshop of the day was facilitated by Lisette Toetenel and Annie Bryan from the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology.  The focus of the event was a learning design tool that IET had created to help module teams consider different pedagogic approaches.  It has been embedded into the module design process, which means that module chairs have to signify that they’ve engaged with IET’s learning design framework.  Through my involvement with a new module, I had heard a little about it, but I didn’t know the detail.

Learning design was defined as, ‘the practice of planning, sequencing and managing learning activities’, usually using ICT tools to support both design and delivery.  An important point was that both accessibility and important areas such as employability skills need to be considered from the outset (or be ‘woven into’ a design) and certainly not ‘bolted on’ as an after-thought.

The learning design framework is embedded into a tool, which takes the form of a template that either module members or a module chair has to complete.  Its objective is to improve quality, sharing of good practice, speed up decision making process, and manage (and plan) student workload.  The tool has an accompanying Learning Design website  (but you might have to be a member of the university to view this).

During the workshop we were divided up into different tables and asked to read through a scenario.  Our table was given an ‘environmental sciences’ scenario.  We were asked three questions: ‘what exactly do students do [in the scenario], and how do (or might) they spend their time?’ and what accessibility problems they might be confronted with.

The point was clear: it’s important to consider potential barriers to learning as early and as soon as you can.

Keynote: SpLDs – The Elephant in the Counselling Room: recognising dyspraxia in adults

The final keynote of the conference was given by Maxine Roper (personal website).  Maxine describes herself as freelance journalist and writer, and a member of the dyspraxia foundation.

One of the main themes of her keynote was the relationship between dyspraxia and mental health.  Now, I’ll be the first to say that I don’t know very much about dyspraxia.  Here’s what I’ve found on the Dyspraxia Foundation website: ‘Dyspraxia, a form of developmental coordination disorder (DCD) is a common disorder affecting fine and/or gross motor coordination, in children and adults. … dyspraxia [can also refer] to those people who have additional problems planning, organising and carrying out movements in the right order in everyday situations.’

I was struck by how honest and personal Maxine’s talk was.  Dyspraxis is, of course, a hidden disability.  Maxine said that dyspraxics are good at hiding their difficulities and their differences, and spoke at length about the psychological impact.  An interesting statistic is that ‘a dyspraxic child is 4 times more likely to develop significant psychological problems by the age of 16’ (from the Dyspraxia Foundation).

Some of the effects can include seeing other people more capable, being ‘over givers’ with a view to maintaining friendships, but other people might go the other way and become unnecessarily aggressive (as a strategy to covering up ‘difference’).  Sometimes people may get reactive depression in response to the continual challenge of coping.

I found Maxine’s description of the psychological impact of having a hidden disability fascinating – it is a subject that I could very easily relate to because I also have a hidden disability (and one that I have also tried a long time to hide).  This made me ask myself an obvious question that might well have an obvious answer, which was ‘are these thoughts, and the psychological impact common across other types of hidden disabilities?’ 

So, what might the solutions be?  Maxine offered a number of answers: one solution could be to raise awareness.  This would mean awareness amongst students, and amongst student councillors and those who offer support and guidance.

I noted down another sentence that was really interesting and important, and this was the point about coping strategies.  People develop coping strategies to get by, but these coping strategies might not necessarily be the most appropriate or best approach to adopt.  In some cases it might necessary to unpick layers of accumulated strategies to move forward, and doing this has the potential to be really tough.

Maxine’s presentation contained a lot of points, and one of the key one for me (the elephant in the room), was that it’s important to always deal with the person as a whole, and that perhaps there might be (sometimes) other reasons why students might be struggling.

Workshop : Through new eyes – understanding the experience of blind and partially sighted learners

The final workshop of the conference was given by my colleague Richard Walker, who works as an associate lecturer for the Maths Computing and Technology Faculty.  Like Maxine’s keynote, Richard’s spoke from his own experience, and I found his story and descriptions compelling and insightful.

Richard told us that he had worked with a number of blind and partially sighted students over the years.  He challenged us with an interesting statistic: if we consider the number of people in the general population who have visual impairments, and if an associate lecturer tutors a subject for around ten or so years, this means there is a 90% chance that a tutor will encounter a student who has a visual impairment.  The message is clear: we need to be thinking about how to support our students, which also means how we need to support our associate lecturers too.

Richard has had a stroke which has affected his vision.  Overnight, he became a partially sighted tutor.  ‘This changed how I saw the world’, he said. 

One of his comments has clearly stuck in my mind.  Richard said that when he was in hospital he immediately wanted to get back to work.  Richard later started a blog to document and share his experiences, and I’ve also made a note of him saying that he ‘couldn’t wait to start my new career’, and ‘when I got home from hospital I wanted to download some software so I can continue to be an Open University tutor’.

Richard spoke about the human visual system, which was fascinating stuff, where he talked about the working of the eye and our peripheral vision.  He presented simulations of different visual impairments though a series of carefully drawn PowerPoint slides.    On the subject of PowerPoint, he also spoke briefly about how to make PowerPoint accessible.  His tips were: keep bullet points very short, choose background and foreground colours that have a good contrast, and ensure that you have figure descriptions.

I was struck by Richard’s can-do attitude (and I’m sure others were too).  He said, ‘the whole world looks a bit different, and I like learning new stuff, so I learnt it’.  An implication of becoming partially sighted was that this affected his ability it read.  It was a skill that had to be re-learnt or re-discovered, which sounds like a pretty significant feat.  ‘I just kept looking at the lines, and I’ve learnt to read again.  You just experiment [with how to move your eyes] and you see what works’.

When faced the change in his vision, he contacted his staff tutor for advice, and some accommodations were put in place.  Another point that stood out for me was the importance of trust; his line manager clearly trusted Richard’s judgement about what he could and could not do.

Sharing experience

Richard tutors on a module called M250 Object-oriented programming (OU website).  When student study M250 they write small programs using a software development environment.    Richard made the observation that some software development environments can be ‘hostile to assistive technology’, such as screen readers.

Richard is currently tutoring a student who has a visual impairment.  To learn more about the student’s experience, he interviewed the student by email – this led to creation of a ‘script’.  With help from a workshop delegate, Richard re-enacted his interview, where he asked about challenges, assistive technologies, study strategies and what could be done to improve things. We learnt about the use of Daisy talking books (Wikipedia), the fact that everything takes longer, about strategies for interactive with computers, and the design of ‘dead tree’ books that could be read using a scanner.  After the performance, we were set an activity to share views about what we learnt from the interview (if I remember correctly).

Towards the end of the workshop, Richard facilitated a short discussion about new forms of assistive technologies and ubiquitous computing, and how devices such as Google Glass might be useful; thought provoking stuff.

I enjoyed Richard’s session; it was delivered with an infectious enthusiasm and a personal perspective.  The final words that I’ve noted down in my notebook are: ‘it’s not because I’ve got a strength of character, it’s because I love my work … you just have got to get on with it’


Like all the others, this year’s disabled student services conference was both useful and enjoyable.  These events represent an invaluable opportunity to learn new things, to network with colleagues, and to take time out from the day job to reflect on the challenges that learner’s face (and what we might be able to do to make things easier).

For me, there were a couple of highlights.  The first was Keith’s understated but utterly engaging keynote.  The second was Richard Walkers workshop: I had never seen Richard ‘in action’ before, and he did a great job of facilitation.  In terms of learning, I learnt a lot from Maxine’s talk, and it was really interesting to reflect upon the emotional and psychological impact that a hidden disability can have on someone.  I feel it’s an issue that is easily overlooked, and is something that I’ll continue to mull over.  In some respects, it has emphasised, to me, how demanding and important the role of learning support advisors role is to the university.

One question that I have asked myself is: ‘what else could be done within the conference?’  This, I think, is a pretty difficult question to ask, since everything was organised very well, and the whole event was very well attended.

One thought is about drama.  Richard’s session contained a hint of drama, where he used a fellow delegate to read a script of his email interview.  I’ve attended a number of excellent sessions in the East Grinstead region (which is now, sadly, going to be closed) that made use of ‘forum theatre’.  Perhaps this is an approach that could be used to allow us to expose issues and question our own understandings of the needs of our students.  Much food for thought.

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Christopher Douce

Disabled student services conference 2014 – day 1

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Jan 2019, 09:40

I recently attended the university’s disabled student services conference held between 13 and 14 May 2014.  I think this was the third time I’ve been to this event, and every time I go I always learn something new.

This is a quick blog summary of the sessions I attended.  I guess this summary serves a number of purposes.  Firstly, it’s a summary of some of the continuing professional development I’ve been getting up to this year.  Secondly, it might be of interest to any of my students who might be studying H810 accessible e-learning (OU website).  Thirdly, it might be useful to some of my colleagues, or for anyone who accidentally stumbles across this series of two posts.

The complexities of co-occurrence

The first session of the day was presented by my colleague Jonathan Jewell, who works as an associate lecturer for a least three different faculties.  My first thought was, ‘what is meant by co-occurrence?’ - it wasn’t a term I had heard before.  I quickly figured out that it means that a person can have a number of different conditions at the same time.  A big part of his session was about what this might mean in terms of understanding a profile that contains quite a lot of information.

During Jonathan’s session I remember a debate about the terms ‘student-centred’ and ‘person-centred’.  The point was that although a student might be studying a particular module, they are on a programme, and this can, of course relate to a broader set of personal objectives that they might hold.

Every student who discloses a disability may have their own disability profile. The aim of the profile is tell a tutor something about their students to help them to understand what adjustments (in terms of their tuition) they could make.

During Jonathan’s session we looked at a sample profile and thought about it in terms of its strengths and weaknesses.  Our group concluded that the profile we were given contained a lot of information.  A particular weakness was that it contained a lot of quite technical jargon that was quite hard to understand.  A later task was to devise a ‘tutor plan of action’ based on the profile.  A clear point that was mentioned was the importance of establishing early contact with students to ensure that they feel comfortable and supported.

Towards the end of the session, I remember a debate that student profiles can change; some disabilities are temporary.  I also understand that there are now clearer university guidelines about how profiles should be written; a profile written today might be different to how it was written a couple of years ago.

Keynote: REAL services to assist students who identify with Asperger syndrome (AS)

The first keynote of the day was by Nichola Martin who I understand works for the University of Cambridge.  The ‘REAL’ bit of her presentation title is an abbreviation for: reliable, empathic, anticipatory and logical – this idea is that we should be these attributes when we work with people who identify with having Asperger syndrome (AS).  Very early on during her presentation she made the key point that ‘if you’ve met one person with AS, you’ve only met one person with AS’. 

Nichola also exposed us to stereotypes from the media, which she asked us to question.  The use of language is fundamentally important too, i.e. the term ‘condition’ is better than ‘disorder’ which suggests that something is fundamentally wrong.  Another interesting point is that the characteristics of people can change over time, a point that neatly connects back to the previous session about the changing nature of student profiles.

A big part of Nichola’s presentation was to share some findings from a research project that studied the views of students.  Its aim was to develop a model of best practice for student with AS, improve access to diagnosis, raise awareness and develop networks.

One really important point is about the importance of clear language; always be clear in what you either say or write.  An important point that I have noted is that if we make accommodations for one group, this is likely to help all students.  Stating clear assumptions in a clear and respectful way is, of course, useful for everyone. 

Another point is that institutions can be difficult to negotiate, particularly during the early stage of study.  If things are chaotic at the beginning of university study, it might be difficult to get back onto an even keel.  Some challenges that students might face can include finding their way through new social environments.  I’ve noted down a quote which goes, ‘my main barriers have been social and I find large groups of people I don’t know intimidating – as a result, I rarely attend lectures and often feel alone’.

There were some really interesting points about disability and identity which deserve further reflection.  Some students choose not to disclose and don’t go anywhere near the disability services part of the university.  Students may not want ‘special services’, since this hints at the notion of ‘othering’, or the emphasis of difference.  If people don’t want to talk about their personal circumstances, that is entirely their right.

We were told that Asperger’s and autism are terms that are used interchangeably, and this is reflected in the most recent publication of the DSM (Wikipedia, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

There were a number of things that were new to me, such as The Autism Act 2009 (National Autistic Society), and The Autism Strategy 2010 (National Autistic Society), which has been recently updated.  Another interesting and useful link is a video interview produced by the National Autistic Society (YouTube).   It was also great to hear that Nichola also mentioned OU module SK124 understanding the autism spectrum (OU website). 

All in all, a thought provoking talk.

Workshop: Student Support Teams and Disabled Students Support

The next event I went to was a workshop where different members of the newly formed student support teams (SSTs) were brought together to discuss the challenges of supporting students who have disabilities.  Again, the subject of student profiles was also discussed.

My own perspective (regarding student support teams) is one that has been really positive.  Whenever I’ve come across an issue when I needed to help a student (or a tutor) with a particular problem, I’ve always been able to speak with a learning support advisor who have always been unstintingly helpful.  I personally feel that now there are more people who I can speak to regarding advice and guidance.

Keynote: The life of a mouth artist

The final keynote of the day was a really enjoyable and insightful talk by artist, Keith Jansz.  Keith began by telling us about his background.  After being involved in a car accident, in which he was significantly paralysed, he started to learn how to draw and paint after being given a book about mouth artists by his mother in law. 

Keith spoke how he learnt how to paint, describing the process that he went through.  Being someone who has a low opinion of my own abilities when it comes to using a pencil, I found his story fascinating.  I enjoyed Keith’s descriptions of light, colour, and the creative process. What struck me were the links between creativity, learning and self-expression; all dimensions that are inextricably intertwined. 

I thought his talk was a perfect keynote for this conference.   It was only afterwards that the implicit connections between Keith’s talk and the connections with university study became apparent. Learning, whatever form it may take, can be both life changing and life affirming.

During the conference, there was an accompanying exhibition of Keith’s work.  You can also view a number of his paintings on his website.

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Christopher Douce

OU Disabled Student Services Conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 22 Jan 2019, 09:40

I've have a fun couple of days.  I recently attended the Open University's 2010 Disabled Student Services conference.  Okay, I admit, I probably gate crashed the event since I'm not a member of the DSS group, but it was certainly a very worthwhile thing to do.  On more than one occasion colleagues said to me, 'it's great to have someone like you here; we certainly need more faculty at these events'.

The overall objectives of the conference were to develop greater awareness of issues affecting the sector, to gain information about developments within the University, gain a greater understanding of the needs of specific disabilities, work towards more standardised delivery of services and, of course, to find out what each other does.

For me, this conference was all about learning about the different roles that people have, and what information needed to be shared to ensure that all our learners get the best possible service.

Tuesday 9th November

A conference is not really a conference without a keynote.  The first day kicked off with a keynote by Will Swann who is responsible for the development, promotion and evaluation of services to support the teaching of students.

The part of Will's presentation that jumped out at me was a concise presentation of the potential ramifications of changes to Higher Education funding.  One thing was clear: things are going to change, but we're not quite sure exactly how they will change.  The changes may affect those students who wish to study for personal development as opposed to choosing to study for purely economic and career development reasons.  Underneath is an interesting philosophical debate about what higher education is good for.  Essentially, Will asked us to consider the challenge of how to maintain effective provision of services in a world where change is a certainty.

First workshop

Following the keynote, we were led toward the first set of workshops.  I attended a workshop that perhaps had the longest title: Exceptional examination arrangements and special circumstances, policies and procedures.  The event was facilitated by Ilse Berry and Peter Taylor.  Peter is the chair of the subcommittee which makes decisions about very many things exam related, such as whether individual students may be able to defer exams (due to changes in personal circumstances), or whether alternative examination arrangements could be organised.

I got a lot out of this first workshop: I gained more of an understanding of the procedures and policies, and the effect that the Disability Discrimination Act (now the Equality Act) has on these policies.  There was some debate about whether everyone knows everything they should know to best advise our students.  There was some discussion about Associate Lecturers, and I feel that I need to ask whether it might be possible to offer some internal staff development training to those who most closely work with students.

I also learnt quite a bit about the range of different examination arrangements that can be put in place.  I never knew that an exam could be taken over an extended period of time, for example.  It was all very thought provoking and showed me how much we try to collectively help.

Student session

I was unable to attend the afternoon event due to a meeting with a colleague in another department, but I was able to return to the conference in time to hear one of the student sessions.  Alex Wise, a student with dyslexia gave a very clear description of some of the challenges that he has faced during his educational career.  He also described some of the strategies and adaptations he both uses and has discovered.

Alex's presentation underlined a number of different points for me.  Firstly, the complexity and uniqueness of conditions such as dyslexia (I briefly studied the very broad subject of language processing when I was a postgrad student, but I was sorely missing a 'personal' perspective).  Secondly, the fact that effective strategies may only be discovered through a combination of hard won experience and trial and error.  A final point is that strategies and tools need not necessarily be high tech.

Wednesday 10th November

The second day (much like the first) was a delight.  In true academic style, I duly forgot which workshop I had signed up for, and was directed towards a session entitled, 'Sensory impairment: science course for screen readers, and D/eaf students and Openings courses - access for all?', presented by Jeff Bashton and Julie Morrison.  I was later to discover that it was two workshops for the price of one.  I had certainly chosen wisely.

Jeff works as a visual impairment advisor for the Open University.  He introduced the science project he is working on (which is a work in progress), and then he had a treat in store for all delegates.  One by one, we all donned blindfolds that Julie had given us, and we began to study two tactile diagrams (using only our touch).

I found both tactile diagrams unfathomable (which is, pretty much, an understatement!)  I could do nothing more than explore the boundaries of each diagram and get a rough understanding about its size and shape (and how the different elements were related spatially).  I couldn't make a jump from lines and bumps through to understanding a picture as a whole.  This, of course, was one of the points.  The tactile diagrams that I was presented with proved to be totally confusing without accompanying auditory descriptions.

Julie 'talked us through' each image (using our fingers!)  When I removed my blindfold, I was surprised by what I saw - it bore hardly any relationship to what I thought I was 'seeing'.

During the second part of the workshop Julie spoke about her with the British Sign Language, where she presented a small number of case studies to highlight the challenges that BSL users might face when trying to study.  To BSL users, English is, of course, a second language.  Julie's overview of the history of deaf education (and the role that Alexander Graham Bell played) was illuminating.  Thanks Julie!

This second workshop ended with a demonstration of how tough it can be to understand digital materials.  Taking a particularly accessible course as an example, Julie showed us a video without sound (it was an interview which had no subtitles of signing).  We then had a look at the transcript of the video.  The transcript contained all the peculiarities of expression that you find whenever you write down spoken language.  It was briefly considered that perhaps different learners may benefit from different versions of the same materials, which is one of the ideas embedded within the EU4ALL project I worked on for a couple of years.

A fabulous afternoon...

I struggled to give a name to the section of the conference where the delightful and charming Francesca Martinez came to talk to us for an hour or so.  It was only after just under a week of wondering did I come up with this final subheading.

I'm not joking; Francesca had us all rolling in the isles of the conference hall with laughter with a delicious mixture of political and observational stories.  There was, however, a serious tone that resonated clearly with the objectives of the conference: everyone is connected by a common thread of humanity regardless of who we are and what personal circumstances we face. 

Francesca is the best kind of comedian; one who makes us think about ourselves and the absurdities that we face.  I, for one, ended the day thinking to myself, 'I need to seize the day more'.  And seizing the day can, of course, mean making time to find out about new things (and having fun too, of course!) Linking this to studying, it is more than possible to find an abundance of fun in learning and maintain optimism about the way in which the fun present may potentially give rise to a fabulous future.


So, what were the overriding themes that I took away from the conference?  The first one was communication: we all need to talk to each other because internal policies (as well as external legislation) are subject to perpetual change and evolution.  Talk is an eternal necessity (which is what I continue to try to tell my colleagues when I sneak off to the cafe area...)

The second theme is that of information: advisors as well as students need information to make effective decisions about whether or not to take a course of study.  Accessibility, it was stated, wasn't just a matter of making sure that materials are available in different formats.  It also relates to whether or not materials can be study-able too, and this goes back to whether, for example, individual learning activities.

The final theme relates to challenges that are inherent within the changing political and economic climate.  Whilst education is priceless, it always has a financial cost.  Different ways to pay for education has the potential to affect the decision making of those who may wish to study for a wide range of different reasons (and not just to 'get a better job').

Consider, for example, a hypothetical potential student (who is incidentally fabulous) who might just 'try out' a module just to find out if he or she likes it, who then goes on to discover they are more than capable of degree level study.  A stumbling block to access is, of course, always going to be cost.  As mentioned in the conference keynote, there will be the need for creative solutions to ensure that all students are continued to be presented with equal opportunities to study.

The DSS conference has shown, to me, how much work goes behind the scenes (and how much still needs to be done) to ensure equal opportunity to study remains a reality for all.

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