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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.