I chaired the UCISA Managers’ Forum today on Supporting users with disabilities. The day was full of good presentations which will be available from the UCISA website shortly but there were a number of recurring themes that are worth pulling out and sharing.
Firstly, although many people made reference to accessibility it was clear that the emphasis should be on inclusion – in other words ensuring that disabled people are able to participate in the activities of all students and staff and thus feel included in those activities. There is evidence that provision of assistive technologies benefit all – research by Forrester Data suggested that nearly 60% of the baby boomer generation benefited from using such technologies but it is not just the 40 plusses that can benefit. One example cited was the use of audio files, primarily created to describe objects to students with visual impairments being used by all students to enhance their understanding of the topic. Another example was the use document reading software to create an MP3 file of documents which can then be listened to at leisure rather than having to find time to sit down and read them.
A number of the presentations highlighted work to embed inclusion in institutional policies and procedures. Where this had taken place it was clear that a major factor to success was senior management support and buy-in. However it seems that the institutions presenting were the exceptions and not the rule. There is still a need to raise awareness of accessibility issues amongst senior institutional management and a need to improve the links between the work of disability support services in institutions with IT and Library support sections. Staff development is also key to success. This includes training for IT support staff but also raising awareness of inclusion issues amongst academic staff.
A number of institutions have made significant progress in developing support policies and units as a result of capital funding. However some are now struggling to find the resource to update the software they had bought. This highlights the need to ensure that accessibility becomes a mainstream activity with the resulting developments seen as something that can deliver real benefits to all staff and students something and not just something that has to be done to comply with legislation.
The day concluded with a presentation on a partnership between Nottingham Trent and Desire2Learn which highlighted a way of delivering improvements in accessibility in commercial software. The partnership looks likely to deliver further enhancements but it drew into question as to whether accessibility is on the radar of many software suppliers. Perhaps the way forward is to include a clause in tender documents requiring an appreciation of such issues and a willingness to work towards solutions – it could be that suppliers only start to be proactive in addressing such issues when it becomes a tender requirement.