I was reading the healthcare supplement in today’s Guardian which was about looking after one’s eyes when I came across some articles about the impact of blindness/visual impairment on employment prospects. Apparently two thirds of people with severe visual impairments are unemployed and the same number again have no formal qualifications, and this is in a country (the UK) with quite robust disability legislation. I must admit I was a little shocked at those figures. Why should I be shocked? Well, I work as Assistive Technology Advisor in NUI Maynooth, one of seven Irish universities and one that is rapidly establishing a reputation for excellence in accommodating learners with disabilities. On Tuesday, I was in UCC, my alma mater, to attend a meeting of people in the sector involved in the production and distribution of material in alternative formats.
Alternative format (AF), as you may know, involves ensuring that text is easily available and accessible to those who have difficulty with printed material. AF may include Braille, audio or PDF, but the consensus is that material in simple text or HTML gives users the most flexibility.
At the meeting were representatives from various Irish universities, many of whom gave presentations on the work they do to help ensure that the ‘print disabled’ have access to core and other texts. It was a fascinating morning and I was struck (and heartened) by the passion shown by these people in the various ways they chose to facilitate learners in their academic pursuits.
At NUIM, we have only had one student who was blind (so far). we currently have three students with visual impairments but the bulk of students registered with the Disability Office are those with dyslexia, who also benefit hugely from having easy access to material in accessible digital format. From September we will text-to-speech software available on all PCs across campus, which will greatly benefit many students with milder forms of dyslexia. This, along with the increasing use of Moodle by faculty and moves to encourage good practice in the creation of digital documents, is helping to make the environment at the university conducive to many with print disabilities. But not all.
Some 66% of blind or partially sighted people of working age are unemployed, and nearly the same number again (67%) have no formal qualifications, according to latest figures.
So, despite all the good work and the availablity of technological solutions, a shockingly high number of people are not getting any formal qualifications in the UK. What’s going wrong?
As people involved in education/technology in education, we need to push the accessibility agenda as much as possible. If a new tool or elearning strategy is being promoted, we need to question its accessibility to all. Last year, a company approached NUIM with an essay writing module that could be added to Moodle. Luckily, the university approached te Disability Office for our opinion on it before they agreed to purchase. It turned out that, while the content was excellent and the interface was pretty, it was Flash-based and caused unnecessary difficulties for learners using screenreaders such as JAWS. We recommended that the company provide a HTML or text-based accessible version or else we could not purchase (interestingly, we cannot by law purchase inaccessible services!).
There have been situations alas, where institutions have not consulted others about the accessibility of services and gone ahead, putting themselves at legal risk but also excluding the needs of learners. And often needlessly, sometimes all it takes is a little rewrite, a little consideration in formatting, to ensure greater inclusivity. No great sacrifice.
If we are vigilant here, we can encourage good practice in the creation of accessible elearning strategies which benefit all.
And we can get that shocking statistic down to something more reasonable.