Accessibility, pedagogy and reasonable adjustments

Adjustments for all

This activity on ‘Accessibility, pedagogy and reasonable adjustments’ discusses considering the needs of disabled students in terms of the concept of reasonable adjustments and the potential impact of a disability on achieving learning objectives. The activity asks you to consider some specific course scenarios and your responses to them. The subsequent activity, ‘Specifying, designing and evaluating accessibility’, goes on to look at design decisions in the development of accessible learning resources, and the evaluation of accessibility. The activity asks you to return to the scenarios from ‘Accessibility, pedagogy and reasonable adjustments’, and then to use two automated accessibility checking tools to check the accessibility of a web page.

Earlier in this course you created a list of online course activities that might be challenging for disabled students and suggested some possible solutions. In ‘Accessibility, pedagogy and reasonable adjustments’ we look at challenging activities in the wider educational context and at some principles to consider when you are faced with making adjustments to your teaching delivery.

In Section 1 'Introducing accessibility and disability', we said ‘We have included accessibility in this course because the needs of disabled students have to be taken into account when considering how to deliver and support distance teaching.’ We also gave three motivating factors: ethics, usability and legal requirements.

In addition to the points made there, you might like to consider the effects of the increasing numbers of older students in higher education (see National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a part of the US Department of Education).

Many of the features of an accessible online learning system are helpful to older people who would not consider themselves disabled. Features that enable you to increase font sizes and to pause or slow down an activity are ones that many older students (and teachers) might relate to.

Disability discrimination legislation

This activity uses the UK Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) Part 4 as the basis for discussing the concept of making reasonable adjustments. The DDA may not apply to you directly, but many countries have similar legislation. We feel the underlying principles of such legislation reflect the moral standpoint or the right thing to do, regardless of whether or not legislation exists.

Pedagogy and reasonable adjustments

It has always been part of the OUs mission to make higher education available to all potential students, regardless of background or circumstance. To quote the OU mission statement: ‘It promotes educational opportunity and social justice by providing high-quality university education to all who wish to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential.’

The DDA Part 4 makes it clear that education providers are responsible for:

  • anticipating that they will have disabled students

  • making reasonable adjustments to provide the same or equivalent opportunities to study.

This is a challenge to all institutions whether they deliver courses face to face or at a distance. Those of us who provide elearning courses or online course components face two more challenges:

  • Our students may apply two or more years after the design stage of the course. Some may have needs we have not encountered before and are, therefore, difficult to anticipate.

  • We have to make adjustments that will work outside the institution's physical boundaries. We may not know precisely what equipment a student is using or whether they have easy access to help with unexpected barriers. We often do not know whether they are new users or expert users of their assistive technology.

Institutions that have an open admissions policy have to acknowledge a further factor; prospective students may not have studied their chosen subject in a formal learning context since they became disabled.

This means that students may not have had help to develop study strategies appropriate to their disabilities and in their chosen subject area. For example, a visually impaired student who has been to a school with specialist teachers is likely to be familiar with a wide range of assistive technology and methods for producing coursework. A student with a similar disability who has not had this experience will need to learn new study techniques at the same time as embarking on a course.

All of these factors mean that forward planning, building in flexibility and allowing students to customise interfaces are the keys to making courses as inclusive as possible.

Reasonable adjustments and responsibility

In completing the accessibility activities the first three sections of this course, you should have gained an appreciation of the range of challenges that might be anticipated. As technology and assistive technology develop, some barriers may be removed only to be replaced by new ones. It's useful to understand the principles that form the basis of adjustments, rather than simply following guidelines. The learning environment is constantly changing, as are the tools and skills of disabled students. It's important to be confident that you can re-interpret the principles and be flexible in your response to these changes.

One principle should remain at the forefront of any discussion – the aim should be to provide access to the teaching, not necessarily to the technology. This is sometimes overlooked by software developers in their enthusiasm for technical fixes.

The concept of reasonable adjustments is common to many countries’ disability legislation. It allows for flexibility and dialogue between provider and disabled person and is gradually defined by codes of practice and case law. All members of an institution share responsibility for making adjustments and we take the view that the primary responsibility for access to the curriculum lies with those who design and deliver the teaching. Many of the decisions about adjustments depend on an understanding of the pedagogy that underpins the course: what is the intended learning outcome of a piece of work?

There are a number of actions it is reasonable to expect course providers to take and some that are not reasonable in some circumstances. These are discussed in the sections ‘What is reasonable?’ and ‘What is not reasonable?’

The DDA Part 4 Code of Practice, which accompanies the Act, provides some examples of reasonable and unreasonable adjustments. This document can be found on the Disability Rights Campaign website.

We take the view that even if all the elements of a course cannot be made accessible, it is important to make adjustments to those that can. For example, it may be impossible to describe very complicated diagrams effectively unless you can have a real-time conversation with the student. You may have to recommend that the student has help from a support worker for this. You should still supply descriptions for straightforward diagrams as this will reduce the student's dependence on others.

Disabled students often use a combination of methods to engage with course material: sometimes using technology, sometimes using helpers and sometimes managing to cope unaided but with great effort. The more accessible you can make each component, the more the student's own energy can be reserved for those components that are problematic. The following view, expressed by a student who took part in an OU project in 1977, very aptly sums this up.

There is a point beyond which I cannot be helped. I will not be able to read any faster, no matter how large the magnification. I will never better my current speed and if my sight deteriorates further, I anticipate having to rely on voice technology exclusively. The point is that it takes me ten times as long as anybody else to read the text and make notes. Anything that can speed that process or make it less laborious is an advantage, not just in terms of the amount of time needed to study, but also in the attitude one is likely to have towards study; whether one approaches it with pleasant anticipation, grim determination or the hopelessness that accompanies so much of disability. For many disabled people, every morning is the start of a new mountain to climb. For those who wish to study, there are many obstacles to overcome in order to get to the foothills of study. Anything that means that one spends less time dealing with one's disability and more time actually studying is greatly to be desired.

Source: Open University Project ‘Alternative media for print disabled students’: Web Page 1997 (no longer available)

It is important not to assume a limitation just because you cannot imagine a solution. As a simple example, the first question some people ask when told blind people use computers isn't ‘How can they read the screen?’, it's ‘How do they use the keyboard when they can't see the keys?’ The answer, of course, is that they learn to touch-type, as do many sighted people.

It's tempting to say ‘I don't think a student with X disability can do my course’. A better approach would be to ask ‘How can I help a student with X disability to study my course more easily? What reasonable adjustment can I make that will not disadvantage other students?’

The problem facing people who manage resources for supporting disabled students is how to interpret the term ‘reasonable’. The sections ‘What is reasonable?’ and ‘What is not reasonable?’ list our interpretation of what you should do and what you are not expected to do.

What is reasonable?

Do – anticipate that there may be disabled students

Every subject area is likely to have potential disabled students. Regardless of any feeling that you may have that students with particular disabilities will never want to do your course, you have to consider that they might apply and that you have a duty to consider your response.

Do – identify challenging activities

There are two types of learning barrier for disabled students.

  1. Challenges inherent in the learning objectives, such as the challenges that face deaf students who wish to study modern languages.

  2. Challenges posed by the teaching method, such as those that face deaf students when using audioconferencing.

You don't have to be an expert in disability to recognise that:

  • someone with no useful sight will need an alternative to print

  • a deaf person will need a transcript of audio components

  • someone who cannot hold a stylus will have problems using some mobile devices.

As an educational practitioner, and having completed the previous accessibility activities, you should be able to recognise the parts of a course that present barriers to learning.

Do – consider the impact of alternative study methods and helpers

The impact is related to the two types of barrier mentioned above and the intended learning outcomes of an activity. For example, does it contradict the learning objectives if a deaf student relies on a transcript or subtitles for a specific activity? A student may wish to use a helper for course components that cannot be made accessible to them. Returning to the example of someone who cannot hold a stylus, will it be the same experience if they observe someone else using a mobile device?

Do – provide alternative academic content

There is a difference between supplying deaf students with a simple transcript of an interview, which is a straightforward translation between formats, and providing blind students with an alternative to a visual image. In some cases, a transcript may require an academic decision about whether to transcribe every ‘um’ and ‘er’ or background noise. Decisions about alternative academic content need to be taken by the author of a resource, or someone with the same understanding of the intended pedagogy.

When considering descriptions of visual material, decisions about what should be described and what depth of description is necessary are closely linked to the learning objective of the image (OU ‘Guidelines for describing visual teaching material’). Is it a graph, which students must read information from, or is it a photograph of the author, which is interesting but doesn't contribute to the teaching? If it is associated with a question, can the image be described without giving away the answer?

Descriptions could be provided by support staff who may not be subject specialists. This leads to very detailed but very long descriptions, which add to the extra time load already experienced by disabled students. We have found that in some subjects only a small proportion of images require a very detailed description for visually impaired students, although the graphics are very useful for most students.

Do – provide information

Clear information for students and advisors is essential. Disabled students need to know whether they can complete all the learning objectives and what adjustments they can expect. They need this information in good time before they start the course so that they can plan ahead. We have more to say on this subject in the section, ‘Informing students’.

Do – seek additional funding for expensive adjustments

If a reasonable adjustment requires extra resources, such as using more expensive but accessible software, course providers should ask whether their institutions receive government funding for disabled students and bid for extra resources.

What is not reasonable?

Don't – alter courses to the disadvantage of non-disabled students

Educators are not expected to make changes that would make the course less effective for most other students. For example, audioconferencing may be a valuable tool that has a positive effect on students’ grades. In this case, you would not be expected to abandon it, even if the audioconferencing cannot be made accessible for deaf students.

Health and safety for all students also has to be maintained, although it is rare for there to be a conflict.

Don't – compromise academic standards

If you make adjustments in examinations and assessments, you must still be satisfied that a student is being assessed against the same learning objectives as other students.

Don't – compromise requirements of external bodies

If your course is provided for an external body, you should discuss with them any adjustments that may conflict with their requirements.

Don't – compromise budgets

If you have explored all possible funding sources and still cannot afford an expensive adjustment, you are not expected to put the rest of the course and provision for other students at risk. Again, in countries with disability discrimination legislation, you must be prepared to defend your position if a student brings a legal case against you.

If you decide that the nature of the course means that it is highly unlikely that a student with a particular disability will ever apply, it may be considered defensible not to provide an adjustment for that disability. You should still be prepared to justify your decision and to have a risk strategy in place to manage the situation if a student with that disability does apply.

Learning objectives

 What if a learning objective CAN'T be achieved?

What can you do if you have considered all the adjustments appropriate for a particular student and you have determined that they can't achieve the learning objective?

Record your decisions

If you are subject to disability discrimination legislation, it is important to record your reasoning in case a student decides to make a legal challenge. Record who was responsible for taking the decision and the pedagogic and practical grounds that led to their decision.

You also have to decide whether a student can still pass the course even if they can't achieve all the learning objectives.

It is important to stand back for a moment and compare this situation with that of a non-disabled student who chooses not to study all of the material on the course. While you may hold the view that all students must study all the material, in practice there will always be students who skip material that doesn't relate directly to an assessment.

As an example, one OU course had an activity that required students to study visual resources and to draw their own conclusions about the images’ significance. The course team felt that descriptions for visually impaired students would not satisfy the learning outcome and that they should be discouraged from doing the course. Further consideration revealed that it was possible for any student to substitute the assessment score of this activity with the assessment score of an alternative activity. So it was possible for any student to achieve a good grade without completing the visual resources activity. Descriptions were not supplied for this activity, but they were supplied for other parts of the course where visual judgements were not required.

So, make sure that you are not expecting disabled students to prove that they have carried out an activity independently, unless you are asking all students to provide evidence of this in your assessment scheme.

If the objectives CAN be achieved

If a major learning objective cannot be achieved, this should be apparent from the early stage of course planning. Once the learning objectives have been considered, the accessibility of each component of a course should be examined.

Responsibility for delivering adjustments varies between organisations. Some higher education institutions may have a centralised system for providing web-based resources, with a central responsibility for accessibility. The institutions may also have a system for providing accessible alternatives to print and other components. In other cases, individuals or course teams make their own arrangements.

It is our view that those who are responsible for the teaching content are also responsible for its accessibility, regardless of how this is technically achieved. In a centralised system, teachers should still be actively involved in identifying potential learning barriers. They should request that web designers follow accessibility guidelines and the teachers should provide alternative academic content such as descriptions of essential graphics. They may devolve some tasks but if, for example, that task is the writing of descriptions, the teacher must be satisfied the descriptions are academically sound.

Informing students

Students need accurate information about accessibility before they enrol on a course. This may seem like common sense, but it is a significant contributor to students’ legal complaints. It is important that details of reasonable adjustments are carefully recorded, including the limitations of alternative formats and accessible design. The second accessibility activity, ‘Specifying, designing and evaluating accessibility’, will look more closely at specifying and evaluating web resources and software.

Assuming that you have accurate information, students need to know:

  • how much of the course is accessible – will they still be able to pass?

  • whether they can use a non-medical helper – will that contradict the learning objectives?

  • when in the timetable the challenges will occur – when will they need most support?

  • what types of alternative/accessible media will be provided – how much will they have independent access to?

The challenge of supplying correct and timely information is one that is currently under review at the OU. The majority of prospective OU disabled students rely on the printed prospectus and online information for course choice. Although all the information about courses recommends that disabled students contact an advisor, only about ten per cent do so before they enrol.