Considering disabled people

1.2 Considering disabled people

Disabled people were among the early adopters of personal computers. They were quick to appreciate that word processing programs and printers gave them freedom from dependence on others to read and write for them. Some became very knowledgeable about what could be achieved and used their knowledge to become independent students at a high level. They also gained the confidence to ask that providers of education make adjustments so that disabled students could make better use of course software and the web, rather than just word processing.

For some disability groups, information in electronic format (whether computer-based or internet-based) can be more accessible than printed information. For example, people who have limited mobility or limited manual skills can find it difficult to obtain or hold printed material; visually impaired people can find it difficult or impossible to read print, but both these groups can be enabled to use a computer and, therefore, access the information electronically.

Online communication can enable disabled students to communicate with their peers on an equal basis. For example, a deaf student may find it difficult to interact in a face-to-face tutorial, but have no difficulty interacting when using a text conferencing system in which everyone types and reads text. In addition, people's disabilities are not necessarily visible in online communication systems; so disabled people do not have to declare their disability and are not perceived as being different.

The demand from disabled students may be sufficient justification for meeting their needs, but there are three main factors that motivate educators to consider the needs of disabled people in course design.


1.2.1 Ethics

The first factor is ethics. Disabled people should not be excluded from using any product, device or service if it is at all possible to avoid this: disabled people have the same rights as non-disabled people to access goods and services. Teachers generally try to write material that reflects the experiences of women, as well as men and those of people from diverse backgrounds, to make a course inclusive and ‘pedagogically accessible’. This good practice should be extended to include reflecting the experiences of disabled people and ensuring that there are no barriers to their participation in the course.

1.2.2 Usability

The second factor is good practice. In general terms, and business terms, it is good practice to make a product available to as wide a market as possible. A design that incorporates the requirements for disabled students is likely to be more accessible and useful for non-disabled students than a design without such consideration. One example would be a user interface that is usable by a blind person will also be usable by a person whose eyes are busy (for example people who are doing a task that requires visual concentration, such as driving a vehicle, or operating machinery, such as a crane) or who cannot interact visually because they are using a service via the telephone. Another example is a user interface that is usable by someone who cannot use their hands will also be usable by a person whose hands are busy or currently not available (for example people who are carrying something, such as shopping or a child, who need to use a swipecard, or controlling many aspects of a device, such as flying an aeroplane).

There are some instances of conflict between the needs of disability groups. For example, the bumpy paving stones used in the UK to indicate a road crossing place to blind people can cause difficulties for people who are infirm. Bohman (2003) describes the perceived conflict between the needs of people with cognitive disabilities and the needs of visually impaired people. The former group can find textual information challenging and may prefer pictorial representations, whereas the latter group cannot see pictures and require textual information. However, Bohman argues that a website designed for cognitively disabled people can be made accessible to visually impaired people by the provision of text alternatives to the graphics. There are, therefore, some limitations to the concept of ‘one size fits all’ but in most cases the needs of most people can be catered for without causing difficulties for other groups.

1.2.3 Legal requirements

The third factor is legal obligation. In many countries it is unlawful to discriminate against disabled people as employees, as students, and as consumers of goods and services. Legislation requires employers, education establishments, and providers of goods and services to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to avoid discriminating against disabled people.

In practice this means that, where ‘reasonable’, websites, software, buildings and other entities involved in employment, education or other services need to be made accessible. Many countries have extended this to require that the needs of disabled people should be anticipated thus providing access beforehand, not waiting until a disabled person asks for it. This means that a provider of a service cannot justify not making an adjustment by saying that they do not have any disabled customers; they need to anticipate that they may have disabled customers in the future.

Most government websites have links to legislation; we have listed some resources in the reference section.