“If you get it right for these learners – it will support all learners!”

Following the shocking findings from research into accessibility and technology in colleges for blind and partially sighted students, the Association of Colleges (AOC) and Thomas Pocklington Trust hosted an event for FE staff to understand the problems and discuss solutions.

A hidden population

David Holloway, Policy Manager SEND at AOC opened the event and made the point that, although only 0.5% of young learners in the college system declare themselves as visually impaired (VI), research indicates there may well be a hidden population of students who are not declaring this. In addition, there may be learners who have not entered the Further Education (FE) system due to accessibility issues. So, the number of potential students experiencing the barriers identified in the report could be much higher.

He said: “We were dismayed when we saw the report. By taking action we can provide inclusive education.”

The research

Tara Chattaway, Head of Education at TPT, gave an overview of the research and the reasons it was commissioned. She said: “In our work supporting students, we were getting regular reports on the barriers students faced in colleges and evidence of students ‘churning’ in FE. Blind and partially sighted (BPS) students are among the highest achievers of all SEN groups but one of the highest groups that then become NEET. We wanted to understand why.”

Empathising with the pressures colleges face, Tara said: “We understand the difficulties in finding solutions. For this reason, we created our ‘Making College Accessible’ guide. This is a brilliant resource with practical steps colleges can take to improve accessibility that would benefit all learners.”

How to improve accessibility

Fil McIntyre, Assistive Technology Lead at TechAbility, provided tips and ideas on how to improve accessibility. He structured this into three main areas:
1 – Get it right at the source
2 – Give staff the skills and tools
3 – Ensure learners have the skills and tools

1 – Get it right at source

Fil shared the acronym ‘SCULPT’ for creating accessible documents – whether online resources/sites, documents and learning materials or presentations for display. Developed by the University of Reading, it stands for Structure, Colour, Use of images, Links, Plain English, Table structure and acts as an aide memoire for the six principles in designing accessible learning materials.

He also shared the poster ‘Designing for diverse learners’ from the University of Hull.

He said: “These Do’s and don’ts tell you how to get it right! Both are free. Get them printed and displayed for your staff teams. If you get it right for these learners – it will support all learners!”

2 – Give staff the skills and tools

Fil outlined the accessibility tools that colleges will already have such as the accessibility checker in Word, PPT and Outlook. He stressed that colleges need a perception shift for staff.

He said: “Change will happen when checking for accessibility becomes a habit. In the same way, when we finish a document we spell check it – resources are not seen as complete until accessibility is addressed and it becomes everyone’s responsibility.”

He highlighted the training available to colleges from AllAble, Ability Net, and TechAbility but also pointed out that some college staff may already have this knowledge and could deliver internal training.

3 – Ensure learners have the skills and tools

The tools learners need may be within the technology students use on a daily basis. For example, there are accessibility tools built into phones, tablets and computers such as the magnifier on iPhones and free apps for reading out text. The first point of call should be to ask the learner what they need.

His three recommendations to colleges from this session were:
• Get the posters for SCUPLT and designing for diverse learners printed, distributed among staff and put up around college.
• Share the resources, such as the Making College Accessible guide, with your team at your college.
• Make accessibility checking as important as spell-checking.

Legal implications

George Rhodes, Director at AllAble, which carried out the research on behalf of TPT, explained the legal implications for colleges that fail to implement accessibility regulations.

He explained the Public Sector Bodies Regulations 2018 requires public sector bodies to take necessary measures to make their websites and mobile apps more accessible by making them perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. This covers websites, the student application process, prospectus, learning materials, virtual learning environment, lecture recordings, intranets and online platforms.

Moreover, he warned that monitoring is ramping up and the Equality and Human Rights Commission could commence action against colleges failing to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.

Urgent actions he encouraged everyone to do:

• Test public facing websites, student application journeys, external communications routes and other systems.
• Implement the high level and practical actions outlined in the ‘Making College Accessible’ guide
• Get leadership buy in on accessibility improvements
• Publish an accessibility statement – there are templates online and within the ‘Making College Accessible’ guide.
• Consider staff training

Making College Accessible

Alex Henderson, Student Support Co-ordinator at TPT then outlined the practical actions contained in the Making College Accessible’ guide and shared some examples of students he has supported.

He added: “While there needs to be wider systemic and policy change, there is still a lot we can do right now – starting today – that would make a massive difference to the lives of blind and partially sighted students.”

The guide contains simple and straightforward actions to improve accessibility in colleges. This includes:

1. Implement a digital accessibility policy
2. Assess and test your systems and resources for accessibility
3. Implement accessibility from beginning to end
4. Invest in training
5. Procuring accessible systems and resources
6. Engage with students

Alex said: “All staff must be supported in making this happen. It is harder to bolt on accessibility afterwards than building this in at the start. Everyone creating content should ensure it is accessible. It should not be someone else’s responsibility to ensure their content is accessible. It is just so important to embed this into everyone’s work.

“To deliver an accessible learning experience needs upskilling of staff but this does not necessarily mean a lengthy course or great expense.

Colleges often find it hard to respond to queries from BPS students. In the guide we have a checklist process for colleges to follow and a handy list of questions that a BPS student might ask. With this, you can then ensure that frontline staff have all the right information to handle these enquiries effectively. I would absolutely recommend you share the guide with your teams and staff.”

Assistive technology can be a game changer!

Alex, who is partially sighted himself, said: “The right piece of kit can transform the experience of a BPS learner. I wouldn’t be able to do my job without the right assistive technology.

“Assistive technology is there to support students. Try to work with them to explore different options. Knowing what tech is out there is half the battle. We hosted a webinar that outlined the assistive technology available for education. You can watch the recording of this.”

More practical tools for accessibility

RNIB and TPT created a guide Delivering Accessible Learning. This outlines the needs of BPS students, how to make teaching accessible and what funding is available.

Alex shared the impact of inaccessible learning: “It can be heart-breaking hearing some of the stories. Often the main issue is around accessibility. It doesn’t have to be this way! There is no reason electronic documents and platforms cannot be made accessible. It is everyone’s responsibility and with the right support, anything is possible.”

David Holloway added: “This is a culture change that is going to have to come from the top!

“Colleges are all about inclusion so learning support teams cannot do this alone and need the rest of the staff at the college. This is just the beginning of getting this right in the future.”

More than 30 colleges attended the event on 19 January. Feedback from college leaders was very positive and they welcomed having the resources and support required to help them to implement change.

Tara Chattaway concluded by saying “We are delighted to be working with the AoC and their members to address the recommendations raised in our report. We welcome engagement with colleges and to support them in getting inclusive education right, so that blind and partially sighted students can get the most out of their education.”

To find out more about the campaign or to get in touch with a member of our education team please visit
www.pocklington-trust.org.uk/student-support or contact
studentsupport@pocklington-trust.org.uk

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