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Universities are under growing pressure to improve accessibility for students. But is it working?
Rustling crisp packets, shuffling feet and the general buzz of conversation made lectures a trial for Gemma Long during her first degree. She suffers from sensory overload connected to her autism, which was only diagnosed after she graduated. But when she started a teacher-training course at the University of Huddersfield, she received access to software to help her cope with dyslexia and found it transformative. It allowed her to listen to lectures quietly at home, which dramatically improved her grades. She went on to take an MA at the Open University and is now studying for a PhD at Sheffield Hallam University.
“I struggled to understand the point of lectures until I got that software,” recalls Long. “I didn’t realise how much useful information was in them. As someone who is hypersensitive to noise I spend most of my time in lectures trying to filter out the background noise, which means I miss much of what the lecturer is saying. Being able to audio record the lectures and listen back to them in a silent room meant I was finally able to digest the content.”
Technology is breaking down barriers faced by students with disabilities. This matters, because fewer disabled students go to university than their non-disabled peers. Online journal articles or reading lists now mean that those with visual impairments can zoom in to read printed text or convert it to easier-to-read formats such as braille. Universities are also increasingly recording lectures which students can replay at their own pace, which benefits students with dyslexia or attention deficit disorder (ADHD) too. Often, all this can be done through laptops at home, giving disabled students greater independence.
According to Alistair McNaught, a digital learning consultant, universities are increasingly tracking how students learn, and then directing them to the accessible resources most suited to their personal needs. Staff can also receive automated feedback on the accessibility or otherwise of material they upload to the virtual learning environment.
McNaught appreciates the way assistive technologies can help all students – whether they have a disability or not – but stresses that it’s important for universities to get the basics right first. “Many higher and further institutions have inaccessible websites or inaccessible digital content. If the content is inaccessible, investments in assistive technology can be undermined at a stroke.”