Chairs on wheels meet solid floor. Blessing or nightmare?
Easy to move, don’t need lifting, don’t scrape or grate when dragged
…can be difficult to sit on, too easy to slide backwards before you’ve made contact or can fail to provide support if you reach out for them. Chairs on wheels might be good for some but not others.
The conundrum lies at the heart of inclusive practice.
One-size-fits-all models are rare.
Take bobbled surfaces known as textured paving. It warns those with visual impairment of a road crossing but bouncing over them can be uncomfortable for wheelchair users. Shared surfaces where pavements blend seamlessly into roads make crossing easier for those with wheels but can be confusing (even dangerous) – in particular for assistance dogs trained to stop at raised kerbs. The risk is absence of an inclusive solution becomes an excuse for not changing practice in the first place.
Yesterday I attended the Inclusive Teaching and Learning Conference at York St John University with colleague Patrick Lynch. The opening Keynote by Prof Ann-Marie Houghton set the scene; universal design means changes for some which create an improved experience for all. Accessible design is not an activity targeting disability. It’s a state of mind and a practice which can benefit everyone.
Digital exclusion was largely missing from the conference. There was reference to commuter students in rural areas not having high speed internet (true for some areas in towns and cities) but I missed references to inclusive design of documents (headings and styles please) or standard attention to font, text size, colour, contrast etc.
This isn’t because we’ve reached some magic tipping point where all resources are accessible. Any VLE offers a range of poorly designed lecture slides which don’t print well in b/w, have too many words on top of images or my pet hate of grey font on white (I can’t see it!!) or audio and video without text equivalents.
In one session we were told it wasn’t possible to provide transcripts for captured lectures because the technology isn’t there yet. This implies a gap while waiting for the technology to catch up yet Windows ‘speech to text’ is not bad and there’s a range of free apps which will give a workable document for editing. Yes, it’s a digital capabilities issue which is all the more reason for institutional support to develop digital ways of working but any lack shouldn’t be an excuse. Where lecturers create and upload notes and/or slides before their presentation, this is the basis for a textual version of recorded content.
It seems students need to disclose and have their ‘disability’ accepted in order to have a text alternative provided for recordings which in itself feels like an exclusive practice. Audio/video alongside notes and/or images offers a holistic learning experience. Why wouldn’t we want to support students in this way? How many lecturers have tried extracting core information from a 50 minute podcast dealing with an unfamiliar topic!
The exception was Prof Houghton who gave the first keynote with clear, well spaced slides and ‘There’s alt-text on the images.’ Not a phrase you hear every day. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it. Maybe I don’t go to the right conferences. Most of them are about learning and teaching in particular where it’s online….
Inclusion is about so much more than making reasonable adjustments for some. It’s about the freedom to move independently within the built environment and getting on and off public transport, it’s about dropped kerbs and street art springing unannounced from pavements. It’s about the language we use, consciously and unconsciously. It’s about the social construction of attitude and bias.
Exclusion is created by culture and society and preventing it begins with adopting inclusive design practices.
This pedestrian crossing over a dual carriageway appears to have no textured surface to indicate the road (taken recently in Hull)
Changing the culture of HE is complex and challenging. Nowhere is this more evident than learning and teaching where responsibility for inclusive practice is too often seen as being somewhere else, anywhere else, except with us. TEL-People say it’s within Student Services who say they’re not techies and on it goes. We need to work together on this. The aim is a tipping point where inclusive design and teaching becomes the norm. We’re going round in circles. Conversations at the conference were similar to those from two decades ago. If anything, the issues have become more convoluted.
The lack of a go-to resource doesn’t help. Jisc TechDis is no more. Such a loss. Their Accessibility Essentials series hit the spot while Informing Policy, Improving Practice and Improve your 3 Rs – Recruitment, Retention, Results remain excellent introductions and rationale. We need more not less of the TechDis attitude and enthusiasm for inclusive practice.
Knowledge makes so much difference. Simulation has been frowned upon for failing to authentically replicate lived experience, but a day in a wheelchair or wearing glasses which mimic glaucoma, cataracts or macular degeneration can offer transformative insight. We need to remember not everyone with an impairment is registered as disabled and take care not to confuse the issues. Hundreds of thousands of people live with invisible conditions such as colour blindness, dyslexia or some form of sensory difference. While careers and consultancies are constructed from the impact of diversity, most of us want to do what others take for granted, for example use the internet and read what’s on the screen (did I say no grey text on a white background please?!)
I’m stopping now before I get really ranty but will end on a plea – if you were to make one single change, please do think about how you present content, in particular online. Plain font, decent size and good contrast are all essential. For those of you who believe Browser customisation is the answer – it can’t work unless content has been designed to adjust.
Everyone is different. It should be what makes us special rather than a problematic.
Also, if you agree please retweet, repost and reply – let’s continue the conversation.
image from the presentation of Prof Ann-Marie Houghton.
Photos all my own or from the conference presentations.