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Lack of tech support could mean disabled students drop out of university

The dyslexic peer Lord Addington has warned that disabled students could drop out of university if there is a reduction of the technical support provided under the Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) grant scheme.

From 2016 universities will be expected to support disabled students, as required by the Equality Act, to a much greater extent than before with a scaling back of assistive systems available through DSA.

However, Lord Addington and others are not convinced universities will be able to step into the breach.

“We all know from personal experience that if you have something that you cannot use properly, you do not use it,” he warned during a recent House of Lords debate.

“Any money that is provided and any support that is not effective and accessible will basically be ignored.”

The best thing about the current support packages for students was that they are centred on the individual, said Lord Addington.

He emphasised the varying needs of each student, the importance of getting the right support and the advantages of the national framework provided by the current DSA system.

“Will the university provide that individual package to meet the needs of the person? This is very important, because when you look through, you see a lot of talk about generic technology and providing it free of charge with no licence involved,” said Lord Addington.

“As a user of this type of technology, software and back-up … let me tell you one thing about it: if it is not reliable, it is not worth having. There is a lot of very cheap and shoddy stuff out there.”

He questioned whether universities would be able to provide the necessary individual support. Some might do a better job of it than others, leaving students to choose between them, he explained.

Universities that already had a lot of disabled students would be financially penalised by the changes, he pointed out. Their staff would also have to change how they did things to ensure lectures were accessible.

Baroness Hayter warned that there could be disputes between students and universities over the definition of reasonable adjustments in the Equality Act, which universities must now abide by.

The Government was committed to supporting disabled students, said the Conservative spokesperson Baroness Evans What was changing was the balance between what was available under DSA and what was provided by institutions.

And she added that her Government wanted to continue “working with both the assistive technology sector and mainstream technology manufacturers to ensure that the products they produce meet the needs of disabled students”.

Officials are looking at introducing a benchmark for inclusivity and providing better information to students about their institution’s provision for disabled students.

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Death of accessibility champion Dan Jellinek

Dan Jellinek, founder of E-Access Bulletin and the E-Access series of conferences, has died at the age of 47.

His promotion of accessibility through his writing and the many projects that he initiated did a lot to raise awareness of the online barriers disabled people face.

His E-Access conferences brought technologists, big companies and disabled people together to thrash out the issues involved in opening up digital systems to disabled people.

Apart from being a first class writer, Dan was a great networker. He knew everyone and everyone knew him.

A meeting with Dan was always something to look forward to. Brimming with ideas, he had a knack of being able to mould them to suit whoever he was talking to.

Modest and charming, Dan was also tenacious. If he thought he had a good idea, he wouldn’t give it up easily.

A Cambridge English graduate, Dan began his career writing for the Local Government Chronicle and later UKAuthority. He always retained an interest in politics, writing a book on e-democracy called People Power.

Dan had many interests including cricket and food.

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Roadmap for the future of DSA procurement

A group of BATA members met Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) civil servants recently for a briefing on BIS’s roadmap for equipment procurement which had recently been approved as a “direction of travel” by the Minister.

Following the meeting BIS produced a roadmap document, with time lines of how it is envisaged changes will will proceed. BIS has asked BATA to circulate this to stakeholders for information and discussion.

As this document is quite brief, BATA has produced its own notes, outlining some of the issues and implications that were raised at the meeting.

BATA is keen for informed debate, fed back to BIS, as to how this roadmap will support BIS’s objective of providing fit-for-purpose assistive technology for disabled students. Please send your comments and questions back to us or direct to BIS.

Present at the meeting from BATA were Antony Ruck, Chair; Mark McCusker, ex-Chair; Ian Litterick, BATA Council member and ATSP; Jonathan Rouse, ATSP QAG rep; Chris Quickfall, ATSP. From BIS were Georgina Watts and Geoff Munn with SLC’s Graham Tranter and Amy Hedges in telephone attendance.

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Bridging the gap in exam accessibility

BATA’s second exam accessibility event, Bridging the Gap, identified the key issues involved in delivering accessible exams.

The event provided a platform for key stakeholders in the industry to discuss the challenges they face and what solutions could be provided to move forward.

Speakers included Julie Swan, Associate Director – Regulatory Policy and Vocational Qualification Policy at the regulator Ofqual (pictured right)..

A number of key themes ran throughout the day. The more obvious ones were the need for better and more consistent communication, transparency of information between awarding bodies, exam officers, and schools’ special education needs coordinators (SENCos) and a perceived complexity of the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) guidelines.

Assistive technology (AT) was also seen as  complicated, with more information about  types and features of AT products needed by thos involved in delivering accessible exams.

A surprising, and perhaps somewhat alarming, finding from the event was that some SENCos feel in the dark around the process and implementation of access arrangements, and that further training is needed to help make more informed decisions.

Furthermore, there is currently no association or entity that acts as a support ‘hub’ for SENCos to go to for advice, guidelines, and so on.

Delegates were also uncertain about how define a ‘normal way of working’, and about the process of applying for access arrangements.

A white paper, which will be circulated towards the end of November, will delve deeper into these issues and discuss possible action points for the near future.

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Microlink founder wins lifetime achievement award

BATA founder member Dr Nasser Siabi, CEO of Microlink PC, has received a lifetime achievement award in the National Diversity Awards held at the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool recently.

Nasser  has spent 25 years spreading the message about inclusivity and creating opportunities for disabled people. In 1992 he founded Microlink, now the largest independent supplier of assistive technology ion the UK.

Some 40% of the company’s employees are disabled and Microlink has helped over a quarter of a million individuals around the world.

For example, Microlink has developed a mass screening tool to identify needs and target solutions for disabilities, which has been successfully piloted in several schools in Cape Town, South Africa.

The judges described Nasser as a man who has “dedicated his life and personal time to his vision”.

He has now turned his attention to a project which aims to create a ‘truly inclusive classroom’ to help every student in this country reach their full potential..

“I focus on finding the barriers that young disabled people face and do my up most best in breaking these,” said Nasser.

“Making employers aware of the skills that these people can offer, and changing their preconceptions is of upmost importance to me. I hope the work I do gives people the life opportunities that we all take for granted. It’s about giving people the life they want and deserve.

“By making people aware of the changes that need to be made, I hope that preconceptions will change and there will be increased opportunities for young and disabled people.

“Some are easy, some are not, but I believe that the work I’m doing is making a difference. We need to focus on youth and give them all the life opportunities they deserve and want. They are our future after all.”

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MPs hold enquiry into access to AT for young people

BATA has been invited to give evidence at an enquiry into the access and use of AT by young disabled people.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Young Disabled People is holding a meeting in the Houses of Parliament  on December 2  to discuss the issues raised by young people about access to assistive technology.

The Group wants to identify practical solutions to ensure assistive technology is available and accessible for young disabled people who would benefit from using it.

It has invited government and industry leaders with experience of supporting disabled people who wish to obtain and use assistive technology to answer questions from MPs and disabled young people.

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BIS consults over student support

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is carrying out a consultation, to which BATA will be responding, on where the balance of support for disabled students should lie.

BIS is seeking to give primary responsibility for certain types of support to higher education institutions, as part of their obligations under the Equalities Act, and to reduce reliance on grants made through the Disabled Students Allowances scheme.

“The Government remains committed to the principle of ensuring disabled students can access and continue in higher education (HE), and DSAs will continue to help meet the additional costs a disabled student is obliged to incur in order to access their course,” says BIS.

“However, DSAs should not be provided as the default provision where a legal duty to provide support lies elsewhere.”

BIS also wants a better understanding of what constitutes a reasonable adjustment for an HE provider to supply, and how DSAs can best complement such support.

The consultation seeks suggestions of ways of delivering support that are different to the approaches set out, but which could still meet the policy aims.

No type of support in the areas outlined will be completely excluded in principle from DSAs funding, and exceptions would be dealt with on a case by case basis.

The consultation will help the Government to determine which types of support for disabled students should be supplied to students by DSAs and which should be provided in part or whole by HE providers.

If any changes result from this consultation, the Government expects to implement them from the academic year 2016/2017, which should allow HE providers time to prepare for any changes.

Members can reply to this consultation online at https://bisgovuk.citizenspace.com/student-finance/consultation-on-he-dsa-2016-17, by email, or by letter.

The form is available electronically at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/disabled-students-in-higher-education-funding-proposals.

Members can also provide evidence, further information, or a paper in support of your views by forwarding these to the address given in the document.

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UK Assistive Technology Research Review 2015

One of the authors of an annual report on research in AT is trying to revive the publication after the work was taken in house by the Department of Health.

The annual parliamentary report on AT was until last year produced by the Foundation for Assistive Technology (FAST), but the contract was terminated by the Department as a cost saving measure.

Aidan Parr, who helped research the 130 page bible of UK assistive technology research for FAST, believes the recently published seven page document that the Department of Health produced is just paying lip service to a legal requirement to produce an annual report to parliament.

He wants to put together an alternative survey called UK Assistive Technology Research Review 2015.

“There was always a concern that the Department of Health would produce a ‘cut-down’ version of the report just to satisfy legal requirements pursuant to Section 22 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970,” said Parr.

“And lo! Here it is, in all its cut-down glory with little indication as to the diverse and exciting work British researchers undertake.”

Parr, a BATA council member, asks anyone who would be prepared to support the project, either through sponsorship or by purchasing a report, to get in touch with him at info@ukatnews.com.

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Reviving discrete voice recognition software

Speech and literacy entrepreneur Dr Peter Kelway has appealed to BATA members for help in reviving old-style ‘discrete’ voice recognition systems.

The software, which includes older versions of Dragon Dictate, was designed to recognise speech with a small pause between each word. It has been superseded by continuous speech systems such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

However, Dr Kelway, a director of Words Worldwide, believes there could be a demand for discrete recognition software, which is simpler to use for those with learning difficulties and better at recognising hard to understand speech because of its ability to alight on a word from a few letters.

The option to restrict the vocabulary of discrete recognition programs also makes them suitable to use in conjunction with switch controllers.

“Discrete recognition products still exist, mostly obsolete but nevertheless still potentially of use,” said Dr Kelway. “These could be made available commercially at low cost, given the will and initiative of supporters of this concept.

“Old discrete systems were very effective but the technology tended to die out because they did not support more recent Microsoft operating systems.”

He envisages using modern machines to emulate outdated operating systems and in that way allow the software to be used once more.

Dr Kelway is talking to Scope, the cerebral palsy charity, and Nuance, the company that owns Dragon NaturallySpeaking, to gauge whether there are enough potential users to make the project viable and to iron out any technical and commercial obstacles.

If you would like to discuss this project with Dr Kelway his contact details are as follows: Words Worldwide Limited, Charlton House, Wark, Hexham, Northumberland, NE48 3LG. Telephone: 01434-230038, mobile: 07980-177390, email: psk2@btinternet.com.

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The Charter of the British Assistive Technology Association

This Charter has been drawn up by the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) council as a statement of the responsibilities and undertakings of the individuals and organisations who work with assistive technology products and services.

By joining the Association, BATA members have already signed up to our ethical practice statement, designed to ensure that those who seek advice, products or services receive expert and impartial advice. This Charter builds on those best practice principles and makes them available to a wider group of AT practitioners.

Members pledge themselves to strive towards the Charter’s aims and objectives. The Charter is not exhaustive, but it represents a basic set of common sense principals to which any professional involved in assistive technology should be able to commit.

Non-members may also wish to sign up to the Charter. They can do so by contacting the Executive Director so that we can publicly acknowledge their commitment.

The ten point Charter is intended to be applicable to as many organisations and individuals as possible, but it should be interpreted by each signatory in the light of their own circumstances. We have tried to keep the language of the charter as clear and simple as possible.

As signatories of the Charter of the British Assistive Technology Association we undertake to:

 

1 Be honest and accurate in what we say and write about goods and services we offer and do nothing intentionally to mislead. We aim to comply with all relevant legislation and standards that apply to disability and assistive technology.

2 Always offer goods and services that are of the quality we have stated and fit for purpose.

3 Deal promptly and fairly with anyone who raises a query or complaint about our products or services, endeavouring to put things right wherever possible.

4 Do everything we can to earn and keep the respect and trust of our customers and users, especially by dealing with them openly and honestly.

5 Involve and influence management at the highest level, where appropriate, in leading on the implementation of this charter and ensuring that we live up to the undertakings we make in signing it.

6 Ensure that all members of our organisation are attuned to the needs of disabled people and receive the appropriate training to ensure they are as disability aware as possible.

7 Make our communications, our premises and our business processes as accessible as we can and to carry out regular reviews to ensure we are meeting the highest standards.

8 Establish recruitment and employment practices that encourage disabled people to work for us, to support them and to make the appropriate reasonable adjustments to accommodate their needs.

9 Avoid recommending or putting pressure on anyone to buy or hire or make use of any service or product we produce that is not appropriate for the intended user.

10 Support BATA in its efforts to influence policymakers, increase awareness of assistive technology and to speak up for the interests of disabled people and the professionals who work with them.

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The future of accessible exams

Mark McCusker, Chair of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) and Chief Executive of Texthelp Ltd, recently hosted a forum with leading experts from schools, awarding bodies, technology companies and regulators in London to discuss the future of exam accessibility in the UK.  Here he discusses some of the key outcomes from the event, and how the UK can and should be looking to the future.

The topic of exams and setting standards is a highly controversial topic alone, but couple that with how best to assess individuals who have disabilities and require the use of assistive technology, and then you’ve raised the bar yet again.

The UK Association for Accessible Formats (UKAAF) has been commissioned by the regulator Ofqual to develop minimum PDF standards for digital exams, but PDFs are not an agreed upon accessible exam format and accessible PDFs are only available on PCs, not Macs. Therefore students needing assistive technology can frequently struggle to get the help they need in PDF format.  So, what is the future of exams for students with literacy difficulties or visual impairments?

The traditional philosophy in the UK has been towards supporting SEN (special educational needs) students with technology.  Students are given extra time on exams and assistive technology is used to support them, when available.

To date, the goal has been to help disadvantaged students to get through the exam, but, are we looking at this backwards?  It’s our ultimate goal to help each and every student succeed in school and help them make a positive economic impact by bringing them into the workforce regardless of their disability.

Our infrastructure supports struggling students with all forms of disability but the way they are tested is not working and needs to change.  Students with dyslexia or learning challenges should not be tested the same way as other students because they are fundamentally different thinkers, but with the same goals. These students need to be tested on their understanding of a subject or assignment, not using the methods today, with marks deducted based on their spelling or punctuation.

Right now, PDFs are used as the standard exam technology but there is widespread disagreement about the effectiveness of testing students using this standard because PDFs look and function differently depending on the system you are using to view them, putting students at a disadvantage.

The use of PDFs is not maintainable and they will ultimately disappear, but it will take time to convince working bodies and institutions of alternative technologies such as HTML or ePub3, which work best with assistive technology.  We have numerous case studies in North America on the success of using HTML, and the transition to these technologies is coming.  It’s inevitable and it’s important that schools are prepared for this change.  Numerous publishing firms such as Pearson are already implementing HTML with great success.

Also, in order to ensure that all students are being tested on the same playing field, the need to have an identical exam experience no matter the location is a necessity.  If a student is taking an exam on a Mac, they should have the same visual experience as another student on an iPad or a PC, and right now, that isn’t the case with PDFs.  We all know it’s an imperfect world but if you use something like a browser or ePub3, you are a step closer to guaranteeing that.

Jan McSorley of the Pearson Assessment Center in the US, is working on a $400m project called Race to the Top, which is aimed at improving the quality of school assessment including an Accessible Portable Item Protocol, Question and Test Interoperability and the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

“There has to be consistency between instruction and assessment,” Jan commented.  ”The secret formula for fair and equitable assessment was to know learners, the tools that they used for instruction and to understand that when you remove choice you may be replacing it with a barrier.”

It was clear from the discussions and conversations at the BATA Forum on the future of exam accessibility that this is a passionate topic for many organisations. At the end of the day, we all share the same goal: to ensure that our students, regardless of learning difficulty, have an equal opportunity to succeed in school and are prepared to enter the workforce when they complete their studies.

It’s our role at BATA to make sure that standards are in place to meet these requirements; to make sure students receiving assistive technology are tested appropriately and given the time necessary to complete exams.

PDFs will not remain the standard exam technology and the time is now to educate teachers on the technologies that will ultimately enable an equal-learning environment for all students.

For further information contact Jessie Wixon at Fishburn on Jessie.Wixon@thisisfishburn.com.