Friday, 4 July 2008

Not always the full text: visions of the future?

On Friday 4th July I attended the second day of a two day conference organised by CLAUD called "Not always the full text: working towards accessible learning resources". See their web site here: The majority of presentations were given by students sharing their knowledge and experience of print impairment and the problems they had accessing print (books, journals etc) for their studies.

Emma Rowlett a PhD student from Nottingham gave an overview of her PhD research in which she had interviewed staff and students from four universities about what reasonable adjustments were made for print impaired students. With my LEXDIS hat on I was more interested in the student experiences that Emma had to report and what she found is prettty similar to LEXDIS and other studies. For example: accessing ebooks etc is easier for print impaired students if it can be web-based, so that students can use the assistive technologies they have at home. But if they do access them in the library, using library PC's, they need to be able to adjust settings (e.g colours). Emma also reported that not all students in her study had problems with the library, but that many did not see libraries as playing a large part in the adjustments made for them. Thinking about our LEXDIS results, pretty much all of our students mentioned how important it was for them to be able to access books, journals and databases online. They too did not particularly mention libraries- and I wonder if this is because they see them as physical spaces rather than digital spaces. That is, that they perhaps don't appreciate the role libraries play in facilitating online access to books, journals etc.

Jane Lovett talked about her experiences of studying English as a student with a visual impairment. She talked about how it was a nightmare not being given reading lists early enough and how it took about two years for her tutors to give her a cut down reading list. What Jane and the other speakers stressed, that most tutors do not appreciate, is that when you are print impaired the time you could be spending reading is spent trying to get the print into an accessible format (e.g scanning, converting to braille). Students therefore simply cannot read everything they are given, and so find they have to be strategic and try to identify the essential texts/chapters/pages to access and read. Jane also had some horror stories to share of study in FE colleges. On one occasion, after help from RNIB and persistence Jane was able to successfully complete a GCSE course, despite being told on first enquiry " We have no facilities for blind people, we are not sure you can come here". On a second occassion, Jane dropped out of a course, because she felt seriously disadvanteged by tutors who did not give her handouts etc in advance. Jane finished by saying " All we are asking for is a fair crack of the whip; tutors do need to be pulled up". Sadly, Jane's experience is echoed by many other students, and like these other students Jane has found herself having to fight her corner and develop a resilient persistence that I imagine must get exhausting after a while.

Janette talked about her experiences of dyslexia (and Irlens syndrome). What was interesting about Janette was that she was studying a course on a subject that she had a supreme amount of practical experience and knowledge of (maritime history) and finding that she was failing. Janette explained that she is a slow reader, but also that due to short term memory problems she can forget what she has read. On her course- where she was expected to read "100 pages a week", she found she couldn't keep up. Her tutors were unhelpful- refusing to give her a cut down reading list and saying " you are reading for a degree; if you can't read, you have to seriously question what you are doing here". (I hope you are all gasping at this BTW!) Talking of scanning, Janette said "scanning is fine, but you can spend your life just scanning and not reading". Two things included on Janette's manifesto for change were: Longer loan periods for library books and getting reading lists in advance.

I was also interested to hear Geraldine Smith, a librarian from the OU, talk of her work in assessing the accessibility of library databases. The advice that she gives to students on the accessibility of these databases is available from this website:

In some senses today was a bit depressing in that the same old accessibility "horror stories" were being shared. However, let me end on a positive note and say that Jane was able to share how her university librarian had been fantastic and really helpful, and also how two IT technicians had gone out of their way (and apparently against the wishes of their boss- can't possibly imagine why, but answers on a postcard please!) to use a newly acquired embosser to convert texts to braille for her. So the moral of the story is, no matter how good the technology is, you still need people who are prepared to go that extra mile, break the rules or take a risk. This makes me smile wryly. Often when we talk of visions of the future, we talk of new, better, quicker, cleverer technology. But perhaps we just need braver and more creative people (i.e staff working in HE)?

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