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DEMOS Project

Online Materials for Staff Disability Awareness
[Project] : Newsletter

Newsletter January 2002

Including Disabled Students : focus on teaching and learning


  1. Welcome from the Project Coordinator
  2. Designing Accessible teaching materials
  3. Examination and Assessment - making accommodations for disabled students
  4. Accessibility and the DEMOS Website
  5. Analysing Need
  6. Adventures in the Tyrol
  7. Web Based Resources for Teaching Staff

All articles by Mike Wray, unless otherwise stated.

Welcome from the Project Coordinator

Welcome to the second newsletter of the Demos Project. The project has been funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England under the current special initiative - 'Improving Provision for Students with Disabilities'. Our main aim is to produce an online resource of staff development materials relating to disability for academic staff.

The project brings together expertise from various departments in the four universities - disability, learning support, equalities, teaching and learning and staff and educational development. By engaging such departments we hope to be able to embed the outcomes of the project into the mainstream activities of the universities.

We are currently developing resources that are published on our website. A series of modules is being constructed and we are conducting interviews with students in order to build a database of their experiences.

As a strand three project under this scheme one of our primary themes is collaboration and we are hoping to build on the strong partnerships that already exist in the Manchester area between the four local higher education institutions.

I hope you will enjoy the contents of this newsletter. We have attempted to discuss issues relevant to teaching staff in relation to disability.

If you are interested in learning more about the project please get in touch as we are always happy to work collaboratively.

Mike Wray
Project Coordinator


Designing Accessible teaching materials

As the number of disabled students entering higher education increases, pressure is growing on departments to tailor their teaching methods so that they do not present unnecessary barriers to access. Including disabled students does not mean mountains of additional work and will increase the quality of higher education for all students. Also, there is no reason why providing access to the curriculum for disabled students means a drop in standards. If anything it should lead to an increase in the ability of universities to respond to a student population that is becoming increasingly diverse.

Previously many teaching departments have responded to disabled students in a reactive manner resolving issues of access for individual students as the need arises. However, growing numbers mean that most lecturing staff are likely to come across a disabled student in every new cohort. Changes to legislation also mean that all sections of the university need to respond in a proactive manner developing policies and provision for these students. Issues of access need to be considered from admissions and marketing, course design and assessment criteria to career opportunities and work placements. In this article we briefly examine some of the issues relevant to course designers and describe some of the methods that will be useful in designing accessible course materials.


Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that 4% of students in higher education in 1997 were disabled. The last Labour Force Survey in Autumn 1999 shows that under the definition of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, 20% of the work age population in the UK is disabled. It seems reasonable therefore to assume that there is some under-representation of disabled people in higher education.


Recently, organisations of disabled people have forwarded an alternative definition and model of disability that focuses on the attitudinal, physical and societal barriers that restrict people with impairments from participating equally in all aspects of their lives (Oliver 1990). An example illustrates this approach - a person in a wheelchair is disabled not by their impairment but by the lack of accessible parking spaces and toilet facilities, poor access provision to public buildings and segregated education.

This model is known as the 'social' model and contrasts with a more traditional 'medical' model of disability which focuses on an individualistic approach - disabled people are often treated by medical intervention and by an array of professionals and are seen to be helped to overcome the physical effects of their impairments.


In the HE setting, universities which take the social model as an overriding principle will develop an approach to disability which includes all sections of the university in the planning and provision of an accessible environment. Recent legislation - the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) - means that universities now have :

This includes the teaching environment and covers aspects such as accessible materials, online learning delivery, lectures and seminars and assessment methods. It is important therefore that academic staff take a lead role in the design of an accessible curriculum.

Assessment issues

Debate and concern has arisen in HE about the possibility of a drop in academic standards due to the provision of alternatives to the assessment methods and that these may lead to an unfair advantage for disabled students. Departmental staff can avoid some of these problems if they begin to think about assessment criteria at the course design stage. Assessment criteria should map onto learning outcomes and a variety of assessment methods should be used. When developing both assessment criteria and learning outcomes course designers should be absolutely clear about the purpose of the course, the necessity of the learning outcomes and teaching strategies and the necessity of the methods of assessing these learning outcomes (Scott 1997). If a clash occurs between the ability of the student and the course design it must not be because of unnecessary barriers to learning.

Additional support is often less controversial from an academic point of view. For example, most people are happy for a blind student to use assistive technology in an exam or for someone with chronic pain to take breaks. However, these arrangements often cause concern for administrators because of the allocation of resources into areas such as providing separate rooms and the costs of assistive technology and additional invigilators.

Learning materials

When designing accessible learning materials, course designers should consider access to the written word, visual images and the spoken word.

Written word

Many disabled students have difficulties accessing the written word (e.g. dyslexic student, visually impaired students). Perhaps the most useful aid to learning for these students is to produce copies of any learning materials on a computer disk. Most disabled students in higher education will have access to a computer with specialist software and they can use this to access the materials produced. If a student makes a specific request for large print the recommended size is at least 14 pt (we have produced a version of this newsletter in that size). Dyslexic students also benefit greatly from materials produced on coloured paper, generally a pastel shaded colour will help. Finally try to use paper with a matt finish as this reduces glare. If you are producing written materials for the Web you should try to follow accessibility guidelines such as those produced by the W3C organisation (see Iris Manhold's article).

Access to visual images

Students with visual impairments will find visual information difficult to access and you may need to complement any materials with an auditory description or a transcript on disk. If you have a visually impaired student in your class is does not mean that you can no longer use charts, graphs and graphics. Remember not to use descriptions such as 'and this effect has been vindicated as you can see from the graph'. In the case of a graph you could provide a verbal description of the axes, statistics and shape of the curve. Sometimes a visually impaired students might access materials by using tactile diagrams (raised versions of pictorial information). These are produced by specialist units but can be costly to obtain.

Access to the spoken word

Many students who are deaf or hearing impaired will need video material subtitling or will require a written transcript. Students with hearing impairments have varying needs and use vastly different methods to communicate. It is estimated that someone who lip-reads is only able to read 30-40% of visible speech movements and this can be reduced for unclear speakers. Don't assume therefore that a student who lip-reads is understanding everything that is said. Most students will need to supplement their hearing with a note taker or a British Sign Language communicator.

Many disabled students are unable to follow lectures and take comprehensive notes at the same time. Therefore many students may need to use a tape recorder.

Universal Design

Universal design, is design that provides access to objects, technological devices, urban spaces and learning environments, for as broad a range of people as possible without the need for assistive devices or where this is not possible it is at least compatible with the use of assistive devices.

Designers often find that providing for disabled people has beneficial effects for a range of people e.g. a ramp has benefits not just to people who are traditionally considered as disabled but also to the elderly, children, people with prams and people delivering heavy parcels. The approach in the classroom has become known as universal design for learning. Orkwis (1999) has described this approach :

'A more efficient way to provide student access is to consider the range of user abilities at the design stage of the curriculum and incorporate accommodations at that point. This 'built-in' access for a range of users, those with and without disabilities, is the underlying principle of universal design.'

If universal design is used disabled students will find that many of the adaptations to the learning environment that they often have to request through the disability office are already part of the overall instructional design. Many of these requests are for such things as untimed tests, notes, prepared materials before class, and study guides. As Silver et al (1998) note 'such accommodations are typically helpful to all students, and in fact may be representative of effective instructional practices'.

Most teachers want all students to do well on their courses and want to be responsive to the needs of all their students. Universal design offers a way forward for us all.


Oliver, M. (1990) The Politics of Disablement. Basingstoke & London: Macmillan.

Orkwis (1999) Curriculum Access and Universal Design for Learning. ERIC/OSEP Digest No. E586. ERIC Clearing House Clearing House on Disabilities and Gifted Education, Reston, VA, USA. http://ericec.org/digests/e586.html, (viewed on 29th March 2001)

Scott, S. (1997) Accommodating College Students with Learning Disabilities: How much is Enough? Innovative Higher Education, 22, 2, 85-99

Silver, P., Bourke, A. and Strehorn, K.C. (1998) Universal Instructional Design in Higher Education: An Approach for Inclusion. Equity and Excellence in Education, 31,2, 47-51.

This article has been adapted from a chapter that will be available in a series of books on Producing Quality Learning Material ed. F. Lockwood, Routledge Press.


Examination and Assessment - making accommodations for disabled students

By Ann Barlow, Learning Support Coordinator, Manchester Metropolitan University


Under the QAA Code of Practice institutions are expected to make alternative arrangements for the examination and assessment of the work of disabled students when necessary. This is also required under the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act, which requires institutions to make reasonable accommodations for disabled students.

It would seem that this may provide course teams with an opportunity to review the intention of their assessment procedures on a broader basis.


Disability advisers in recommending reasonable accommodations for disabled students often need to consider the objectives of the course. Supporting aids and strategies can be more easily identified if these are clearly stated. For example, if it is known that the student will be required to develop practical skills in Fine Art appropriate support can be established for a student who has arthritis in the hands.

Alternative assessments

Issues arise however, when developing alternative arrangements for examinations and assessment. An adviser needs to take into account that the assessment is designed to identify whether the student has achieved a required standard in certain skills. If the support is to be appropriate the skills being measured need to be clearly defined. In examinations and assessment this is particularly necessary in order to "protect the rigour and comparability of the assessments" as required by the QAA Code of Practice.

Students who have difficulty with handwriting for example may often request the use of a computer or a scribe in examinations. If the examination is a means of assessing the student's knowledge of the subject either of these methods will enable the student to demonstrate that they have acquired the expected level of knowledge.

However, neither method will determine the student's ability to structure that knowledge on the same basis as a student who is required to handwrite the examination. The student using a word processing package will be able to rearrange and restructure what has been written very simply by using the cut and paste facility while the student who is using the scribe will find it more difficult to develop the flow and will need to review what has been written at frequent intervals.


If there is no clear guidance on the assessment criteria disability advisers are left with a considerable dilemma. They must ensure that an alternative method will not further disadvantage the student but at the same time they do not wish to allow a student to gain added advantage over their peers.

If these issues are to be resolved there must be constructive dialogue between those in the disability support field and academic staff responsible for assessment. This would enable disability advisers to gain a greater understanding of the purpose of assessment within a course which would in turn enable appropriate support to be established for the student. At the same time it would provide an opportunity for course teams to review assessment criteria and gain an understanding of student need, ultimately facilitating truly inclusive assessment design.


Accessibility and the DEMOS Website

By Iris Manhold

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect. (Tim Berners-Lee, W3C Director and Inventor of the World Wide Web)

Since disability is the subject of the DEMOS project, it was considered a priority to construct a website that is accessible to as many people as possible - users with disabilities as well as users of older or special technologies.

The term 'accessibility' refers to:

This definition reflects the various ways in which webpages are accessed. Physical barriers exist for certain internet users. People with color blindness might not be able to identify link colors correctly. Users with low vision need to be able to control the font size of a page. Some people cannot use a mouse and have to navigate each page via the keyboard. There are also economic barriers to consider. Technology is expensive and not everyone can afford the latest hardware or high speed connection. A blind person might not have the latest improved version of expensive screen reader software.

All this was taken account of in the creation of the DEMOS website - usability considerations went into the design process; graphics were kept to a minimum to decrease page load time; advanced scripting techniques, which tend to confuse disabled users, were avoided; small icons were associated with common navigation items to improve access for users with specific learning difficulties like dyslexia, who prefer graphical clues over text. Most importantly, the underlying HTML code was written to be standard compliant and to conform to the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) - guidelines, which recommend ways in which web pages can be written to 'transform gracefully' to older technologies and to improve access and understanding for disabled users.

Regular testing in different environments was carried out to ensure this level of access and compatibility. However, there are hundreds of browsers and other user agents like screen readers in use at present, on many different platforms (e.g. different computer operating systems), all of which display webpages slightly differently. It is impossible to test on all of these - a reason to keep things as simple as possible and to encourage user feedback.

One major difficulty in this process was the fact that a non-standard compliant browser, Netscape 4.7, is still in use as the default browser in many academic institutions, which constitute the main target audience. Many of the latest techniques used to ensure accessibility are not supported by this browser. While this is not really a problem with browsers older than that, where the 'look' of a page might be lost but the content is still navigable and still makes sense, it was important that the site also looks good in this specific browser because it is still used so widely. Several compromises had to be made and some recommended techniques could not be used because they caused display problems. In general, however, all of the WAI Guidelines' Priority 1 requirements were met, as well as most of the Priority 2 and 3 requirements. In the future, user testing and feedback will help to identify and correct existing problems and improve the user experience.

Some useful links:

Accessibility Guidelines for web authors at the DEMOS site:
(Guidelines, examples and resources. Includes a more detailed report on accessibility techniques used on the DEMOS site.)

W3C WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0:
(The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international industry consortium responsible for developing common protocols and standards that promote the web's evolution and ensure its accessibility and interoperability.)

Bobby is a free service provided to help Web page authors identify and repair significant barriers to access.
To check accessibility of a webpage try the following: Go to http://bobby.cast.org/, use the input field to enter the full URL of the page you want validated and click 'submit'.


Analysing Need

We undertook a questionnaire survey of staff in the four universities in order to ascertain the staff development needs in relation to disability.

We received a total of 133 completed forms with 79 of these being submitted by academic staff. We consider this to be a low response rate and we were particularly concerned that feedback was low from two of the universities. We also wondered whether the electronic form of the questionnaire put people off completing it. Therefore, we are repeating the exercise in two of the institutions but are using a paper-based version of the form.

The questions examined three areas of investigation-current level of attendance, current level of feelings about disabled students and their support and future level of demand.

Respondents were asked how much time they had spent attending staff development in the last two years. A graphical analysis of the responses to this question revealed a U-shaped curve (see Table 1). Many staff had attended a considerable number of events (more than 20 hours) whilst a similar number had attended very little.

Perhaps the reason for this is that some staff are reporting on centrally organised events that they have attended whilst others define staff development as all activities including outside conferences and subject-related events.

Only 33% of staff attended disability-related events in the last two years and they reported that the most popularly attended event was general disability awareness (n=28) followed by dyslexia (n=12) and the Disability Discrimination Act (n=11).

It was thought that staff do not rate attending training events as high on their list of priorities. However, responses to our question on this matter revealed a spread across the scale. 56% of staff reported that attending events was towards the top end of their priority list. Also respondents rated teaching disabled students as very important (the most popular response). This was matched by their confidence about teaching disabled students. The scores on the rating scale for this question were skewed towards the higher end of the scale- 73% rated their confidence as being above the mid-point.

When questioned about their level of commitment to attending events in the future respondents demonstrated their willingness. Every respondent (except one) said they would be willing to commit to attending at least one hour of training over the next two years. 57% said they would be willing to attend four or more hours.

The choice of subjects that they would like to see covered was similar to the range of modules that we are currently developing for online delivery. 'General disability awareness training' being the most popular followed by 'practical advice re: teaching disabled students' and 'supporting dyslexic students'.

Since we have chosen online learning as the method of delivery for the project we were keen to find out if this was a preferred choice of learning for respondents. Indeed electronic means proved popular - 'information on the www' (62%) and 'online learning' (38%). Since the questionnaire was posted online we wonder whether this is the reason for such a preference. However, more traditional methods also proved popular-'am/pm sessions' (49%), 'books/guides/leaflets' (48%) and 'lunchtime briefings' (45%). Once we conduct a similar paper-based version we shall be able to compare results between two groups of respondents.

If you would like to read more detailed analysis of the results with a discussion of the findings you can view of copy of the full report on the results with tables and graphs from the survey at this page.

Table 1. Hours spent on staff development in the last 2 years by staff in the 4 Demos Universities.
Number of
Number of
0 37
1 6
2 13
3 6
4 5
5 1
6 11
7 1
8 7
9 2
10 7
10-15 0
16-20 11
20+ 24
Graphical analysis of above table


Adventures in the Tyrol

Report from the 4th International Conference on Higher Education and Disability

There can be few more spectacular venues to attend a conference than Innsbruck - set as it is in a valley between two spectacular mountain ranges. The Brenner Pass stretches away into the distance and in the evening lights glisten from taverns in small ski villages on the sides of the surrounding slopes. The glacial River Inn runs at a dramatic pace through the city glowing green from the minerals that it brings down from the mountain peaks.

I had attended the 3rd International Conference in 1997 but had little chance to take in the beauty of this 16th Century city or enjoy many of the tourist attractions. However, this year I was fortunate enough to take a few days holiday either side of the conference to enjoy the offerings of the friendly Austrian hospitality.

Not surprisingly the conference itself seems to go from strength to strength and was as popular as ever with delegates attending from all over the world - USA, South Africa, Mexico, Switzerland, Australia, India, Slovakia, Ethiopia.

Topics ranged from policy issues in various parts of the world to improving accessibility of university web pages. I was particularly interested in presentations about universal design and of course online learning. I'm sure both topics will play a major part in the education of disabled students in future years.

Presenters from the USA described an online learning module for supporting deaf students in postsecondary education. I would recommend readers take a look at this through the online training section of their website.

Unfortunately colleagues from Australia were unable to present their paper on 'E-learning and New Challenges for Universal Design' so I took the opportunity to listen to Judith Waterfield's talk on the development of a Professional Course for disability workers at the University of Portsmouth.

Later, James McAfee from Penn State University explained how they have used online learning effectively to provide training to academic staff.

Ian Webb outlined the development of a professional organisation to assist disability staff - the National Association of Disability Officers (NADO).

Representatives from the web development team at the University of Wisconsin outlined their programme of accessible web design implementation.

You may also be interested in reading a copy of the paper that I presented outlining the Demos Project on our website at.

I remember from 1997 that the University of Innsbruck and its partners laid on a superb range of activities for delegates in the evenings and again I was not disappointed. On the first night of the conference we enjoyed an evening of traditional Austrian food accompanied by a thigh slapping yodelling troupe of dancers. (How do the blokes fit into those lederhosen? Maybe that's why they yodel so much!)

On the second night we were led to the ski resort of Igls to which we had taken a leisurely ride on a traditional tram that clattered its way through forests fresh with the smell of pine on the previous day. We marched to the top of the hill on which the resort is perched, tucked into schnitzel and apple cake washed down with a lovely bottle of Weiss bier and listened to a yodelling accordion and double- bass combo who must have had the jolliest faces this side of Father Christmas. Once our appetites were satiated we were led back down the hill by lantern light. Fireflies buzzed around as if to tell us we needn't have bothered with the lamps, the group broke into a spontaneous rendition of Edelweiss whilst a St. Bernard's jostled playfully between us (this is all true honest!).

After a evening's dining in the Royal Park we topped the whole thing off with a whizz round the roulette wheel to celebrate my birthday. As you can probably guess I utterly recommend the conference to anyone interested in disability issues and I for one can't wait for the next one in 2004.


Web Based Resources for Teaching Staff

During development of the Demos materials we have come across a number of useful resources which you might like to look at on the WWW.

The Quality Assurance Agency has released a series of Codes of Practice and Part 3 relates to students with disabilities. It covers issues ranging from preparing accessible prospectuses to teaching disabled students.

Two projects from the same funding programme as the Demos Project have now published extremely useful guides online. The CoWork Project has produced a series of online articles that focus on styles of teaching rather than specific impairments.

Staff who work in Geography and related subjects will be particularly interested in the Geography Discipline Network 'Learning Support for Disabled Students Undertaking Fieldwork and Related Activities'. However, these guides discuss some general issues about making learning accessible and will be of use to all teaching staff considering these issues.

If you want to know how to make teaching resources accessible for people who are visually impaired the Royal National Institute for the Blind have produced a guide.

Universities in the USA have collaborated to produce an online learning primer to deafness. You can find this in the 'online training' section.

There are various guides that focus on teaching students with specific impairments. Even though it says it is due to be rewritten the 'guidance notes for staff teaching students with special needs' at Lancaster University should provide useful reading.

Similar guides are available at Leeds University and at the University of Cambridge.

The Technology for Disabilities Information Service has published two guides that will be of interest to teaching staff. 'Accessing maths by other means' and 'Virtual Learning Environments and Disability Access'.