1999 Conference Proceedings

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Supporting Access in Higher Education - A Worldwide Approach

Ian Webb
Paul Booth

DISinHE - Disability Information Systems in Higher Education Support Centre at The University of Dundee

A Central Clearing House for Information Technology for Accessibility and Disability in Higher Education, funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee of the United Kingdom Higher Education Funding Councils. T

he purpose of the Disability Information System in Higher Education is to facilitate the exploitation of computing and information technology for everyone in the higher education sector.

There are currently 14,900 first year students in higher education in the United Kingdom who declare a disability. It is not clearly understood whether participation by students with disabilities is proportional to the distribution of people with disabilities in the UK population as a whole. The Higher Education Funding Council of England in 1996 estimated that nearly 27,000 undergraduates declared a disability that's 2% of the total student body. However approximately 7% of the 18-30 age group report a longstanding disability according to the Labour Force Survey. Hogarth et al 1997 reported that 4.1% of all students in their sample declared a disability.

However these figures are not a true reflection as they are based on the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) definition of disability and rely on the student admitting to a disability. The true extent of students with a disability in higher education is obscured by the large number of 'not knowns' 33%.

DISinHE is about information, giving information about accessibility to the right people. Some may think that the right people are the students, others see the right people as the decision-makers and yet, others the disability officers, yet it is clear in our minds that anybody looking for information in regards to accessibility issues is the right person. We need to ensure that we include library services and IT managers as well as Disability officers in understanding that they are among the right people to be involved in accessibility matters. What we at DISinHE are doing is setting up an information service that will answer the questions of the student, the disability officer, the Information Technology manager and the policy maker amongst others.

Let us make it quite clear at this point; we are not an assessment service. There are others whose role it is to provide assessment; this assessment may include the technological needs of the student. We are here help those involved in the assessment process amongst others by providing a gateway to a range of services that can be very difficult to find. We aim to point the user in the direction of information; we have no wish to reinvent the wheel.

But we will not just glibly allow all information to stand on an equal footing. We wish to ensure that the information we direct people towards is the very best and where we are unable to state with certainty that the information is the best we will tell the end user that we have reservations. An example of this may occur when we have been unable to assess the information for ourselves and yet; through others; have been informed that this information is worthy of release.

Our philosophy is to see that accessibility is embedded in the sector. We will try to ensure that we have collaboration across the higher education sector. We will be sensitive to the distinctiveness of the challenges in higher education that produce university graduates. We will also create close links between teaching, research and the service provision. However these things take time and we see ourselves taking care to see that we can indeed offer the best information service available. We intend to ensure that policy makers can be guided by our good practice guides and that they make the best provision for students with disabilities by having embedded in their policies the whole issue of accessibility. After all it is good for all students if accessibility is at the forefront of any policy.

People working in the Higher Education field are very busy people and have a workload that does not allow them to spend time hunting for information by looking through the threads that have previously taken place in areas such as Dis-forum, or spending time surfing the Net. We realise that there is a need to ensure clear routes to the answers of questions they have. We will through our expert system make sure that answers to queries point the user to the best possible solutions in the minimum of time.

Therefore when we ask 'what advice does the sector need?' the answer is to have regard to the needs of all students with disabilities in exercising all their functions. DISinHE has to give good practical advice. It has to ensure that institutions do not allow barriers to be created, or is at worst aware of its limitations and have a strategy for overcoming them. We also have to ensure that all computer and information technology services are inclusive in the provision. For the students themselves we need to ensure that they can find out their rights and that this information is reasonable and factually correct.

We do not wish to give the students false hope; neither do we wish to give the students an unfair advantage over their peer group. However we do have to 'level the playing field'. We need to empower the student's service provider to talk in an informed way about the needs of the client group. The policy maker has to be aware of the legislation and the moral obligations they have when offering services to the public and in particular those with a disability. They need to be aware of accessibility issues to a level of 'second nature' so that accessibility becomes embedded in the whole range of institutional policies.

IT managers need to be able to discover the problems they may encounter when setting up systems and what this may mean for student access to the learning process. There is a basic level of need to ensure that the student is not barred from the available technology; but how many IT managers know how to do this. How many providers of specialist equipment know this? We aim to help these people set a standard that ensures the student has the best possible chances during their time at their chosen institution.

So far the project has been collecting information and designing the Webs' database. The DISinHE Web site has been created in order to be the central point of dissemination for the Centre. To this end, a large proportion of the site is devoted to our databases of information. Currently, information is held on a number of subjects, namely: disability organisations, research and development work, conferences and events, suppliers of equipment or services, and worldwide resources. Good practice guides for equipment and support strategies for institutions. There is a database of key people and institutions.

In addition to this information we are providing an email based "help desk" system, a staff room for general live chat, guides and examples of good practice, and a glossary of terms and acronyms. By attending national and regional conferences and talking at workshops for policy makers and information technology providers we are able to inform people of what we are about. We have also called for case studies and other commissioned work. The processes of and the results of which will be presented on the Web site

While the website is used for the dissemination of information, it also serves a dual purpose as an example of good practise in its own right. The site has been designed to be as accessible as possible, and to employ as many of the W3C recommendations as are currently supported, while degrading gracefully for older legacy browsers.

We have been able to check out a wide range of Web sites. Those sites which we feel are useful have been included with a brief outline of the site. I should point out here that the sites listed in our links some 60+ are a small proportion of those we have looked at. There may be sites that we have rejected that others feel worthwhile and for this reason we will always look at any site again when presented with a fair argument. There will I am sure also be sites that we have not seen and to this end we are always happy to accept recommendations from others so that we can go and evaluate the site and maybe include it in our links.

By looking at improved access for everyone we are ensuring better provision for people with disabilities and this leads to better provision for everyone. Higher quality learning materials come from ensuring that they are accessible to all. Providing an improved learning support environment will help the success rate of students. Better forward planning will enable an institution to improve its retention rate. Improved co-ordination of provision saves time and money.

If you want to find out more about the DISinHE Support Centre then please visit us at:
http://www.disinhe.ac.uk 
We welcome all visitors and if you wish please fill in the feedback form and let us know how you got on.

Ian Webb - Development Officer - DISinHE Centre
Tel: 01382 345598 Fax: 01382 345509
Ian@disinhe.ac.uk 
http://www.disinhe.ac.uk


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