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Creating a 21st century, dyslexia-friendly university

To mark Dyslexia Awareness Week 2018 Abi James argues that we should ensure that the full power of technology is being used to support dyslexic students
This article is more than 5 years old

Abi James is the Chair of the British Dyslexia Association New Technologies Committee and a digital accessibility researcher at the University of Southampton.

Widening participation and greater support for disabled students has led to an increased participation of dyslexic students in higher education – from 1% of all students in 1996-97 to 6% in 2016-17.

Support for dyslexic students has improved dramatically over the past twenty years. Today, technology to support disabled students has advanced leaps and bounds, as has its availability. However, recent government reforms of the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) placed the emphasis on universities developing inclusive practices to support high-incidence disabilities. As a result fewer students are now receiving DSA-funded assistive technology. The 2017 HEFCE report into models of support found that many universities are struggling to implement inclusive support across their institutions.

The reality is that degree outcomes for disabled students remain lower than for those without a disability.

Assistive technology for all

Teaching and learning in HE is becoming an increasingly digital experience. At the same time, assistive technology has become built into many mainstream devices and applications. Using your phone to take notes, listening to an article while commuting or communicating with a computer using your voice is now part of daily life. In fact, the recent JISC digital student experiences survey found that nearly 20% of students regularly use assistive technology, many more than those who declare they have a disability.

Assistive technology can now augment any student’s toolkit and we know that with the right support environment and planning, students can benefit from using a whole host of free and built-in tools whether they are dyslexic, have another disability or no disability.

Inclusive assistive-technology strategies are about ensuring your university is harnessing the power of assistive technology to support all your students, not just meeting responsibilities under the Equality Act (2010) and the recent Public Sector Bodies Websites and Mobile Applications Accessibility Regulations (2018).

Inclusive digital universities

So what actions can universities take? First, universities should ensure there is a digital accessibility strategy in place. How will assistive technology users will interact with the increasingly digital student experience? Are university websites accessible for assistive technology users? For example, a recent audit of ebook accessibility highlighted how difficult it can be for students to know if digital resources provided through libraries suit their needs.

We can ensure that accessibility and personalisation are part of our requirements for computer systems. Are our networks using the latest tools and making accessibility options available? All too often we highlight how it’s possible to adapt computers or use built-in tools such as text to speech in browsers only to find that university networks have disabled these features or use older versions of browsers. Do staff know how to make documents and presentations accessible? For example, using heading styles not only saves time and improves accessibility but also makes it easier for everyone to navigate through documents.

Lastly, it is critical to promote good digital skills across our institutions. While many universities provide study skills support there is often a disconnect with IT and digital learning initiatives. Are our staff using lecture capture and providing digital notes in all teaching sessions? For example, providing captions and transcripts not only supports students with hearing difficulties but is also helpful to international students, dyslexic students, and those who struggle to concentrate.

Part of the journey towards inclusion is to understand what our organisations can do and how it can improve. Initiatives such as the BDA Quality Mark and the BDF Disability Standard can assist through this process. For staff wanting to learn more about digital accessibility, the free FutureLearn Digital Accessibility MOOC offers a chance to gain new skills and reflect on their practice.

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