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Making learning activities more accessible

Traditional learning activities involve reading, recording and notetaking – activities that can be more difficult and time consuming for motor impaired learners to engage in.

Learning activities can be made more accessible to motor impaired learners by:

  • Clarifying the learning objectives and adapting the task to the likely work speed of the learner. For example a task may require learners to research 3 contrasting examples of polymers. If the learning objective is the research task then only 1 or 2 examples may be sufficient to evidence research skills. If the learning objective is the range of examples then the tutor might point the learner to specific recommendations to save on research time. If the learning objective is contrasting examples it might be that two examples would suffice.
  • Using technology to support planning, organisation, recording and writing skills. Learners can benefit from carrying their key resources on a memory stick instead of a lever arch file.
  • Allowing learners to use their own mobile devices for notetaking (e.g. audio clips) and evidence collection rather than having to physically write things down.
  • Developing activities that are creative and not necessarily writing dependent.

Recognise that different assistive technologies offer quite different ways of supporting learners. Voice recognition software can allow a learner with motor difficulties to write rapidly with reasonable accuracy but it will only work effectively in the location where the software was trained. If the learner moves to a different computer in an area with different acoustic background accuracy will diminish. By contrast, word prediction software is slower than voice recognition but will work effectively on any computer in any location.

Some activities require challenging levels of physical dexterity - for example field courses, work placements or laboratory practicals. It is important that institutions develop clear strategies about how they propose to deal with learners with motor impairment. Where institutions wait until a problem arises they are less likely to have thought through the issues and more likely to make poor decisions that are open to challenge. Every individual set of circumstances is different (and policies can reflect this) but the importance of developing clear, transparent and locally appropriate guidelines on these issues cannot be overstated.

Making learning resources more accessible

Learners with mobility difficulties may find it difficult to manipulate traditional learning resources - books, files, folders etc. Resources in electronic format can offer a range of advantages to learners with motor impairment. These include:

  • Portability - immense amounts of material can be accessed from Virtual Learning Environments with minimal physical exertion. Portable devices (e.g. Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and mobile phones) can carry lots of content with no weight penalty.
  • Navigability - rather than physically leafing through pages, resources in electronic format provide learners with a quick way of getting to the relevant content. Document maps and bookmarks allow easy access to any point in a document. This functionality depends on staff being aware of basic accessibility practices - such as structuring documents with heading styles. Search functions in software provide quick ways of ‘virtually leafing through documents’. Search engines effectively bring resources to the learner with minimal physical effort. Search engines can work either on the web (e.g. Google, Yahoo etc) or on an individual machine (e.g. Google Desktop).
  • Usability - resources in electronic format offer a range of usability benefits for learners with motor difficulties. One of the foremost of these is the ability to copy and paste relevant text. Writing notes from a book can be difficult and time consuming but copying and pasting text from an electronic document is physically very easy, allowing the learner to focus their effort on argument, evidence and analysis rather than spending all their time on the mechanics of word formation.

Notetaking can be difficult for learners with motor impairment. A traditional solution is to employ notetakers which works well for some learners. Others may prefer more independence. Teaching staff can use Interactive Whiteboards and VLEs to ensure the main ideas are captured from teaching sessions and made available to learners afterwards.

Electronic documents should prove accessible to motor impaired learners but they will often benefit from additional training - for example in the use of:

  • Shortcut keys
  • Built in autoscrolling (where it exists - e.g. in PDF documents
  • Use of inbuilt document navigation - e.g. document map in Word or bookmarks in PDFs.
  • Use of auto-text and auto-correct to speed word processing.

Many text dense resources can be converted to MP3 using either commercial software, free tools such as DSpeech or free web services such as Read the Words or Robobraille. For some learners with motor impairment, listening to content on their personal devices (e.g. MP3 players) is easier than organising and manipulating textual material in physical files.

Accessible teaching strategies – general principles

Recognise that many tasks will take longer so provide support by:

  • Clarifying the learning objectives in assignments.
  • Adjusting the task to match the physical demands of completing it.
  • Providing copies of handouts, OHPs, notes etc in electronic format.
  • If appropriate provide audio summary of notes (see 4.2.4 above).

As part of good teaching practice:

  • Alert the learner (and support staff if relevant) well in advance regarding any extra support needed - for example change of venue, practical tasks etc.
  • Use technology to reduce the notetaking burden on the learner - for example recording discussions, using an Interactive Whiteboard, loading resources onto the VLE.
  • Ensure the learner is familiar with the ways they can use common technologies to best effect (see Techdis Accessibility Essentials number 2 and the Techdis staff pack Benevolent Bill - what Microsoft does for accessibility.
  • Develop a range of assessment approaches and assignment activities.

Further information and guidance