Inclusive design and improving access for people with visual impairments

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Friday, 30 January 2015 12:02pm

In the UK, young people aged 16-25 who have a vision impairment are twice as likely as others their age not to be in employment, education or training.

Rachel Hewett, Research Fellow at the Visual Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research, School of Education, University of Birmingham, is researching whether a greater focus on inclusive design might help improve access to information, and so improve access to employment, education and training.

Rachel spoke to Media Access Australia about the potential of inclusive design and vision impairment ahead of her presentation on the research at the 2015 Annual International Technology & Persons With Disabilities conference (CSUN).

Could you tell us about your research on how young people with visual impairments are choosing to access information?

Rachel Hewett: Our research into how young people with visual impairments are accessing information is part of a broader study which has been looking at the experiences of 80 young people with visual impairments as they look to make the transition from compulsory education and into employment. Research findings show that in the UK the employment rate of people with visual impairments is very low (just 30 per cent for those registered as blind or partially sighted).

This exclusion from the labour market is true across the whole working age population—recent secondary data analysis of the UK labour force survey suggests that 44.4 per cent of 16 to 25 year olds with visual impairment are NEET (‘not in employment, education or training’), compared to 22.7 per cent of this age in the general population. Previous research evidence has shown that there are a number of factors which can impact on how successful these young people are in making the transition into employment; one of which being how well equipped they are to independently access information.

What are the major goals of the research?

Our study is quite unique in that we are tracking the experiences of these young people over an extended period of time. To date we have been working with the participants for five years, and we are hoping to extend this further. Ultimately we are looking to identify the key enablers and barriers which can impact on a young person with a visual impairment successfully obtaining employment.

We have found that in general the young people have been supported through their academic studies, and are generally achieving well in their examinations. However, we have some concerns that the external pressures that are experienced by schools to achieve high exam results have resulted in schools prioritising the young people’s exam results (which are obviously very important), but at the expense of some of the softer skills that they will need once they leave school.

Examples would include mobility skills, self-advocacy skills and skills to be able to access information in a range of ways, (e.g. being able to access information through specialist equipment as well as through enlarged copies of material). Thinking more specifically about the ways in which young people are choosing to access information in an electronic format, we have observed a movement by the young people away from using specialist accessibility equipment, with them instead favouring mainstream technology that feature a more inclusive design, such as those which have emerged in recent years.

Why is the research significant?

Whilst it is vitally important that young people with visual impairments are reaching their potential in their exams, this should not be at the expense of the skills that will be needed once they leave compulsory education and move into adulthood and independent living. For example, some of our participants have spoken on how they would rely on enlarged copies of material in school, and have not had the opportunity to build up skills to be able to work independently, for example, by using assistive technology in lessons. Ironically, for some educators they may see this as supporting the young person in the best possible way, as in the short term it can place less of a demand on that young person.

More positively, many of our participants who do use technology have spoken of how they are benefiting from being able to use mainstream equipment to be able to access information. This has come about as a result of more inclusive design of these devices. For example, for a number of years Apple Mac computers have had inbuilt magnification and speech software. Similar functions are now available in devices like tablet computers and e-readers. For teenagers in schools, this is particularly welcome.

The difficulties that young people with visual impairments face in schools are well documented, as they can feel uncomfortable in using equipment which makes them feel different from their peers. Therefore the fact that they are now able to use the same equipment as their classmates is something to be celebrated.

One note of caution, however, is that for most of the young people that we interviewed the use of mainstream equipment seems to have replaced the use of specialist equipment altogether, and therefore young people are leaving education without these skills in place. It is quite possible that once they move from an educational setting into a work setting that they will discover some limitations of their preferred technology, and instead need to navigate towards using more specialist equipment when having to use company systems. As our participants continue their transition into employment, this is something which we will be monitoring closely.

What implications do these findings have for those working in education?

Technology is changing rapidly, and for the specialist teacher of the visually impaired, it can be difficult to keep track of the different equipment that is available, and how it can be best used in the classroom. Certainly we have heard accounts of how the young person has become the ‘educator’, in demonstrating to their specialist teachers the equipment that they have, and how it can be used. It’s important that specialist teachers are given the opportunity to ‘top-up’ their knowledge on the range of equipment available to be able to better guide their students.

These findings also have some implications for policy makers. For example, in the UK, students who attend university are able to apply for a funding stream called Disabled Students Allowance. This provides financial support to enable students with disabilities to be able to access their course. It funds various things like equipment, note-takers, and mobility support. Unfortunately we have found that in some cases assessors have been refusing to fund mainstream equipment such as tablet computers or Mac computers, stating instead that the fund is for providing specialist equipment only.

For example, they would fund a Windows laptop with Jaws, but not a Mac computer on its own (it should be noted that some of the young people were able to negotiate around these restrictions successfully, but they are the exception). This is because such equipment is viewed as being the same as that which would be purchased by a non-disabled student. What is not necessarily appreciated is that whilst a young person with a visual impairment may be using the same device as a sighted peer, they are often using it in a different way, and more as an assistive device. For example, a sighted student may be following a lecture on their tablet computer as they find that more convenient than looking up at a projector. However, a student with a visual impairment maybe following a lecture using their tablet computer as it allows them to zoom in to read information which they are unable to see by looking at the projector screen.

How are your participants using technology in their everyday lives?

One further common trend that has become particularly apparent through talking with our participants is the central role that technology takes in their everyday life. This is particularly the case with mobile phones where the young people are using these devices, for a variety of type of task, as a form of assistive aid. As many will be aware, there are numerous apps available which can be used on smartphones, such as apps which help identify objects, colour identifiers and dictation apps. These were highlighted as very valuable tools by the participants.

However, the young people have been using their smartphones in other, sometimes rather imaginative ways. For example, some would use their phones for its GPS capabilities to help them navigate around a new place or to work out where they need to get off the bus. Others use the camera on their phone as a form of electronic magnifier. Similarly, several have spoken of how they would take a picture of something like a departure board at a train station and then zoom into the picture to be able to obtain the information that they want. Those who use trains have benefited from the fact that live travel information is available online, such as the time that a train is expected to arrive, and the platform number that it will be departing from. It is interesting to observe how now that more and more information is being made available via the internet, how this can be of benefit to those with visual impairments—providing they have the necessary skills to access it.

Rachel Hewett is a Research Fellow at the Visual Impairment Centre for Teaching and Research, Department for Disability, Inclusion and Special Needs, School of Education, University of Birmingham, UK. She can be contacted via email.

The Longitudinal Transitions Study has been running since 2010 and has been funded by the UK-based charity Royal National Institute of Blind People and the Nuffield Foundation. Further findings from the research can be found on the University of Birmingham’s site.

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