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Reflections on Accessibility encounter - A series of posts related to a stream of work from 2016-17 in HE EdTech

8 min read

May 2016

Project initiated by Manuel my rather progressive boss

Project part 1.

In May 2016 my boss assigned me to an unusual project both for me as an EdTech and our Education Innovation Team in the HAS faculty. The nature of what I was asked to initially carry out was ordinary enough learning support with Kaltura, to enable a member of staff with Parkinsons disease to give feedback in the form of audio or video, as writing had become so difficult and painful at scale.

So I blithely booked a meeting with the academic in question and did some research into Parkinsons, the symptoms, progressions, patient forums on their experiences and how it impacted their work and home lives, to give some idea of what I should be thinking about in terms of support provision. I was completely innocent of the extent to which this would grow. In terms of workload, focus and determination to improve and refine the extent of awareness, provision, quality and culture of support within our own faculty and the wider institution.

So I should first mention my own encounters with accessibility support mechanisms, occupational health reviews and so on..

As an undergraduate the second time around I was finally diagnosed with a specific hearing impairment OAD or King Kopetsky's syndrome, dyslexia and Irlen syndrome, a visual and processing impairment, or difference as I prefer to think of it. Eventually towards the end of the final year, I was awarded a Disability access grant and attended an assessment of needs.

I was awarded some technology deemed appropriate to 'help' me with the challenges I faced in studying. Some of it was never received because the skills needed for direct support were not available despite the funds being in place. The laptop provided should've been a help, but the company providing it had set it up weirdly, filled it with company advertising and insufficient Ram to run both Vista and any other program. Plus the 'Training' provided was a laughable 15 mins when the machine was delivered, and never mentioned the issues I had to rectify, to make it at all usable! Plus the university wouldn't allow students and staff to connect Vista machines to the system at the time because it randomly re assigned IP's and caused no end of problems!

One of the more useful items was a little Olympus recorder that allowed me to record lectures and attempt to transcribe after the lecture. Of course I couldn't hear any better, but I shared with other students who filled in the gaps for me, not ideal. On my Post grad teacher training I was given a terrifyingly expensive hearing aid and wireless mic system, which really didn't work. Not least because it required lecturer cooperation and understanding of how to use, additionally it used to pick up interference from other rooms.

By far the most useful and an amazing improvement for me was the Irlen assessment prescription tint for my reading glasses. This costs me hundreds of pounds every time I need new glasses but is so worth it! Being able to read, comprehend and retain information finally, and for longer than 15-20 minutes at a time, wonderful. I recently found out my multi-colour lens layers are so dark they'd be deemed illegal for drivers here, however that's the point I don't 'see' the dark!

As an employee at UWE for the second time around I unfortunately suffered a spinal injury outside of work, ridiculously whilst wrapping christmas presents! So I have direct experience of the OH system in the institution and experienced some of the issues my new colleague was to reveal. However, I am fortunate in having a very supportive, practical and persuasive line manager, so now have an uppy-downy desk so I can stand to work and a perching stool.

All of these experiences obviously influenced my thinking and approaches on how to provide the most appropriate, supportive and accessible support I could for the academic in question. Looking back I can see how naturally, my appreciation of the concepts of accessibility, usability and the application of technology solutions was naive and narrow, even though I'd been on the receiving end. The past 8-9 months has been a dawning revelation on how in trying to help, institutional systems can actually increase the hurdles people face. Of course there are also occasions when it seems institutions and the cultures within parts of them resist the idea of improving access.

So on our first meeting I helped my colleague with familiarisation with Kaltura's desktop recorder and it's integration into Blackboard. This was straightforward enough and she was more than capable of acquiring the necessary skills. Unfortunately whilst she had been away for a period of recovery, her computer had been changed and for some unfathomable reason the most inaccessible tower/screen combo I've ever seen put in. With very little manual dexterity or strength/steadiness of grip there was no way she could set up microphones/headsets for video/audio work. I had difficulty as the USB ports were recessed in the bottom rear of the screen, which only cleared the tower it was sitting on by 3-4cms, the tower ports were all on the side away from her access and already dedicated to permanent set up with things like her old Cintiq touchpad.

Other things in the office arrangement made it obvious to me that there was a serious problem with her working set up, so I asked whether she'd had the OH assessment and report. Obviously making it clear she didn't have to tell me at all or reveal the contents, as this is sensitive personal data. However she was desperately keen to talk to someone about the fact that it had been almost a year since the assessment and report recommendations and nothing had come of it yet. I was appalled by this, she'd been put under enormous pressure, as a result adding to the deleterious effects of the Parkinsons, continuing to work in an unfit environment with a workstation set up exacerbating the condition. 

I'm a very junior learning technologist and not very good at internal politics, perhaps because I don't care about it. This situation made me incredibly indignant on her behalf. I feel sure there was no individual malice or intent in causing the delay or lack of support just a failure of institutional systems. For the individual on the receiving end of such neglect though this can feel awfully personal and targetted, at time when they are already feeling incredibly vulnerable and professionally exposed.

I promised that with her permission, I would attempt to drive things along by approaching my line manager for support. Find out who I needed to approach to get access to the necessary information to resolve at least the implementation of support recommended in the original 2015 report.

So already my simple job had grown into something with serious weight. My indignant little brain was buzzing with how can I make this work better and help her to work free from restrictions or limitations that don't need to be there. Parkinsons has not destroyed this persons mind, ability to learn, teach and share valuable experience with her students and colleagues. As all humans are, she is a person of value to the rest of us and deserves the support necessary to continue to work in a way that does not cause her harm and allows her to do so naturally and fluently with confidence and good health.

How often do we all take for granted the various aids to carrying out work, study, every day life tasks that we use, often daily? We are all on the spectrum of needing accessibility support in someway at some point in our lives. We have lights and speakers, wear glasses, contacts, have walking sticks, cars, escalators, lifts, kitchen aids in wondrous number and diversity and the biggest of all computers, including our dratted phones!

As I saw recently on a tweet

"Disability is a mismatch between a person and their environment.

Accessibility is the correction of this mismatch". Tweet  @SpecialEffect @AbleGamers charities


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Reflections on Accessibility encounter - A series of posts related to a stream of work from 2016-17 in HE EdTech by Ghizzi Dunlop is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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