Creating accessible lectures for disabled students

Delivering lectures

There is no doubt that the delivery style and habits of individual lecturers must impact on the experience of disabled students in lectures, as indeed they do on all students.

'Lecturer techniques identified by students as particularly helpful were:

Finally, students saw the lecturer as providing an active example of learning and processing information that, in turn, helped them to digest the material on their own.' (Horgan, op.cit.)

The above account of lecturing techniques valued by students generally is a good illustration of the point that what individual lecturing staff might need to do additionally to ensure that disabled students can benefit from lectures depends to some extent on existing practices.

It is probably also true that some practices are particularly crucial for some disabled students. It is helpful to many students if the lecturer speaks clearly and deliberately, not too fast, faces the front, does not constantly move around, and does not turn her back on the class in order to use a chalkboard. But without attention to these details, some disabled students, for example students who rely on lip-reading, might be disproportionately disadvantaged. Although these are aspects of 'on-the-day' delivery, it may be that training and practice prior to the delivery of the lecture would be helpful to correct or modify practices which needlessly disadvantage some disabled students.

"Where lecturers make extensive use of overheads, diagrams or writing on the board, they need to be reminded to provide a commentary on what they are doing or ideally provide the source materials prior to the lecture. This is useful for all students."

A further aspect of delivery which may also require advanced thought or preparation is the lecturer's role in the use of disabled students' auxiliary aids or assistants. Views about the pros and cons of students taping lectures are often expressed with some force. Horgan's view that effective lectures 'shake students out of the passive, stenographic role' (op.cit) suggests the value of lecturers preparing all students, including disabled students, for maximizing the usefulness of attendance at lectures.

"Audiotaping of lectures is both permitted and encouraged."

"Tape recording and transcribing are possible, but usually not practical, given the time it takes. Another option is for the student to use a scribe, but as course materials are available in either on-line or hard copy, this would not usually be necessary."

In some academic contexts, the idea of students taping lectures gives rise to legitimate concerns about recording of sensitive information, for example in a medical, clinical teaching context, if information about named patients is to be part of the subject of the lecture. But more generally, if taping a lecture is a disabled student's sole means of recording what other students are able to record in writing, then it may be difficult to defend a refusal to allow a student this means of working. On the day, it may be helpful to find a discreet way to assist students using this technology to get good sound reproduction. It should also be said that it may be embarrassing for a student to approach a lecturer and request permission to use recording equipment. Clearly communicated policies on this, and indeed on other issues, such as the availability of notes and lecture outlines on departmental web-sites, are helpful to students. While there is no pretence that departmental policies are always easy to achieve, the negative impact on disabled students of not knowing how their needs will be met by individual teaching staff should be noted.

"It is not felt desirable to constrain the method of teaching and learning by insisting on a uniform policy. But where staff do not make overheads available on the website, for reasons related to the learning experience of the majority of the class, they will make copies available, either in paper or electronically, for students identified as having special needs."

"There is reluctance from some lecturers to provide copies of lecture materials, even where the lectures include many chemical structures or diagrams. Some provide full or outline printed notes. Others have complete lectures up on the web before the lecture takes place, allowing students to download the material, read it beforehand and attend the lecture to actually listen and make sure they understand. This inconsistency will have to be tackled."

"Many staff express worries that students will not attend lectures if the notes are readily available on the web; but this is only really a worry if we assume a model of learning in which lecturers are the only source of course material. Another viewpoint could be that students are here to learn, and if they choose to learn factual material without attending lectures, that is their choice... Staff who have put notes on the web have found that the good students who attend regularly really appreciate the possibility of checking their own notes and filling in gaps; and these students do realise that there is added value in actually attending the lectures."

The opportunity for lecturers to prepare for particular disabled students rests partly on whether there is a communication system which allows prior contact with, or relay of information about, individual students. Beyond that there is a need to be aware in advance, through staff training sessions, of the practices which aid or inhibit the participation of disabled students in lectures.

"Staff are generally informed by word of mouth, and each individual lecturer modifies their own teaching practice. This will differ as training and awareness levels differ. Problems are minimised if lecturers generally follow practice which assists disabled students. Overall this points to the need for disability awareness training for all lecturing staff and for the establishment of general guidelines to ensure consistency of practice."

Given that some students may have difficulty in accessing material which is presented orally, and other students may have difficulty in accessing visual material, then a simple rule of thumb would be that reliance on one mode should as far as possible be avoided. Practices which exemplify these rules of thumb in the context of a lecture would include:

"Our review highlighted that currently where information is required for students in a different format, e.g. large print, Braille or audio tape, this is often not made available to the student until after the lecture. There is a need to ensure that where a student accepted on to a course requires information in a different format, the resources are identified prior to entry on to the programme. These materials should then be made available to support the student within an acceptable time frame."

In addition, there are some practices which are particularly important where students who are deaf or hard of hearing are, or may be, in the class. These practices include:

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