Creating accessible seminars and tutorials for disabled students

Resources and materials used in seminars and tutorials

The range of resources and materials used in seminars and tutorials is as considerable as tutors' expectations about what students will have to do.

"We expect our students in seminars and tutorials to read texts and research papers, access libraries and on-line resources, communicate and evaluate ideas through discussion, design programs, write notes and reports, use mathematics, logic and other formal notations."

The accessibility of teaching materials such as Powerpoint and overhead projector slides is as important in seminars and tutorials as it is in lectures. A possible difference is that in seminars and tutorials, displays on screens are often less distant from students than they may be in a lecture theatre. The recommended font size 30, Arial or Verdana, as a minimum for a large lecture theatre, may be proportionately reduced for a relatively smaller classroom.

But if the expectation is that students will use the information, then they must all be able to access it. There is a variety of ways of achieving this end: hard copies, with due attention, for example, to students' print requirements of font type and size; disk copy; reading out the contents of the slide. The smaller scale environment of many seminars or tutorials often allows the tutor to check that the arrangements are working.

"Due to the lack of hard copies coming my way, I decided to use that wonderful little creation that any respectable partially sighted person owns - the monocular. Only trouble was that as I was about to remove it from my bag, I realised that I was in a room full of people who had probably never seen one before." Sara's diary.

The solutions to questions about accessibility of materials relate to the intended purpose. If the material is for immediate use of students in the seminar or tutorial, then a disk copy given to a student on the day will be inaccessible unless the appropriate technology for accessing the disk is also made available. An associated point is that thought must also be given to the means by which students will not just access but also work with or on the materials. A student who uses Braille will be able to read but not complete, for example, a self assessment form provided in Braille, unless also provided with appropriate technology. If the same student is handed the form as a hard print copy they are likely to find this as inaccessible as most tutors receiving a completed form in Braille. This example reinforces the need for clarity about the intended use of materials, since this has a bearing on how it can be made accessible.

Some students experience difficulty in assimilating longer pieces of text quickly, whatever the format in which the texts are provided. This difficulty might be resolved by providing any material for use in seminars or tutorials to all students, in advance, ideally electronically. Such an arrangement allows students to download the text in whatever format they may require, or onto whatever colour of paper optimises students' use of the material. Students are also enabled to read and digest material at a pace most conducive to their understanding, prior to the seminar or tutorial where they may be expected to discuss it.

Where videos are used, it may be necessary to ensure that these are subtitled or that a transcript is provided to ensure their accessibility by students who are deaf or hard of hearing. This is an example which illustrates the importance of anticipating adjustments well in advance. However, the adjustment may not suit all teaching in all subject areas. In a discipline such as Speech and Language Therapy, or Audiology, where development of students' interpretation of aural information is important, then it may be that subtitles or transcripts would defeat the educational objective. Students who are blind or partially sighted may need audio description of video material, or of any visually presented material, such as images relayed from the Internet. But once again, the intended purpose is key to the nature of appropriate adaptations. Audio description of an animated sequence of colliding objects will differ depending on whether the collision is an illustration of a principle of physics, or of ball-sport technique.

Different issues surround the accessibility of computing technology, which may be used to support some small group learning. It is useful for most teaching staff to know how to help students achieve standard adjustments to the view of a screen by, for example, increasing the size of the cursor, or adjusting contrast or background colour. Other access needs are not so easily addressed on the day. Some students require ergonomic keyboards, or variable height computing desks or software such as screen readers or magnifiers.

Aspects of furnishing or fabric can affect some disabled students' learning. Teaching rooms where echo is reduced by soft furnishings such as carpet or curtains may be better for some students who are deaf or hard of hearing. Induction loops or portable infrared systems may also be helpful for such students. Rooms where background, external noise is minimised are important to some students and staff. Somehow, the known requirements of individual students need to be matched up with available venues and resources.

"Had my first seminar today. It was alright. My chair can't really fit under the tables, though, which is very annoying." Ciaran's diary.

There is a need to establish what is and can be made available by the University, where the gaps in provision are, and what system will be best suited to matching provisions to students. Facilities in different teaching rooms may vary, and some institutions have established a database carrying descriptions of what is available and where, thus enabling successful matching of rooms with student needs.

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