Creating accessible seminars and tutorials for disabled students

Tutor Practices

One element of tutor practice is, of course, to identify or select materials and resources for use within any small group teaching session. And we have seen that there are issues of accessibility in relation to materials and resources. Some small group teaching in seminars or tutorials rests on contributions of different kinds from the students in the group, and students may be expected to evaluate or comment on the work of their peers. Materials or resources presented by students must of course be as accessible to disabled students as materials or resources provided by the tutor. It might happen that a prepared piece of work read to the group by a nervous student will be less accessible to a student who is deaf or hard of hearing than the clearly presented delivery of the tutor. Or it could be that a student's prepared work includes a presentation of diagrammatic or other visual material. It is helpful if the tutor can foresee such issues about the accessibility of students' work to other students. The tutor should, after discussion with the disabled student, establish working practices which will as far as possible ensure that the contributions of other students are accessible to the disabled student, and, following discussion with disabled students, establish working practices and procedures which attend to arrangements for all students to have equal access to inputs of other students as well as the tutor.

Some such arrangements presuppose disclosure to the group about a disabled student's needs, if not impairment. It is always to be recommended that the tutor should be confident that the student has agreed to some explicit comment about their needs within the group before embarking on such a discussion or statement. Any student may experience discomfort if attention is drawn to them, particularly in the early days of a group forming, and the tutor's sensitivity is important. It is more difficult to say precisely what it is that makes for sensitivity than to provide examples of insensitivity.

"Due to the non existence of computer software and CCTV equipment in the libraries, I was unable to do the research required for one of my lectures. It was a little embarrassing, to say the least. I felt like I was making excuses, even though I know I genuinely couldn't do what was being asked of me due to lack of accessible resources. It was a group learning session, so when I told them of my woeful problems the lovely lecturer said (in his most patronising voice), 'We'll forgive Sara today, seeing as she has extra problems!'"  Sara's diary.

"Once a calculus lecturer we've got turned round and said, 'Yes, you can't read, can you?' He was quite happy giving me the notes - that wasn't a problem, but he just didn't have a clue."

There are further aspects of seminar or tutorial teaching where the practices of the tutor can impact on the experience of disabled students in a positive, or negative, way. The tutor's involvement in establishing ground rules may be helpful, although it is to be recommended once again that there should be prior discussion with disabled students about precisely how the implicit or explicit disclosure of a disability to the group is to be managed.

Perhaps a stereotypical image of a tutorial or seminar is that there will usually be discussion, conducted by the group as a whole, or in sub-groups or pairs, with or without the tutor as leader. It needs to be acknowledged that arrangements will serve to help or hinder some disabled students' ability to benefit from and contribute to a discussion. This includes timing and duration of the seminar, and availability of breaks.

"Seminars are the smaller classes where you sit and discuss stuff and make various attempts at sounding intelligent. It's nice, but this particular seminar is a straight three hours!" Ciaran's diary.

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing may be needlessly excluded, and unable to take part, if several students talk at the same time, rendering lipreading impossible.

"I felt in history tutorials as if he thought, 'She is not really present, she is away in another world. She is not contributing.' I knew that was what he was thinking. But I couldn't hear! I was getting lost all the time in what everyone was saying."

One way in which the tutor can increase the possibility of lip-reading is by establishing a ground rule for the group whereby a pencil or some such baton is passed from speaker to speaker, and only the person holding the pencil is allowed to speak. This arrangement directs attention to the lips to be read, as long as the seating arrangements are such as to allow the faces of all students to be within sight of each other. A horse-shoe seating plan is helpful for this, ideally with none of the participants silhouetted against the light, as this makes faces indistinct.

"I can hear the tutor, but I can't hear what the rest of the people are saying, unless I'm facing them. Some people are a bit timid about speaking in a foreign language... So it's a very quiet voice, and if you're all sitting facing the lecturer, I can't hear what anyone else is saying."

If a deaf student is using an interpreter, then a little additional time might be required for the student's contributions to be signed to the interpreter who will speak them. Seating arrangements are, again, important, and should be negotiated with the student and interpreter before the start of the seminar or tutorial.

Where disabled students in tutorials or seminars are using assistants, such as an interpreter or note-taker, it is particularly helpful for there to be shared understanding of the assistant's role in the group.

"Today was my first tutorial, and I asked him a question. He told me how to get the answer, but he went to my note-taker, and he asked her if she had any problems. She said, 'No, I am just the note-taker.' So it occurred to me that maybe he didn't know. He thought the deaf student was the note-taker. So that made me think, a lot of tutors don't know who they actually have in the class."

Prior notice of the topic and main ideas also provides the necessary context for successful lip-reading, as well as successful sign language interpretation, which rests on previous agreement especially about signs for less usual terminology. If the subject matter or discussion is not sufficiently structured to allow this, for example if it is open to students to take the discussion in a direction of their own choosing, then the main ideas could be recorded, by the tutor or by students, on a chalkboard, flipchart or in some other textual way as the session progresses.

Speaking in a group can be an ordeal for many students, and yet is an understandable expectation of students in seminars and tutorials, where the opportunity to develop a valuable skill is created. For some students, the anxiety may be undue, perhaps for reasons related to an impairment, such as mental health difficulties. Tutors' general posture of encouragement to all students to contribute safely, and without fear of ridicule, is of course important.

Griffiths and Partington (Enabling Active Learning in Small Groups: Module 5 in Effective Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, UCoSDA/CVCP, 1992) suggest,

"Nervous students can be encouraged to participate more readily if their place in the group is opposite (i.e. in direct eye contact) to either a sympathetic tutor or an encouraging, more voluble, student peer."

Of course, for some students, who may either be in need of encouragement or able to offer it, eye contact is not possible. This raises a more general point about the potential usefulness of offering to provide a verbal description of the room and its layout to students who are blind or partially sighted. It may be additionally helpful to ask all students to introduce themselves at the beginning of each session, so that all students are informed about who is present as well as where they are seated. Once again, sensitivity is important.

But where the tutor's attitude, supplemented by implementation of strategies to promote student interaction, are insufficient to create an environment where the most anxious of students will be able to take part, there may be a need to take a view about the necessity for all students to participate, and whether participation must always take the same form. A student who is unduly anxious about speaking out in a group may, for example, be quite able to prepare a discussion paper for circulation in advance. The necessity for students to participate, and participate in a particular way or ways, is likely to be related to the nature of the course, and may, for example be different for a course in Change Management which aims to develop students' negotiation and intervention skills, from a course in Legal Research and Writing. Tutors can undoubtedly enhance the accessibility of seminars and tutorials by being open to the possibility that there could be alternative ways in which students may take part, without compromise to competence or other academic standards.

Students who have speech impairments are not necessarily among those who would experience undue stress at having to contribute. There are various available strategies for dealing with a situation where a student's speech may not be accessible to the rest of the group, and once again, these should be discussed in advance with the student. The student may wish to use an assistant who is accustomed to the student's speech pattern and able to articulate the student's contributions. Alternatively, the student may wish to note down key words, or longer comments, which can then be read out by the tutor or another student. Students who use equipment which produces synthetic speech, or who would be able to use overheads rather than speech, are amongst many students who would benefit from prior notice of the topics to enable them to prepare.

One important benefit of smaller group teaching is the heightened opportunity for tutors to be aware of all students as individuals, and to check with students about whether the teaching is achieving its intended purpose, and whether there is any way in which students' involvement is being helped or hindered.

"If they would just say, 'Any problems, guys? How's it going? I'll be in my office from such and such a time, or I have five minutes now if you have any questions.' Partially sighted students need more interaction."

The closer contact between students and tutors than there may be between students and lecturers can increase the likelihood that disabled students will disclose to their tutor that they are disabled, which in turn gives the tutor the obligation to manage the disclosure in a manner consistent with the duties of the DDA and other legislation about sensitive personal data.

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