Creating accessible e-learning resources for disabled students.

Reflecting from the legal angle

When I am using e-learning resources to support my teaching, are there any legal obligations I need to be aware of?

Independent learning opportunities, such as e-learning, computer facilities and information and communication technology resources, are listed in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 Part IV Code of Practice for providers of education and related services as services in the provision of which less favourable treatment must be avoided, and reasonable adjustments made. Less favourable treatment may be justified if it is necessary to maintain academic or other prescribed standards. What adjustments are reasonable to make in relation to e-learning and associated resources may vary according to the size of the institution, the financial and other resources available to it, and the use being made of an e-learning resource.

5.2F A tutor in Zoology delivers one of his modules through a computerbased learning environment and awards marks for students’ participation in online discussion. The system does not work with a visually impaired student’s software. The student is likely to be placed at a substantial disadvantage.

(If you have a web site that provides a service to members of the public, for example by providing potential commercial collaborators with information detailing research carried out within a department, it is likely to be covered by Section III of the DDA.)

Does the DDA provide a technical definition of a legally acceptable level of accessibility?

The DDA does not provide a technical definition of a legally acceptable level of accessibility. The overall aim is that you should avoid the substantial disadvantage of disabled students in your design and use of e-learning resources.

It would be for the court to decide whether, in the circumstances of a particular case, discrimination had occurred related to the accessibility of e-learning resources. But, in its defence, an institution might wish to demonstrate that measures had been taken in the design of the resources, and when considering their use in teaching, to ensure that they would be suitable for anticipated use with, and/or by, students with a range of impairments.

Surely I can’t be expected to provide captions for all the multimedia video-clips I use? That would take ages, and anyway, I wouldn’t know what to do!

In many situations, multimedia is being used to enhance traditional learning delivery so its very use may be beneficial to many students with specific access needs. But in order to make video content accessible to the widest audience, captions and audio descriptions are required to make the content accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing and those who are blind or visually impaired. However, the effort – and expertise required in order to make multimedia optimally accessible can, in some cases, be considerable, and engaging institutional media production units or external professionals to do this may add significantly to production time and costs.

The DDA does not include a list of reasonable adjustments, but it does offer a list of factors to take into account when considering whether an adjustment is reasonable. These include:

The failure to take a reasonable step can only be justified if the reasons are both material to the circumstances of the particular case and substantial. You would be expected to have explored whether there are some adjustments that could be made to meet the needs of disabled students in your class, and not to have assumed that none were possible.

Courts will look at the financial resources available to the whole institution, and not particular departments. If you feel a particular adjustment is required, you may have to refer the matter to those in the university who can make the necessary financial resources available.

In the case of a video used in an e-learning module, as an initial action, an HTML transcript could be provided of the audio content, while the costs of captioning and audio descriptions are explored.

If I create my web site, run it through an on-line accessibility checking tool and fix the problems it highlights, is that all I need to do?

If you have carried out all the procedures outlined in the section of this booklet on assessing accessibility, you may be in a position to demonstrate that you have anticipated the need to make your web site as accessible as possible to disabled students with a range of impairments.

When you have made your e-learning resources as accessible as technically possible there remains a duty to consider whether in their delivery or use you might place a disabled student at a substantial disadvantage. For example, if use of the resource involves students using computer screens while you are talking to them it is likely that a student who requires to lip read would be
placed at a substantial disadvantage.

The DDA Code of Practice states that the duties to make reasonable adjustments and not to treat a disabled person less favourably for a reason related to their disability are continuing and evolving duties. They are not requirements that are satisfied by considering what provision is necessary once and once only. For example, technological developments may provide new or better solutions, therefore the provision for disabled students should be kept under review.

Some of the e-learning resources which I use are produced by external bodies. Where does responsibility for making adjustments lie? When must they be made?

The institution employing the member of staff using the e-learning resources to deliver, or contribute to, courses for students will be regarded as the responsible body. It has an anticipatory duty owed to disabled people and students at large to make reasonable adjustments. It is not simply a duty to known individuals.

The Code of Practice states that responsible bodies should not wait until a disabled person applies to a course, or tries to use a service, before thinking about what reasonable adjustments they could make. Failure to anticipate the need for an adjustment may mean that it is too late to comply with the duty to make the adjustment when it is required. Lack of notice would not of itself provide a defence to a claim that an adjustment should have been made.

More detailed information on this topic is available from:

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