The world recognised Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD), held this year on 17 May, represented a unique opportunity to encourage discussion, share best practices and learn about digital access and people with different disabilities.

With nearly 1 billion people in the world having some form of disability, here at Blackboard we believe accessibility is an imperative. As part of Blackboard’s “follow-the-sun” series of webinars for GAAD this year, we had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Paul Harpur, senior lecturer at TC Beirne School of Law, University of Queensland (UQ) to hear his story on creating a better learning environment for all learners.

Dr. Harpur you are an accomplished lawyer, researcher and author, could you share with us your accessibility experiences as a student?

Technology for me has been key all along.  At age 14 years I was hit by a train and went from being able to see one day to losing my eyesight the next.  I had to suddenly rely on adaptive technology which in those days was a challenge, it wasn’t as advanced as it is today.

For example, when I started studying after losing my eye sight, books were offered in braille, which was an added difficulty for me as I couldn’t read braille.  Talking textbooks on tape were exceptionally difficult to use and were essentially useless. Screen readers, which we now use to convert eBooks to audio, did not exist to anywhere near the same level.  When I started studying at university the Internet was still in its infancy and despite best efforts by academics to provide books and their notes early in the term, the process of accessing them via scanning was slow and cumbersome.  Suffice to say, access was a significant barrier.

However, as my degree progressed, so too did the technology which enabled me to get better results. If I look back at my grade point average (GPA) during my undergraduate degree in Law, you can clearly see that it steadily climbed with each new procurement meaning that technology hadn’t just levelled the playing field, it empowered me and allowed me to operate.

For students now, it’s night and day. Technology is there from day one to help them succeed. However, we are facing new problems. In the past fifteen years, there has been a significant increase in the number of Australian undergraduate students with a disability.  In fact, according to 2017 data from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, it’s gone from 4.4% to 6.2% of the total of undergraduate students with a disability.  But this raises the question: how do we identify and support a student with a disability or impairment?  Whilst I might stand out with my guide dog, someone with low vision wearing glasses may not; many impairments are not easily identifiable and yet we are all seeking accessibility.

Enter the technology experts in learning design and the importance of universal design.  You don’t design course material for able bodied users, you don’t design it for disabled users, you design it as far as possible for all users, making it easier for everyone to access.  To me it’s important to remember one thing: If content is born digital, you can access it.

This is where Blackboard plays a key role in enabling students, all students. For instance, a person with mobility impairment can take an online class and have access to the learning materials via downloadable video, while webinars can be transcribed automatically for those who have hearing impairment.

Technology is enabling people to obtain degrees regardless of their impairments or learning abilities, and whilst there are still barriers to getting a job you are a lot closer to being employed if you have a Bachelor’s degree than if you have not.  If time and resources are put into universal design, and it is done right the first time, it can only be helpful for all.

Institutions are seeing more lecturers with a disability present as experts before students, what are some of your key messages based on your experiences as a lecturer?

Being a person with an impairment in the workplace generally has a positive impact.  Early in my career I applied for a job as a clerk in a top tier law firm, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Ron McCallum, a prominent labour law expert who is also blind.  A partner from the law firm called and said if Ron could do the job, he knew I’d be able to do it.

I think teaching at the University of Queensland does inspire people, obviously based on the fact I was inspired by others such as Ron, and it does have an impact on people with a disability.

The TC Beirne School of law is ranked 36 in the world and working there comes with a lot of pressure, the level of expectation is high.  How do I meet this expectation being blind? To lecture I use two laptops and stand in front of the students with an earpiece in each ear, one for PowerPoint and one for notes.

Students submit their assignments electronically, they upload documents in Word to Blackboard Learn. These can be downloaded, if it’s in Word, my screen reader converts the copy and I have access to papers for marking on my laptop anywhere and at any time.

This is just an example and I can’t emphasise enough the impact technology has had on me generally. It’s making my work easier. That’s why I’m inspired to keep pushing for accessibility, and, hopefully, one day all these efforts will be redundant because everything will be abled or equally accessible.

Funding, time, staff experience, infrastructure, available resources are just some of the challenges faced by institutions, what do you consider it takes to overcome these and deliver a barrier-free learning experience?

Delivering a barrier-free learning environment is achievable.  I believe in the existence of ‘good will’ and this was proven when from a germ of an idea rose the UQ Staff and Student Disability Consultative Group, of which I am Chair.

Whilst visiting Harvard University I’d observed an initiative that was essentially a fireside chat, a networking opportunity for students to talk to an academic with a disability and with each other.  The cogs were turning, how could we adopt a similar approach at the University of Queensland?  I initially spoke to the group who drafted the University’s strategic disability action plan, a robust document that is registered with the Australian Human Rights Commission.  They liked the idea but wanted to take it further, and we now have an overseeing body that looks at how the action plan is being implemented across the University.

Sitting on the consultative group we have the directors of all the major departments within the University, for example, human resources, workplace health and safety, disability services, library services to name just a few.  We also have students with a disability and of course myself.  It’s a diverse group, yet we have already had a significant impact at the University through our achievements, including solving issues affecting individual staff members or students with roundtable discussions or the more complex task of addressing how accessible the University campus is physically.  In this case, it was determined an audit was needed to identify priorities.  This audit is currently being undertaken by an external provider looking at both physical and digital accessibility.  We are confident this initiative will enable us to not just focus on who is here now but who can be here in the future.

Blackboard has a longstanding commitment to accessibility, we’ve just announced the launch of Blackboard Ally for Web to support institutions looking to improve the accessibility of their public facing websites. Whilst this is just one example of a solution addressing accessibility, are there any technologies that you would suggest?  

It’s a fast-moving area and we’ve realised there is a strong need to have someone who has expertise in technology to come in and support the decisions being made to ensure the technology is inclusive.  One of the reasons we are conducting audits is because we don’t necessarily know what’s out there and many of the more effective solutions aren’t necessarily technologies designed for people with disabilities, take for instance the iPhone.

The dream of ability equality, and the idea of people being less disabled by society is much closer than ever before.  The work Blackboard is doing to enable institutions to create an environment that’s inclusive and accessible for all and how quickly technology is changing is having a phenomenal impact.

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