EA Draffan talks about Print Impairment in the UK.

Last month, Noel Duffy and Steve Palmer from Dolphin Computer Access Ltd, caught up with EA Draffan to discuss what it means to be print impaired in the UK.

EA Draffan:

Picture of E A DraffanOne of the best known and certainly the most energetic campaigner for students with print impairments in the UK, EA works tirelessly to improve access to assistive technology in colleges and Universities.
After training as a Speech and Language Therapist, she worked with people who have communication difficulties whilst specialising in assistive technology.

In addition to working with print impaired students in Further and Higher Education, she has also set up an Assistive Technology Centre. Today she provides staff development, maintains an on-line database of assistive technologies and collaborates with a research group at the University of Manchester.

EA is a self confessed serial conference attender, where she speaks on assistive technology issues and helps out her colleagues across the world to deliver new and better solutions to the industry.

Q1. Hi EA, although understanding of print impairment amongst the professionals seems to have risen in the past few years, awareness elsewhere still seems to be low. Who, in your view, tends to be affected by print impairment?

A1. Thinking of print impairment can conjure up visions of Braille and audio books that may take rather a long time to arrive. Blind and partially sighted people are in fact just a small subset of the total print impaired sector. The other group in the sector which thankfully has received much needed press of late is dyslexic readers. Print impaired can also include people with aphasia (as a result of a stroke), colour blindness, poor literacy skills and others with learning disabilities. We shouldn’t forget those who are deaf or hard of hearing and have BSL as their first language or international students who have English as a second language. Typically people with any type of print impairment can have difficulty with both the mechanics of reading and interpreting the message.

Q2. Have you got any numbers on this?

A2. This is a tough one to answer as the statistics come from many different sources. The Higher Education Statistics Agency has published figures for those students who have visual impairments and specific learning difficulties including dyslexia separately so for instance in 2004 the percentage of disabled UCAS applicants was around 4.54% of which 2.44% came under the specific learning difficulties category and 0.13% came under the Blind/partially sighted category. When it comes to Further Education this is even tougher and when I was talking to Alistair McNaught from TechDis the figures he mentioned related to a Parliamentary Question raised by Gordon Prentice who said there were 4,700 blind students in FE. Other figures that have appeared relate to students who are statemented at school level. For instance Warwickshire LEA Pupil Level Annual School Census (PLASC) came out in 2005 saying the percentage for Specific Learning Difficulty (Dyslexia) was 10.93% and Visual Impairment 2.20%.

Q3. Wow, these are big numbers; what do you recommend to help people with print impairments and in particular these with reading difficulties?

A3. There are a variety of ways of helping with reading electronic text such as highlighting the text that is being read and providing synchronised speech feedback. It is helpful also if the text has clear navigation and good punctuation to help those using speech output software. It is important to allow for changes to be made so that text enlargement is possible or fonts can be altered and styling changed.

But reading is not the only challenge facing the print impaired population. Difficulty with writing may go hand in hand with poor reading and some of the better tools such as Dolphin Tutor address the reading and writing issues together with clever use of reading aids, which incidentally can also help with proof reading ones own work. Other writing components include predictive typing and the inclusion of spell checkers and homophone databases. Ideally these tools should be simple to use and work with e-learning environments, PDF and word processed documents.

Not all students with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia like to use concept mapping for key wording or generating ideas in a graphical form but it is often advised as a useful tool and can be very useful when words do not act as good triggers for the memory. As organisational tools, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) can now have in built screen readers like your Pocket Hal for speech output making them ideal for people on the move and can be used with spellcheckers and portable keyboards.

Q4. Are you satisfied with the provision currently being made for students with print impairments?

A4. Many people working in the field have been arguing for a solution with a more mainstream approach. As you can see from the numbers involved this could have a very broad impact, so the concept of universal design for learning, (i.e. if we remove the barriers to learning) has to be welcomed. The Disability Discrimination Act has helped to raise the level of awareness that educational establishments need to make reasonable adjustments in anticipation of the attendance of disabled students. The new Disability Equality Scheme requires an even more proactive approach to be taken, with the involvement of disabled students.

The Disabled Students Allowances which facilitates a more personalised approach, at least allows for individuals to have a discussion with an assessor with the opportunity to explain the need for more individualised study and technological support.

However I remain concerned that many students coming from the secondary sector are still unaware, when they enter Further and Higher Education, that there are study support resources available as well as assistive technologies.

Q5. Interesting, is there a communication vacuum in the secondary system?

A5. I am always rather embarrassed when students who have disabilities or specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia do not know about the technologies available to enable them to work more easily. Perhaps it is to do with the language we use, for instance departments are called different names from school to college or university; technologies may be described as access, assistive, enabling or adaptive and teachers talk about ICT and ILT. Somehow we need to increase awareness between the sectors and make it easier to learn about what is available. We have recently conducted an assistive technology survey across second and third level institutions and are hoping to draw attention to this issue in the future.

Q6. This survey you mention sounds very interesting - have you got anything to share right now?

A6. I am afraid we are only just collating and beginning to analysis the data at present, but it is hoped that we will be able to understand more about the issues that arise for students who apply for a Disabled Students Allowance. We hope to learn how they feel about the process and perhaps gain insight into how they use the technologies they have received.

Interview continued on page 2...