How accessible is your IT training?

Keyboard with an 'access' buttonCourseware and test materials are often not available in formats that can be used by people with disabilities, says Derek Mills, accessibility advisor at BCS Qualifications. In this article, he outlines the issues, and describes how BCS is trying to encourage organisations to improve accessibility via its Accessibility Awareness Day.

Many organisations are discovering that their training programmes, or their delivery methods, are not meeting the accessibility requirements that can truly demonstrate a commitment to fair and impartial IT training for all.

Major challenges lie ahead therefore if awarding bodies like BCS are to provide a vehicle for reducing the digital divide and ensuring that society is able to utilise fully the benefits that can be gained from the effective use of IT. The scale of the problem is immense.

According to the UK's Office for National Statistics' Labour Force Survey, Sep - Dec 2006, disabled people are more than twice as likely as non-disabled people to have no qualifications (26% as opposed to 10%), Only half of disabled people of working age are in work, compared with 80% of non disabled people in the same group.

The limited accessibility of automated testing and courseware materials for IT qualifications is therefore a serious cause for national concern. Disabled students, in particular those with learning difficulties or a visual impairment, have a very limited choice of courseware materials to support studies for the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL), which BCS manages in the UK. Of the 30 courseware providers approved by the ECDL Foundation, only one applied for and gained the BCS Quality Mark award for accessible courseware materials.

This is particularly unfortunate as ECDL was designed specifically for those who wish to gain a benchmark qualification in computing to enable them to develop their IT skills and enhance their career prospects.

BCS believes that accessible and appropriate materials must be a core element of the overall provision, not viewed as an additional element. During the past four years, BCS has been determined to make its qualifications, such as ECDL, more accessible for disabled individuals through initiatives such as the BCS Quality Mark award, which recognises certain standards of accessibility.

But it's not just about courseware; the situation for disabled students who attempt the automated tests is no better. Some groups of disabled individuals are unable to access the tests at all. The ECDL Foundation is reviewing the accessibility guidelines for autotest providers.

The Foundation is the governing body for the ECDL qualification and their efforts are compromised by a need to gain global agreement among their licensees who manage the qualification in 146 countries. Their work is fully supported by BCS, which is itself examining the territorial agreements with approved test providers in the UK.

By September 2008, changes to the ECDL coursework will be required to reflect amendments to the ECDL syllabus and extensions to the National Occupational Standards (NOS) set by e-skills UK. A perfect opportunity beckons for all providers to incorporate accessibility features into their new courseware materials. By making qualifications like ECDL more accessible, test and courseware providers can significantly improve the employment opportunities in the disabled community.

There is a wealth of advice available from disability agencies for companies designing test and courseware materials. A small selection of these agencies is listed in the Sources of advice on accessibility section at the end of the article.  The selection is for information purposes only. No endorsement or approval on the part of BCS should be inferred. Their recommendations depend on the format of the material but the general consensus includes a consideration of:

Readability:

  • text should be written in plain, clear and consistent language and free from unnecessary jargon.
  • avoid the passive tense.

Layout:

  • appropriate use of styles and headings.
  • sans serif font style such as Arial or Verdana.
  • a minimum font size of 12 pt.
  • left aligned text.
  • appropriate spacing
  • an appropriate coloured background to the paper or web page
  • avoidance of colour blind colours

Alternative formats:

  • large print, Braille, audio and DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System).
  • British Sign Language (BSL) for candidates with a severe hearing impairment who use BSL rather than English.

Assistive technology (the software and hardware that help to remove the barriers for disabled candidates):

  • compatibility with appropriate software including:
    - screen reader and magnification.
    - text to speech.
    - voice recognition.
  • appropriate for candidates who do not use a mouse.

The needs of disability groups often overlap. Using clear and simple language promotes effective communication. Access to written information can be difficult for people who have learning disabilities. Using clear and simple language also benefits candidates for whom English is a second or additional language and deaf people who communicate primarily in sign language.

Accessibility Awareness Day

The wish to improve the accessibility of test and courseware materials was the impetus for BCS’s inaugural Accessibility Awareness Day in October 2007. BCS invited representatives of commercial test and courseware providers, accessibility organisations and disability agencies associated with BCS qualifications such as ECDL.

The aim was to celebrate and raise awareness of the achievements of BCS Qualifications and its partners over the past year, and to identify the challenges and targets for the next twelve months.

The guest speaker was Chris Mairs, director of Data Connection and founder of a-technic, a charity which develops technology for disabled people. He drew on anecdotes from his own personal experiences to illustrate how the most simple tasks, such as the use of a computer mouse, can become very difficult.

The central part of the day was the BCS Quality Mark awards ceremony. Awards were made to 11 organisations which have helped in the last year towards improving the accessibility of the BCS qualifications. BCS initiated the Quality Mark award in 2006 with four categories representing the main areas of support.

The remainder of the event was devoted to presentations on accessibility issues by external agencies. Patoss emphasised the need to address readability in both test and courseware material, whilst TechDis explained why developing a learner's e-skills is one of the most effective ways of removing barriers to achievement.

Mandy de la Mare from the Thalidomide Trust demonstrated how screen reader and voice recognition software can be successfully integrated and used for reading and writing emails and documents. Representatives from the RNIB College discussed the increasing popularity of the DAISY format for creating training materials.

BCS now plans to hold its Accessibility Awareness Day annually and you can register your interest for updates by emailing BCS via a2a@hq.bcs.org.uk

The winners

Deafax - Manual Test Partner Award for developing question papers in a deaf friendly format.

Deafax identified guidelines for producing deaf friendly test papers. In cooperation with the ECDL Foundation and BCS Qualifications, it developed a deaf friendly version of ECDL test papers.

Dolphin Computer Access - Technical Partner Award for their Supernova screen reader software for the visually impaired and their working partnership with Litmus Learning.

Dolphin continues to improve the compatibility of their Supernova software system with our manual test work files. It has also worked with one of the automated test providers to improve accessibility. As well as providing technical help to BCS, Steve Bennett, Sales Director, Dolphin Computer Access has supported events such as a series of 'ECDL for the Visually Impaired' workshops.

Patoss - Manual Test Partner Award for developing question papers with improved readability.

Patoss has provided help with the readability and layout of our manual tests. An initial project in 2006 resulted in the production of ‘readability’ versions for ECDL test papers. In 2007, their guidelines were followed in the creation of the latest ECDL manual test papers and improved readability is now provided for all candidates.

Royal National College for the Blind (RNCB) - Manual Test Partner Award for creating question papers in alternative formats.

Their staff have played a major role in promoting accessibility for the visually impaired by helping to run the annual 'ECDL for the Visually Impaired' workshops at their college.

Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) College - Courseware Provider Award for developing training materials for screen reader software users.

U Can Do I.T. - Courseware Provider Award for developing courseware materials for screen reader software users.

U Can Do I.T. had identified an accessibility issue with equalskills, another BCS qualification aimed at newcomers to IT, which they were using with the visually impaired. They have taken a proactive role, working in cooperation with the ECDL Foundation, in developing an accessible version. The material, available on CD, provides accessibility for people who are dependent on using screen reader and magnification software.

Sources of advice on accessibility

Readability and layout

Visual impairment

Hearing Impairment

General

January 2008