Preparing alternative formats for students

This month, in advance of the new academic year, I spent a lot of time thinking about how we as a library service can best prepare for students with print disabilities. Alternative format provision is time consuming and it is best to prepare the materials in advance where possible. Knowing in advance also allows more latitude for waiting for a copy from RNIB BookShare, or from the publisher. Knowing what individual students find accessible also means we know if a certain ebook will work for them. As I and some colleagues found out this year, ebook accessibility varies hugely depending on the platform.

For students we are aware of, it is possible to do all this as part of the reading list preparation. However for new students, or existing students who don’t disclose a disability – how can we help them? How do we know what we don’t know?

I consulted with colleagues at other universities via the lis-accessibility list and found that  some common themes emerged:

  • The majority of students who use library disability services are referred by student support/disability services, with some students self-referring;
  • Many student support/disability services create tailored plans for each student, with library services as a component;
  • Many libraries offer bespoke tours and interviews with students to show services and scope needs;
  • Some libraries contact students who have declared a disability to the university but have not been in contact with the library;
  • Joined-up working with other teams and departments e.g. student support/disability services, TEL, academic departments is seen as essential.

Reasonable adjustments begin the moment we’re aware of a student having a disability, so as soon as we are aware, we can help – but knowing in advance makes it much more straightforward to meet reading needs.

ARLG conference – June

The Academic and Research Libraries Group had their annual conference on the 27th-29th June. Ben Watson and I presented on mainstreaming access to information, with a focus on universal design, copyright, RNIB BookShare, assistive technologies, and making ebooks accessible at source.

Ben is the Accessible Information Project Adviser at the University of Kent. He is a real force of nature, personable and persuasive. In short, a great co-presenter! He has been working closely with Alistair McNaught at Jisc in order to embed accessible practices at Kent, in particular with regards to learning and teaching, information sources and software.

It was a really fun session and we had a full room of people who had lots of questions and comments. The closing activity was particualrly effective, in which we asked participants to take a photograph of a page of text and uplaod it to the RoboBraille service for conversion to an MP3. The referendum has just taken place, so the page of text was a list of facts and figures on the EU! The winner was the first person to have the text being read aloud from their mobile device, and within a couple of minutes we had a room of people with a newly-minted alternative format – impressive or what?

A summary of our talk is available on the conference webpage and a link to our slides is embedded below.

ARLG 2016 presentation – How can I read that? Mainstreaming access to information to improve services to all

Why the Microsoft guys, however well-meaning, have got it wrong

Inclusive design, or situational disability?

I’m presenting at the ARLG 2016 conference this week on the topic of accessible resources (with Ben Watson from the University of Kent). Our focus is on how to bring them into mainstream provision, and as part of my preparation I’ve been reading up on inclusive design. I looked first to good old Twitter, and found some interesting tweets from David Storey, platform engineer at Microsoft. I’ve come across the term ‘situational disability’ before and it did strike an odd note with me at the time. I took a look at the Microsoft Design webpage, which includes a link to their Inclusive Design Toolkit Manual.

I wanted to like it. I really did. There’s so much good stuff in there and, above all, inclusive design – or design for all – makes sense. I’ve spilt coffee over myself trying to wrestle with a door handle, and I’ve watched a short video in the office minus sound and wished for subtitles – ironically I am deaf, and use subtitles the majority of the time!

However, I am uneasy with the term ‘situational disability’ and the way in which they conflate the terms. In this blog post I’m going to attempt to explain why.


A question of semantics?

As Microsoft point out in their manual, the World Health Organisation definitions changed between 1980 and 2001 from disability being classed as a ‘personal attribute… any restriction or lack of ability… to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being’ to being ‘context dependent… a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.’

Inclusive design is based on the social model of disability: an impairment is attributable to the circumstances in which an individual finds themselves. It’s about removing barriers – subtitling cinema screenings for deaf people, removing steps at entrances for people with walking frames and wheelchairs. Where a range of needs are accommodated, people with disabilities are equal.

But… It’s not that simple. Don’t get me wrong; the social model of disability has been a force for good. It’s allowed people to stop thinking about what’s ‘wrong’ with them, and to ask for their rights. I can do my job just as well as the next person, I just need to wear some hearing equipment, and for people to occasionally speak a bit slower in meetings.

There are things my body cannot do. I can’t hear a pan boiling over in the kitchen. I can’t fully appreciate the beauty of classical music. I can never ‘just join in’ with a conversation in the office as I can’t hear what people are saying around me. When I stay in hotels with no alternative alarm available, I say nervously to the receptionist ‘please check room xxx if the building starts to burn down in the night…’ I’ve adapted to these things, but that doesn’t mean that they go away.


Conflicted feelings

Returning to the terminology – do I feel it is wrong-footed because I am disabled? Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t feel personally offended, or discriminated against, and I’ve spoken to plenty of non-disabled people who feel that the term is clumsy and ‘there could be something better’.

I received some interesting responses on Twitter when I asked this question (thanks, everyone who contributed!) Elizabeth Ellis helpfully signposted me towards the W3C wiki ‘Situational terminology’ page, which contains some useful discussion and suggestions.

Tug of war by Robert Clemens. Available under a CC BY ND 2.0 licence.
Tug of war by Robert Clemens. Available under a CC BY ND 2.0 licence.


Language matters

The issue, as I see it, is that the social model of disability has been used as something of a blunt tool in recent years. Microsoft’s toolkit is a case in point for taking this definition too far. If we flip the model of social disability on its head, we can say that anybody who faces a temporary impairment has a disability. Taking this to its logical extreme, as Microsoft do, equates a parent holding a child as a [situational] disability.

I fully understand the logic in this – and I accept all the examples that they give – but we need to change the language. Words have power, and language matters. We have disability legislation in this country, and worldwide, because disability is a protected characteristic in law. When you reduce disability to a series of potential, specific and temporary interactions, you diminish the experience of people who live with one every single day of their lives.

So yes. I hold my hands up and admit that when I hear these rather black and white arguments, defended with black and white logic,  my injustice radar starts tingling. Another argument that I’ve heard goes along the lines of ‘it’s only an issue if you think disability is a negative thing’. Well, guess what: there’s a big world out there full of complex people, with complex emotions, living complex lives. Invariably things are not usually ‘good’ or ‘bad’; such binary thinking is not helpful.


Law of unintended consequences

Alistair McNaught, Accessibility and Inclusion Specialist at Jisc, said something once which has stuck with me. He said ‘there is much incompetence in this world which is mistaken for malice.’ Alistair is one of the kindest and most fair-minded people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. In this  rapid-fire world of instant communication it is all too easy to make snap decisions, rush to judgement, preach from your electronic pedestal.

People, and companies, get language wrong. They embrace slightly dodgy arguments. In doing so, they may alienate or upset people.

I personally believe that Microsoft should adjust their language, and deploy some more subtle and nuanced ways of thinking. But that’s just me. What do you think?


Is there copyright in subtitles?

This week somebody brought a Swedish case to my attention which has been rumbling on for three years; that of the site. Police raided the site in 2013 and seized the servers, and in May the operator was prosecuted. He is facing, potentially, a prison sentence. This case reminded me of that of a Norwegian student who was fined in 2012 for running a subtitle site. Again the prosecutors had demanded a prison sentence.

I was struck by this as these sites, as well as being popular for translation/language purposes, are also used by deaf and hard of hearing folk. I have never used them myself but I know first-hand how frustrating it is to look forward to watching something, only to insert the DVD and find that it’s inaccessible…

Whilst both cases make much of the translation aspect, due to region locking and licensing issues (it is probable that the subtitles were made from or being used in conjunction with illicit content),  I was interested two things. Firstly: is there copyright in subtitles, and secondly: would use of these sites be infringing under the new disability exception in UK copyright law (section 31 CDPA 1988)?

Does creating a subtitle track to a film constitute copyright infringement? Yes, it’s likely to do so as film scripts are protected. Transcribing the dialogue of a film will probably result in copying a substantial part of a film script.

However, an alternative interpretation would be that subtitling uses independent skill and effort to come up with a new original work – which in itself might attract copyright protection…

Can subtitle files be used under the new  exception in UK copyright law? The exception has been widened now to include all material formats protected by copyright, including films (previously only literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works were included) and now all disabilities that prevent access to a work are included, not just visual impairment. So if the subtitles are created or used to help a person with a disability to access that work then this is likely to be covered under the exception.



As ever, all views are my own, but thanks to Teresa Hackett for alerting me to the Undertexter case, and Charles Oppenheim for mulling it over with me.


My mini survival guide to being deaf at a conference

I recently went to the UKSG 2016 conference, and it was pretty darned good. There are lots of excellent blog posts on it, including this one from the NLPN team, and myself and the other student/Early Career Professional award winners will shortly have an article out in the UKSG journal, Insights.

The UKSG conferences are huge. I mean, seriously – they attract nearly 1000 delegates from all over the world. The keynote speeches are held in a great big hall with a podium and video streaming, and the break-out sessions took place in a wide variety of teaching spaces. I met lots of librarians and information professionals, chatted to vendors and publishers, and attended social events. So what’s it like doing all of the above with less-than-perfect hearing? Here is my mini survival guide to being deaf at a conference.

  1. Preparation is king – hearing relies on guesswork. You need to know what’s going on around you. Familiarise yourself with the timetable; ask questions about the venue set-up; sort out travel routes in advance. Basically, take away any potential source of stress. Always pack loads of spare food and a hip flask. (Okay – the latter doesn’t strictly relate to hearing).

    Make Robert Baden-Powell proud
    Make Robert Baden-Powell proud
  2. Get to places early – bag the best seats. Sit where you can lipread, see the screen, take notes comfortably. An added bonus is that you look really keen – and speakers love people who sit near the front and look attentive. Major good karma alert.
  3. Tell people what works – if you’re with a group of people who want to sit at the back, just tell them! I found that once I explained, people were happy to sit nearer the front. I found that the vendor meetings were in a really noisy hall and many demos involved looking away from me at a computer screen. Again, I had to explain. It can be tedious – but the person you’re speaking to doesn’t know that you’ve already told ten people that day you can’t hear that great and need to lipread. So, keep smiling. It gets easier with time.
  4. Find the great communicators – some people are just ace at communicating. They speak clearly and concisely, and they usually keep conversation flowing in a group. They’re great people to chat to if you’re feeling a bit out of the loop, especially in a social situation – ask them a few simple questions and you’ll soon be back into the swing of things.
  5. Prioritise – and keep your chin up – no matter how well you prepare and advocate, you will probably still miss things. It sucks, but focus in what you can hear and experience. Conferences are mind-expanding places full of people with shared yet varied experiences. Ideas will pop into your head at random moments – ideas that you never thought were possible until now. Soak it up, and enjoy it. And my final tip…
  6. Employ stealth tactics – if all else fails, and you’re really struggling to follow a session, try following the conference hashtag on Twitter. If you can tweet to a few people in the session, even better – you will feel more connected again. Ask LOADS of questions: it’s great to be proactive and show an interest in others – and if you shape a conversation, you will have a better chance of following it. In social events, drink wine.
Ninjas! by Fiona Moore, available under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence




Assistive technology and accessible copies

When I talk about intermediate and accessible copies, I am usually talking about books and journal articles that have been copied into a format that is accessible to our library users. These usually take the form of tagged PDFs, Word documents, and occasionally ePub or DAISY files. These might have been created in-house, sourced from the publisher or an intermediary such as Load2Learn, or the publisher’s version may be accessible (the latter option is by far the most desirable as we have usually paid for this content).

There is a plethora of ways that these  accessible versions can be read or accessed, often using more than one software program, and sometimes when a user reports problems, we do not know if the issue is with the accessible copy or with the software or tool that they are using to access it. It can be tricky to troubleshoot these issues, especially with unfamiliar software.

One initiative  that may help is the Wyvern Training Portal. Wyvern are a company who provide assistive technology solutions to students and institutions. They’ve developed this free portal of help videos and guides as a way to add value to their offering, and it’s free to use.

Other universities have created bespoke help portals, such as this one from the University of Aberdeen, which embeds assistive software guidance with that for more mainstream tools.

Don’t just think about accessible copies for your learners. Consider:

  • what form do they come in?
  • how can they be read?
  • do we have a licence for these tools, or is there a free version?
  • do we have the knowledge or support to enable use of these tools?

Software is an important component of the educational establishment’s offering to students with additional needs, and with the upcoming changes to the Disabled Students’ Allowances, it will become more important still.

An idea for the sector…

An issue that’s been discussed at length on the lis-accessibility mailing list recently is how to audit ebook platforms for accessibility features (such as magnification, reflow, ability to highlight text, access to screenreading software). Several universities have produced their own checklists but many agreed that it would be helpful to have a crowdsourced tool that everybody can contribute to, and repurpose as necessary.

Ben Watson (Kent) and Sue Smith (Leeds Beckett) are my fellow list owners, and an idea we’ve had is to start drafting a revised version of the checklist before hosting it somewhere central so that others can contribute. Something I’d love to see, too, is a way to score platforms and publishers. A badge would be a really neat way to indicate the score, and using colour coding would show areas of strength and weakness. A bit like the ‘Altmetric donut‘, which shows a score in different areas.

If we did this then publishers would have an incentive to improve and maintain standards. Librarians could make informed choices. it seems win-win to me.

What do you think?