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Supporting Disabled Learners through the Institutional Provision of Assistive Technologies

Full Title: Supporting disabled learners through the institutional provision of assistive technologies in the further and higher education sectors

Dr. Caroline Davies
Consultant in higher education and disability issues
IMPACT Associates
ATHEN E-Journal Issue #3 (2007)


In 2004, a research project commissioned by the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) looked at the availability of ‘auxiliary aids and services’ in Wales in preparation for the duties placed on post-16 educational institutions by the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) not to discriminate against disabled students and to provide them with appropriate reasonable adjustments. Assistive technologies, and the support that disabled students require in order to use them effectively, are examples of such ‘auxiliary aids and services’. The findings and recommendations of the DRC research, “Taking away the strain”, are discussed here. The recommendations that were made can be used as a checklist for post-16 education institutions to assist them to develop their ICT facilities for disabled learners.


Disabled students, accessibility, assistive technology, higher education, further education, Wales, Disability Rights Commission, Disability Discrimination Act, auxiliary aids and services, training.


The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), Part 4 has required UK universities and colleges to provide appropriate ‘auxiliary aids and services’ for disabled students since September 2003. ‘Auxiliary aids’ include assistive information and communication technologies (ICT) and ‘auxiliary services’ includes the training and support that is required by disabled students in order to use these technologies.

Auxiliary aids and auxiliary services are a particular type of reasonable adjustment. They might be a reasonable adjustment for an individual, for example the provision of a computer with specialist software for a blind student to use whilst on campus. But, in many cases, the provision of auxiliary aids and services will be examples of ‘anticipatory’ adjustments and will provide a more general framework for support. Examples might include:

  • Acquiring and networking specialist software for students with dyslexia
  • Ensuring that standard networked applications are compatible with assistive technologies
  • Providing technical support and training for disabled students in their use of campus-based assistive technologies

This is discussed further in “Auxiliary Aids and Services in Higher Education: Guidance Notes”, (2003) produced by the Scottish Disability Team.

In UK universities, disabled home students are eligible to apply for the Disabled Students Allowances (DSA) through which they can be provided with suitable assistive technologies and the training required to use them effectively. This equipment is the personal property of the student and is primarily to assist them in their private study. Some disabled students may be able to bring their DSA laptop computers with them when they come into university, for instance to take notes in a lecture or the library, but it is usually not possible for them to connect to the university network. Universities also have an increasing number students who are not eligible for the DSA, such as international students, and these students may need to rely on the assistive technologies provided by their universities in order to access learning and teaching. It is therefore very important that assistive technologies are available to disabled students as part of institutional ICT provision so that they may have the same access to learning as their non-disabled peers.

Students in further education colleges are not usually eligible to apply for the DSA and the colleges are responsible for providing appropriate ICT equipment to meet the needs of their disabled learners and any necessary training and support. This is done though direct funding from the Learning and Skills Council. Higher education institutions in the UK receive additional funding from their funding councils (eg HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England) in recognition of the fact that meeting the needs of disabled learners may incur additional costs.

Auxiliary aids and services in post-16 education in Wales

In 2003, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) recognised that anecdotal evidence suggested a shortfall in the provision of auxiliary aids and services in post-16 educational institutions in the UK. The DRC in Wales commissioned a research project to investigate this within Welsh universities and colleges. Its report, “Taking away the strain” (2004), considered the research findings and made recommendations to improve the availability and quality of these aids and services in Wales.

The DRC research project surveyed disability officers/ coordinators in all further education colleges and universities in Wales. Responses were received from 71% of higher education institutions and 36.4% of the colleges. Five focus groups of disabled students from across Wales helped to provide the student perspective as well as individual interviews with students including one with the then-President of the National Union of Students in Wales, who is Deaf.

Auxiliary aids: information and communication technologies

Although most colleges and universities had some assistive technology equipment (such as adapted keyboards, Braille embossers, CCTV apparatus etc) to support the learning needs of their disabled students, this provision was patchy. There was no real difference in the availability of this equipment between colleges and universities but some of the smaller institutions (with fewer than 5,000 students) were much less likely to have some of the more expensive specialist equipment for blind and visually impaired students.

The availability of communication equipment for deaf students was also patchy; a third of the colleges who responded had no fixed or portable loops for hearing aid users. This represented a very significant barrier to learning for these students. Only half of the colleges and universities had minicom (text) telephones to aid communication with d/Deaf applicants and students.

  • All institutions who responded to the survey had some assistive software to support the learning of disabled students. Most commonly available (80% or more of the responding institutions) were:
  • Texthelp software for students with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia.
  • Screen reading and magnification software for blind and visually impaired students.
  • Specialist scanning software.
  • Voice recognition (speech to text) software, used by students with dyslexia and visual impairments and by those with manual dexterity or stamina difficulties.

Some institutions had Braille-making software but this tended to reflect whether or not there were specific blind students who needed it. It was surprising that the relatively inexpensive mind-mapping software for students with organisational and planning difficulties was not more widely available: only 60% of those responding to the questionnaire said that it was available for their students.

Networking assistive software

When assistive software is included on the institution’s ICT network it has the potential to be available on computers in many different locations – mainstream computers labs and the library or learning centre as well as subject-specific resource areas. Networking assistive software means that disabled students can use it to gain access to other networked applications, such as email and the Internet, and also virtual learning environments such as WebCT and Blackboard, which are increasingly used for the delivery of course materials. If the assistive software is compatible, it can also be used in conjunction with course-specific networked software (such as Photoshop or statistical packages such as SPSS).

The surveys found that the software that was networked was mainly Texthelp and mind-mapping software for students with dyslexia, but that some institutions also had networked screen reading or screen magnification software for blind or visually impaired students. TextHelp is ideal for networking since it can be used with all Microsoft products and is a powerful tool in aiding disabled students to search and use the Internet through its screen reading and speech output facility.

All of the universities and a third of the colleges who responded to the DRC Wales survey said that assistive software in their institutions was available on both networked and stand-alone computers. However, two thirds of the FE colleges said that this software was only available on stand-alone computers that were not connected to the network. The consequence of this is that disabled students could be disadvantaged or discriminated against because they might find it difficult to complete assignments and work with other students on group work projects.

Auxiliary services: training and support

The DSA can also provide funding for eligible disabled students in higher education to purchase training on how to use the assistive technologies that have been provided for them though this scheme. Many universities chose to facilitate the provision of this training by using freelance trainers or by using a member of their own staff. However, colleges and universities also need to provide additional training and on-going support so that students can become confident users of the assistive ICT facilities that they provide.

In the DRC survey, most of the universities provided assistive technology training but it was provided by only 17% of further education colleges. Disability officers reported that it was often difficult to find suitably qualified staff who understood the capabilities and functioning of assistive technologies and who also understood the training and support requirements of students with a range of impairments.

The Disabled Student Perspective

Many of the disabled students that took part in the survey used some kind of assistive technology within their institution. Some students were very positive about the way in which their college or university provided access to technology but a significant number were dissatisfied. These students were concerned about a number of important issues that reduced the effectiveness of institutional facilities:

  • That the institutional assistive software was not kept updated. A student who used voice recognition software said that, “The university does not keep pace with developments. For example, the voice recognition software that they have is not up-to-date and is not compatible with the software provided [for me] by the DSA.”
  • Appropriate hardware was not always available to support the use of the software. A visually impaired student commented, “I have tried using the book magnifier [ie a CCTV apparatus] in the library but, if you have to read 30 or 40 pages in one go, your arm gets very tired. I would definitely benefit from using TextHelp if there was a scanner available in the library.”
  • Software was not networked. A dyslexic student commented, “I sometimes need to use assistive software with Photoshop – all computers should have exactly the same software on them so that it’s easy for disabled students.”

A key issue and problem for a number of students was the location of assistive technologies within their institutions in terms of physical accessibility, operational convenience and usability. It is important that the location of all computing facilities is carefully considered and that it is appropriate for disabled students with a range of needs and access requirements. In order to access computing facilities, disabled students may sometimes have to book in advance to use a specific adapted workstation. One student argued that this disadvantaged him in comparison with his non-disabled peers who could use open-access machines: another reason for providing networked access wherever possible. Several of the focus group students, particularly those from the further education colleges, expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of appropriate support and training to enable them to use institution-based assistive technologies. They felt that there was a lack of ICT support staff within their institutions who were familiar with the operation and capabilities of assistive technologies. They wanted to see improved training for staff who manage ICT equipment and support students (e.g. IT Help Desk staff), both in terms of knowledge and attitude.


The research report, “Taking away the strain”, produced a number of specific recommendations in relation to the institutional provision of assistive technologies for disabled students in colleges and universities in Wales. The key recommendations in this particular area are that:

  • The provision of assistive technologies - their purchase, maintenance and updating – should be incorporated within mainstream institutional ICT strategies and associated operational plans.
  • Institutions should have a basic range of assistive technologies to support the learning of students with a range of impairments. Funds should be available to purchase more specialist equipment/ software as and when it is required.
  • Assistive software should be kept updated and, wherever possible, should be available on institutional networks.
  • Although assistive ICT equipment may be located in specialist resource areas for disabled students, it should also be provided in mainstream environments (e.g. learning centres or IT suites) with appropriate support and access.
  • Communication equipment (such as loops and text phones) required by d/Deaf students should be available in all colleges and universities as anticipatory reasonable adjustments.
  • Institutions should consider having an audit of ICT facilities to determine any gaps in provision.
  • Institutions should provide or facilitate appropriate training for disabled students in the use of assistive technologies that recognises their different learning styles and meets their needs.
  • Training programmes for staff should include information about assistive technologies and how they can support learning.
  • In particular, training programmes for ICT managers and support staff should enable them to train and support disabled students in their use of assistive technologies.
  • Institutions should establish systems to monitor and review the availability, quality and fitness-for purpose of assistive technologies. The views of student users should be fully canvassed and incorporated.

This research project for the DRC in Wales made it clear that further and higher education institutions still had work to do in order to provide assistive technologies for disabled students. Although this survey was done in Wales, it is also relevant to the rest of the UK. These recommendations were made in 2004, but they are still relevant today and they provide a useful checklist for post-16 education institutions. In an age when students are increasingly required to access virtual learning environments, to use the Internet for research and email for communication, the appropriate provision of assistive technologies is vital to ensure a non-discriminatory learning environment and to enable disabled students to have the same opportunities for academic success as their non-disabled peers.


  1. Caroline Davies, Carol Doyle, Karen Robson, (2004), “Taking away the strain? Auxiliary Aids and Services for Disabled Students in Post16 Education in Wales”, Disability Rights Commission, March 2004
  2. Scottish Disability Team, (2003), “Auxiliary Aids and Services in Higher Education: Guidance Notes”