Concerns raised over accessibility of information at further education colleges

The Thomas Pocklington Trust highlighted “a lack of inclusive practice” in FE colleges following research into accessibility for blind and partially-sighted students

Pexels/Katerina Holmes

The Thomas Pocklington Trust (TPT) has highlighted concerns in the support and accessibility information available for blind and partially-sighted students at further education (FE) colleges. The trust has issued a number of urgent recommended actions to improve support.

FE colleges are legally obliged to develop accessible websites, learning, teaching and assessment materials, the trust shared. This includes the publication of an accessibility statement on the college’s website.

Research, conducted by All Able on behalf of the trust, looked at access to information and assistive technology for blind and partially-sighted students in mainstream further education.

The study involved auditing the websites of 427 FE colleges in the UK for their accessibility statements and grading these as good, partial, poor or no statement.

The research found that eight out of 10 FE colleges in the UK were not providing the legally-required accessibility information on their websites. The trust expressed concerns that only 13% of colleges audited were fully compliant.

TPT also tested the routes that students may use to find out about support with a number of colleges that had agreed to participate in the study.

The researchers reached out to colleges through generic routes, such as email or web forms, using the persona of a prospective blind student who wanted to be put in touch with Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND)/Assisted Learning Support (ALS) disabled student support, and to know about the accessibility of digital platforms used by the college.

Researchers reported finding a “worrying mixture” in the quality and usefulness of information provided to prospective blind and partially-sighted students. While the student persona was directed to the appropriate support team, the researchers found that 34% of responses were unable to say which virtual learning environments were being used, and only 3% gave legally-required information on compliance or directed them to useful compatibility information for disabled students.

“Tellingly, almost half (45%) of colleges contacted did not respond,” the trust shared.

Researchers then contacted the colleges that did not respond to the first persona with another student persona, removing the references to vision impairment. The study found that 21% of colleges that did not respond to the disability support email responded within two days to the second query, though a quarter of colleges did not respond to either.

The trust suggested this indicates that “colleges are not geared up to responding to queries from blind and partially-sighted students,” adding: “we are deeply concerned that if a student mentions their vision impairment, that it is likely to cause a delay or no response.”

Tara Chattaway, head of education at Thomas Pocklington Trust, reflected on the findings: “Every blind and partially-sighted student should have access to a quality college education but our research shows there is a lack of inclusive practice creating a barrier to accessibility.”

This was observed in inaccessible software, systems and processes, Chattaway explained, along with “a prevailing culture in colleges where student support departments are viewed as the only teams that have a responsibility to consider the needs of people with disabilities.”

Reporting on the findings, the TPT has recommended several “urgent actions” that government, college leadership and staff should take to improve support for blind and partially-sighted students.

This includes improving legal compliance with the accessibility regulations for digital systems and learning resources, and delivering an accessible-by-design approach in colleges.

FE colleges should support their SEND/ALS teams to encourage the organisational adoption of inclusive mainstream accessibility practices, the trust said, and ensure availability of accessible technology and training for partially-sighted students.

The trust also recommended that FE colleges should introduce accessibility training for all students as a “core employability skill.”

The trust has put together an executive summary and full report around the research findings, along with a guide on making college accessible.

Earlier this year, TPT tested a leading e-exam portal used for university virtual exams and assessments, finding it was “inaccessible for blind and partially-sighted students.”