Exploring Web Accessibility Challenges with Third Level Students with Cognitive Disabilities - LIVE-IT
This article presents findings from participatory research with people with cognitive disabilities (PwCD) focused on web accessibility solutions during the LIVE-IT Project. The LIVE-IT Project is an EU-funded, 12-month, pilot project that sought to develop a baseline for web accessibility for PwCD, build an online toolkit of already available web accessibility tools, and co-design innovative web accessibility solutions with PwCD. A project consortium of four partners from four different countries – Greece, Ireland, Portugal and the UK – worked to conduct the baseline research, develop the online toolkit, and co-design web accessibility solutions. Additionally, all project activities took place in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recent scholarship (Chadwick, et.al., 2022; Lazar, 2021) highlights the importance of devoting increased attention to web accessibility for PwCD in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite many rapid improvements in and increased reliance on internet-connected technologies (ICT) during the pandemic, the state of web accessibility for PwCD has stayed the same (Chadwick, et.al., 2022) or actually declined in some instances (Lazar, 2021). Additionally, PwCD are still consistently excluded from research on web accessibility (Gartland, et.al., 2022). For this reason, the LIVE-IT Project strove to centre and amplify the voices of those who experience web accessibility challenges and urgently need better web accessibility solutions.
In June, the first author presented at the AHEAD GATHER AT Event on how conducting interviews, co-design sessions, and hackathon sessions with third level students with cognitive disabilities in Ireland influenced her approach to teaching. This article summarises her findings and reflections and connects them to resources available at AHEAD, such as the AT Hive. Additionally, relevant connections to LIVE-IT Project outputs, such as the LIVE-IT Open Toolkit, are included. We invite you to reflect along with us on how the experiences and imaginations of Irish third level students can help us create more inclusive online spaces in higher education.
The student voice shapes and drives this article. Each section represents a phase in the LIVE-IT research cycle. Within each section, the major findings are communicated via the students’ own words. Then we connect the findings to resources.
Phase One – Lifeworld Analysis
In Autumn 2021, 8 third level students with cognitive disabilities (7 female and 1 male) participated in an initial 60-minute semi-structured interview. Students reported disabilities such as Dyscalculia, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, and Autism. All students were invited to participate in either a follow-up focus group or interview. Three major themes emerged from the interview and focus group discussions with students. Below, we present each theme, connect the themes to resources, and ask questions to prompt reflection on teaching practices.
Adult Diagnosis Influences Use of Assistive Technology and Online Tools
Although many of today’s third level students can be considered digital natives, the timing of official diagnosis influences their familiarity with the web-based tools that address the specific education-related challenges they face when navigating online spaces and resources.
I was not aware of my disabilities until a late age. Before that, it was just assumed that I would figure it out (Female, undergraduate, diagnosed with dyslexia at third level)
When I got my assessment, it was very emotional to see what was put on paper. When it was on paper, the struggles I have had, it made me really realise I’ve worked really hard. I’ve got this far without anything. And now all of this is available to me. (Female, mature student, undergraduate diagnosed with dyslexia at third level)
Web Accessibility Challenges Rooted in Text and Digital Anxiety
The majority of the students who participated had dyslexia. Therefore, identifying the writing or reading of text as a major web accessibility challenge was not surprising. However, it is still a massive concern, and students consistently linked challenges associated with text to feelings of anxiety.
There’s definitely an anxiety element to having bad grammar and spelling, especially online. Sometimes I might sit there and think, ‘I really shouldn’t say that because I probably spelt something wrong’. It drives up the anxiety levels, so then, I’m just like, I don’t need to be heard right now. (Male, undergraduate with dyslexia)
Web Accessibility Successes Rooted in Community and Joy
Overwhelmingly, participants spoke of web accessibility successes or moments when the internet is working with or for them, in the context of finding community and experiencing joy.
I’m a person that…I love technology. So, I always put technology in every part of my life until I get to the moment that I say I cannot use a screen anymore. But, I use technology a lot! (Female, postgraduate with Autism)
For me, [online tools] are nearly like social support…I go [online] and realize I’m not the only one stuck. (Female, postgraduate with dyslexia)
Connecting Phase One Findings with Resources
In Phase One, we learned three things
- Irish third level students who receive adult diagnoses for cognitive disabilities may not know about online accessibility tools and assistive technology
- Irish third level students with cognitive disabilities tend to face challenges with text
- Irish third level students with cognitive disabilities tend to experience web accessibility successes that are rooted in community and joy.
It is highly likely that educators in postsecondary institutions will work with students who receive adult diagnoses for cognitive disabilities; thus, it is highly likely that educators will encounter students who could benefit from support in finding and selecting web accessibility tools. AHEAD’s AT Hive is an excellent resource (Link to AHEAD’s AT Hive: https://ahead.ie/Discover-your-AT )
LIVE-IT’s Open Toolkit is similar, and includes tools that support multiple languages due to the international nature of the project (link to LIVE-IT’s Open Toolkit: https://live-it.azurewebsites.net/Toolkit/SearchToolkit ).
Reflection Questions for Educators
We invite you to reflect with us on how you can make your courses, modules, and lectures more accessible using the following questions as a guide:
- What is my plan for addressing student accommodation requests?
- What feels like a manageable starting point for addressing accessibility? A lecture? A unit? A module?
- How can I solicit regular feedback from my students in a way that builds community?
Phase Two – Co-Design Lab and Hackathons
In Phase Two, 72 third level students with cognitive disabilities completed an initial survey. Then, 11 agreed to participate in co-design lab sessions (7 identified as female and 4 identified as male) that were held virtually from November 2021 to May 2022. Additionally, 8 of the 11 agreed to participate on teams for at least one of five web accessibility hackathons hosted by the LIVE-IT Consortium. Participants reported the following cognitive disabilities: ADHD, Acquired Brain Injury, Epilepsy, and Dyslexia.
During sessions in the Co-Design Lab, students navigated applicable scenarios. The image below (Figure 1) shows that there were initially three types of scenarios: reading, writing by dictation, and writing by typing. Using a think-aloud model, students conversed with the first author while using online tools to navigate each applicable scenario.
As shown in Figure 2 below, the initial scenarios were revised and new scenarios were created. By the end of the LIVE-IT Project, there were four more specific scenario categories: transcription, reading and writing, video and image, and changing font. These categories were developed with students in the Co-Design Lab to more accurately represent the challenges they faced and the web accessibility solutions they still needed.
Throughout the Co-Design Lab sessions, the following web accessibility tools were explored via the scenarios above with students with cognitive disabilities:
Built-in T2S (Windows)
Word Spelling & Grammar
Google Chrome Spell Checker
Pocket Thesaurus (android app)
Word Read Aloud
Built-in T2S (Chromebook)
Open Dyslexic Font
Reader View (web extension)
Built-in T2S (Microsoft Edge)
LIVE-IT Open Toolkit
Analysis of the Co-Design Lab survey, session think-aloud transcripts, and hackathon team materials revealed several findings mostly related to the text-dense nature of online spaces and digital resources. We now present the three areas in which students experienced the most frustration or spent the most time brainstorming new tool possibilities. Then, we highlight a few resources that can help educators address these challenges. Finally, we invite you to reflect with us again about how this information can inform your teaching practice.
Students’ Main Areas of Concern
We begin this section with the acknowledgement that none of what we are about to share is new or groundbreaking knowledge. However, the fact that in the midst of so many technological advances and online shifts these concerns are still going unaddressed is an indicator that these areas still require our attention. There are three areas that stood out as major roadblocks to student success.
First, the need to curate and use an arsenal of text-to-speech tools with students. An arsenal is required because the tools available all have their strengths and weaknesses. For example, many tools struggle with academic articles; some tools handle two-column formats or reading around tables and figures better than others. However, none of the participating students had access to tools nor could the research team locate any tools that could coherently read tables, statistics, or equations. Also, the extreme inconsistency in the accessibility of PDF’s caused major issues.
Second, students appreciate the ability to change layouts by changing fonts, font sizes, font colours, background colours, and spacing. However, such adjustments do not work universally. Additionally, they wished for the ability to conduct video and image searches and more meaningfully rely on video and image in rigorous academic searches. Unfortunately, academic sources and systems for organising them are overwhelmingly presented in text-dense formats.
Third, students need opportunities to develop multiple creative methods for reviewing their own writing. This is certainly a skill that all students must develop. Students who face challenges associated with writing and reading text tend to develop multiple methods for reviewing their own writing. Filtering, selecting, and implementing those strategies is time consuming and cognitively demanding, especially when working to find mistakes that ‘aren’t wrong’. Such mistakes include placing the wrong correctly spelt word in a sentence; because the word is not misspelt a spell-checker will not draw the student’s attention to the word. Students wished for tools that could learn their typical mistakes and automatically fix the mistakes – like a personalised autocorrect.
Connecting Phase Two Findings with Resources
In this section, we refer back to two resources for students, and we also introduce a resource for educators. As before, the AT Hive and the LIVE-IT Open Toolkit – both linked above – are amazing resources, because both websites provide a way to search accessibility tools by the challenges they address, contribute to the growing repositories of tools, and provide user feedback on the tools. Educators must also consider what tools they can use to make their learning materials more accessible from the start. A major step in the right direction would be to ensure that all PDF documents created for students to use are accessible. Luckily, AHEAD has resources for that! If you click the link at the end of this sentence, you will be directed to a page dedicated to creating accessible documents ( https://ahead.ie/creatingaccessibledocuments ). Additionally, AHEAD provides resource banks for educators such as the UDL for FET Resource Hub, which can be found by clicking on the following link ( https://ahead.ie/udlforfet ).
Reflection Questions for Educators
We invite you to reflect with us one final time using the following questions as a guide:
- What tools are my students using? How can I leverage and/or make it easier to use those tools?
- What social media spaces can I use to support learning about designing accessible modules and courses?
- What alternatives exist for the materials I am currently using?
- How can I apply UDL principles? To my activities? To my readings? To my lectures? To my modules?
We have shared our research and our experiences in hopes that you will join us in improving web accessibility for students with cognitive disabilities. To support ongoing work in research and design areas, the LIVE-IT Project is publishing all project deliverables, including co-design lab facilitation guides, on the project website. The project website link is provided at the end of this sentence (https://liveit-project.eu/)
Acknowledgement: This research was conducted in collaboration with all of our partners in the LIVE-IT Project consortium: Joe Cullen, Panos Bamidis, Miana Carniero, Greg Holloway, Ioannis Poultourtzidis, Clare Cullen, Amy Harris, Lina Makrogloy, José Fialho, João Carneiro.
Chadwick, D., Ågren, K. A., Caton, S., Chiner, E., Danker, J., Gómez?Puerta, M., ... & Wallén, E. F. (2022). Digital inclusion and participation of people with intellectual disabilities during COVID?19: A rapid review and international bricolage. Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities.
Gartland, S. Flynn, P., Carniero, M.A., de Sousa Fialho, J., Holloway, G., Cullen, C., Hamilton, E., Harris, A., Cullen, J. (2022). The state of web accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities: A rapid evidence assessment. Behavioral Sciences, 12(2), 26. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs12020026
Lazar, J. (2022). Managing digital accessibility at universities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Universal Access in the Information Society, 21(3), 749-765.