“Studying is useful and rewarding, but different when you have a sensory handicap: barrier-free accessibility is absolutely necessary,” says Sanna Nuutinen, a student of family studies at the Open University of the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. The implementation of accessibility is also required by legislation on digital services, which went into effect last spring in Finland.
When people with impaired hearing and vision get familiar with learning materials, they are helped by an interpreter and auxiliary devices. A screen reader and the magnification of PDF files are used all the time. Nuutinen’s narrow vision enables reading to certain extent and an inner ear implant helps her to hear.
Sanna Nuutinen lives in Espoo and is studying multidisciplinary family studies online at the Open University. The studies support Nuutinen in her job as a communication assistant at the Finnish Deafblind Association, where she helps people with sensory disabilities and their families. Nuutinen is happy her employer supports her studies.
Legislation on digital services requires that the digital services of higher education institutions and public libraries must be accessible and barrier-free for all. This is based on the EU’s directive on the accessibility of public sector websites and mobile applications. The Act, based on the directive, came into effect in April. Its application will start gradually at the end of September.
“The change in legislation is necessary and I hope it is taken seriously,” Nuutinen says. ”The goal is that accessibility is considered broadly and that services are equal for all. There is plenty of competence and knowledge available. I encourage taking on those people with experience on sensory disabilities already during the planning and testing phases.”
Solutions to help students study by themselves
The online studies of the Open University suit Nuutinen. You can complete them at your own pace in a familiar environment. The accessible implementation of digital studies is crucial for success: study material must be available for everyone. In practice this means, for example, subtitles and image quality of video recordings, website design, texts of images and material that a screen reader can read.
“It is not difficult to acknowledge accessibility, but it must be designed and implemented carefully. I continuously come across fancy websites that not everyone can read. For example, contrast, font, colours, richness and structure affect readability,” says Nuutinen.
When Nuutinen started her studies at the Open University, she met her teachers and an accessibility person in a meeting for planning individual arrangements. The participants thought over practices that would suit her studies, such as access to e-materials and loan times.
“The purpose is not that someone does things for you but that the students can study by themselves,” Nuutinen says.
Accessibility is also about service and encountering people: the will to find solutions to matters in customer service or technical support, for example. As for study-related communication and common materials, paying attention to accessibility also affects fellow students.
Accessibility is now part of service
“The question is about equality and opportunity to use services. Accessibility requires both technical and pedagogical solutions,” says Tarja Ladonlahti, the coordinator of the accessibility (ESA) subproject of the DigiCampus project. The project produces support and training to promote accessibility in higher education, creates models for accessible digital courses and seeks good practices and tools for testing and improving accessibility. Sanna Nuutinen works in the steering group of the subproject. In her role as a student, she gives feedback on the accessibility of systems, websites and contents.
Accessibility is a crucial part of service systems. Many things that previously have depended on users’ personal aids are now part of the service. The change also benefits other users than just those with sensory disabilities. Many of the solutions also help, for example, people with dyslexia.
“The new legislation raise interest and questions in higher education institutions,” says Ladonlahti. ” There is plenty of will to do things right, but also competence, new operating methods and goal-oriented work are needed to achieve the goals required by legislation.”
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