Open University Disability Conference, 13-14 May 2015: Day 2 report

In the second of two posts Chris Douce, a tutor for the Open University’s Masters in Online and Distance Education module H810 Accessible online learning: supporting disabled students, reports on day 2 of a conference that is very relevant to that module – The Open University 2015 Disability Conference. You can read his report on day 1 here.

Keynote: the disability delusion

The first keynote of the day was by Tom McAlpine OBE who is a chair of a charity called Moodswings (charity website). Tom’s talk began by taking us into the history of the current disability legislation, highlighting that there has been (and continues to be) a stark difference between attention given to physical and mental health disabilities.

He presented the audience with an interesting yet important question which was: ‘who is disabled?’ This question was linked to two philosophies which are connected with the social model of disability; the view that ‘either everyone is disabled, or nobody is disabled’. Another interesting point was about the link between welfare and disability, and extent to which ‘austerity’ is affecting the lives of people who have disabilities: ‘it’s going to be worse than everyone imagined’. The point was made that there should be a ‘proper use of resources’. Individuals, it was argued, should only take as little from the state as they need.

During Tom’s talk, I made the following note: ‘if we’re going to be fair, we shouldn’t pretend that everyone is disabled’. I don’t think this is what he said word for word, but instead, it might be more of my impression of the point that he was trying to get across. It is a view that I, fundamentally, take issue with. It is a view that equates disability with the consumption of resources, and I think that the whole subject is a whole lot more complex. You can have a disability (or an impairment of some kind), and get on with living your day to day life, and may have no recourse to need additional resources. All you might need to get by is a bit of respect and understanding from others who are around you.

Tom’s talk was pretty provocative, and led to quite a bit of debate amongst colleagues who I spoke to. This, I felt, was a sign that the keynote had done its job (irrespective of whether or not I personally agreed with some of the views that were expressed).

Workshop: Student mental health – whose responsibility?

The first workshop I signed up for on the second day was also by Tom. Tom opened by stating that mental health issues may manifest themselves during study, due to change of circumstances or due to things that happen during life. He also mentioned that it is important to consider the difference between pre-existing mental health issues, and that sometimes the pressures of studying may make some students (who may be predisposed to illness) unwell.

Another point I remember was the importance of appropriate boundary setting. This is linked to the point that there are limits to what the university can do: it can only provide help and guidance regarding study and academic issues.

During the talk I made the note: ‘wellness is a continuum’. This was a theme that was highlighted during the London region diversity day that was specifically about mental health issues. This part of Tom’s workshop offered a reminder that everyone can move between and onto different parts of a mental health continuum.

During the workshop, Tom also offered some controversial opinions about certain illnesses and also the roles of some tutors. It was clear that he had particularly strong opinions, and my own opinions (which were also pretty strong) were somewhat different. Education can be difficult whilst at the same time being transformative. My own view is that a positive relationship between a student and a tutor is important (if not essential) to facilitate the exploring of different perspectives and views that can lead to a transformation. I doubt very much that Tom would disagree with this view. Our difference of opinion relates to judgement as to whether a tutor is doing something wrong if a student feels compelled to contact a tutor for support for unexpected issues. My role is then to support that tutor, and to do my best to work with other colleagues to communicate boundaries.

In some respects Tom’s session was more of a chat than a workshop. It was different to what I had expected, but is no better for it; there were many colleagues who were very free to express their opinions about a range of different issues.

During the session, we were reminded of a useful resources, a OU published booklet that is entitled: Studying and staying mentally healthy (OU website). I heard that this resource is going to be made available to all students, not just students who may have disclosed a mental health issues.

Workshop: Universal design for learning – built in accessibility

The final workshop of the conference was facilitated by Heather Mole, who I managed to have a good chat with during the conference. Heather is currently working on a really interesting PhD, which she might have mentioned during her workshop. She has been looking into the privilege of sign-language interpreters, since they cross the boundaries of two different cultures: the Deaf culture, and our hearing culture. This made me reflect about the connections between disability studies, other subjects, and other civil rights areas.

Heather began by playing an excerpt from a short film by Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor called An Examined Life (YouTube) As the film played, I made notes of the terms ‘normalising standards of our movements’, ‘disability as a political issue’ and ‘talking of language’.

I then remember some discussions about the different models of disability: the social model and the medical model. Heather also mentioned the work of Tom Shakespeare, who is both an activist and a scholar. Another philosophical model that was mentioned was the interactional model, which is an acknowledgement that an actual impairment is important. I understand this model to be a combination of the social and medical models. As Heather was speaking, I realised that I needed to do some reading!

I made an interesting note that accessibility can be thought of in two different ways. There’s the accommodation approach, where there might be the need for an alternative way of doing things. This could be thought of a ‘consumable’ approach. For instance, a module team or a teacher might make a resource that was specific to an individual learner. Another approach is universal design, which can be considered, broadly, as more ‘sustainable’: accessibility is considered from the outset and is considered at the design level.

We were told that a chap called Ron Mace created what is known as seven principles that guide ‘universal’ architectural design. These principles are: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, tolerance for error, low physical effort, size and space for approach and use, perceptual information (i.e. alarms that offer information through different modalities: they emit a sound and flash at the same time).

These principles can be applied to an educational context; educators can consider both the universal accessibility of their learning resources, and the systems, products or devices which allow the learning resources to be consumed (we might think of ‘products’ in terms of a series of web pages, an ebook, or a physical paper based book).

During this final workshop, we were directed to a couple of websites. One of them was called the Centre for applied special technology group (CAST website). Another organisation that was mentioned was the National Centre on Universal Design for Learning (UDL website).

Final keynote: an accidental comedian

I’ll give a cheeky admission at this point: it was yours truly who gave the final keynote. The keynote had two parts: a story, and then a performance. My point was simple: we can achieve more than we ever thought possible if we offer other people encouragement. In some respects, this is exactly what so many people within the university try to do: academic staff, support staff, and associate lecturers; we do our best to offer encouragement and support for those who are studying.
Final thoughts

One thing that always strikes me about these conferences is the range of different subjects, workshops and speakers. This year there were keynotes that delivered different perspectives, and workshops that presented a broad range of topics. I personally found the workshop about the ‘tech’ particularly interesting (I think because I’m a ‘tech’ sort of guy), and I also found the talk on autism interesting, if only to remind me that there is a wealth of advice and resources that I can draw upon.

There was an implicit theme and an implicit concern that seemed to run throughout the conference: the sense that things have become more difficult for people who have disabilities, and things are going to continue to become even more challenging. The underlying story that catalysed the expression of these concerns was, of course, the recent change in government. Resources, it was argued, are limited, and it’s important to ensure that they are used as effectively and efficiently as possible.

After the conference, I asked myself a quick question, which was: ‘what else could there have been?’, or ‘what would I find really interesting?’ Over the last couple of years, I’ve been increasingly aware of an emerging academic subject called disability studies. Whilst the objective of the conference has strong and really useful practical focus, I can’t help but feel that a more academic perspective might add something to aspects of the conference. Disability studies connect to different civil rights movements, the role of the media, analysis of barriers, and how the situation for people with disabilities is different across the globe.

One thing that was really great, and has always been great, is the presentation of personal perspectives: the student voice is, of course, really important.

Finally, PowerPoint and other resources from the conference (conference materials) are available to internal university people, but if you’re reading this from outside the university, if there’s anything that is of particular interest, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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