Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 4 April 2006   Thursday, April 27, 2006

ISSN 1748-3603

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Assistive technology: developing a loans scheme for all
Using a Virtual Learning Environment to motivate learners
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Issue 3, January 2006
January 30, 2006
Issue 2
October 24, 2005
Issue 1
August 5, 2005
Assistive technology: developing a loans scheme for all
by Rebecca McCready

Introduction

Assistive technology can support ergonomic or accessible working environments for people with disabilities or health impairments. As part of a series of programmes to provide inclusive work spaces at Newcastle University, we developed a Hardware Loans Scheme for staff, students and visitors to the campus which was launched in 2004. It offers assistive equipment to anyone on campus on an anytime, anywhere basis for as long as required. By complementing and enhancing existing support services the Scheme contributes to the University’s legal obligations and requirements under Disability legislation, assists people in work or study and encourages an inclusive environment within the University. It allows those with disabilities and health impairments to work effectively and comfortably wherever they choose rather than being restricted to certain areas on campus with specialist provisions. The Scheme is a collaborative project involving staff from the Disability Support Service, Information Systems and Services (the University’s central computing service, ISS), the Disability and ICT Working Group, Human Resources (HR) and the University Library.

(An extended version of this case study is available in PDF format).

Details of the Scheme

Equipment

Equipment was purchased with funding received from Human Resources, Student Welfare and the Alumni Association. The Scheme also subsumed a small quantity of equipment from the Disability Support Service. The Scheme stocks approximately 400 items of equipment covering a wide range of disabilities and health impairments (Table I). Many items are restricted for borrowing by referral only and access to the equipment is restricted for a number of reasons:

  • High cost (1);
  • Specialist use (2);
  • Possibility of exacerbating health problems if used incorrectly (3); or
  • Can only be borrowed if also borrowing a related item (4).
The numbers alongside the restriction information in Table I indicate which of these four reasons for restriction apply.

Becoming a borrower

Borrowers of the Scheme must register and agree to the terms and conditions of the Scheme before they may borrow any equipment. Once a borrower is registered, referrers can add restricted equipment to the borrower record if necessary. These processes were transferred from paper-based to online forms in August 2005 and can be completed at any time prior to borrowing.

Borrowing equipment

Equipment can be borrowed for a variety of durations, including a day, 4 weeks, term and academic year or vacation. This enables equipment to be used by borrowers for a period which best reflects their requirements. Equipment can be renewed by borrowers but to manage resources, encourage staff to purchase equipment through their school or service and prevent equipment from being used unnecessarily we restricted the number of renewals to three: following this the borrower must seek professional advice.The Scheme has the authority to charge fines and costs to a borrower’s account should equipment be returned late without reasonable excuse. This was agreed with the Academic Registrar before launch and has not yet been required.

Management

I manage the Scheme in close liaison with staff from Disability Support, Occupational Health and Reception. We report annually to a group of senior University managers including the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Teaching and Learning.

Impact of the Scheme

Borrowing analysis

30 students and 18 members of staff registered to use the Loans Scheme in the first year (September 2004 to August 2005), compared with 33 students and 32 staff in a four-month period from September 2005 to January 2006: this was an increase of 234%. 168 items of equipment were borrowed over 71 separate loans in the first year: 34% by staff and 66% by students. This compares to 200 items in the period from June 2005 to January 2006 borrowed in 83 separate loans; 51.5% by students and 48.5% by staff; an increase of 38%. This reflects increased awareness of the Scheme to potential borrowers on campus due to advertisements, improved online registration and referral systems. Feedback collected from a short Quality of Life survey conducted in February 2006 demonstrates that borrowers found out about the Scheme from a range of sources including referrers and colleagues, staff payslip and e-newsletter advertising and posters.

Records show that there were 14 first-time renewals and 1 second-time renewal by students from June 2005 to January 2006, compared with only 5 first-time renewals from staff. This suggests that students either have more long-term health issues or are less likely to trial equipment before purchasing it. Renewal figures also show that 85% of renewals are for all equipment originally loaned, suggesting that those with long-term needs find the equipment they are initially loaned useful and suitable for extended use.

Borrowers from a range of disabilities and health impairments have borrowed equipment from the Scheme. Table II shows the number of items and loans there have been in the first and second years and how these reflect the range of disabilities recorded against borrowers. Quality of Life survey responses demonstrate that no borrower noticed a decrease in their personal comfort whilst borrowing equipment from the Loans Scheme, and many noticed significant improvements in their well-being (see Figure 1). It also shows that the majority of borrowers experienced a noticable decrease in pain and an enhanced working environment, and to a lesser extent, an increase in productivity (see Figure 2).

Impact on students

The Scheme significantly extends accessible technology provision for disabled students which previously had been offered by Disability Support. For example, it provides access to equipment whilst students await delivery of their own equipment through their DSA (Disabled Student Allowance) application. It also enables students to try a range of equipment before purchasing. In our Quality of Life survey one student commented:

I used the scheme to test equiment to see if it would be useful for me before applying to the LEA for funding for it as part of my disabled students allowance. The fact that I didn't find it useful was helpful to me.

Students with severe or complex disabilities such as visual or mobility impairments often require a lot of equipment and exceed their DSA allowance. Those with visual impairments often develop posture problems because of the poor sitting position they adopt to read text close-up. In these cases the Loans Scheme can provide equipment which otherwise they would have not had access to, for instance a portable digital magnifier that is prohibitively expensive to purchase indiviually. Our records show that borrowers with visual impairments or mental health issues are referred more restricted equipment than any other borrower group, whilst borrowers with mobility impairments, mental health issues or two or more disabilities are recommended more unrestricted equipment than other borrower groups. Also, some students are not eligible for DSA grants, such as international students or those on particular courses (for example, professional development), and these students also now have access to equipment where they previously may not have.

Other units within the University are also able to borrow from the Loans Scheme to provide inclusive student services. The Widening Participation team has borrowed a range of equipment to facilitate a ‘Students with Disabilities’ open day, and the Examinations Office regularly borrow a range of equipment to cater for a variety of examination adjustments.

Students with temporary health impairments such as musculoskeletal injuries are able to borrow equipment such as posture supports, wrist rests or digital recorders to facilitate their continued participation in their course. In the Quality of Life survey one student commented “I only had a short term need as I broke my foot which is now healed.”

Impact on staff

The Scheme greatly assists the Occupational Health Service and the Safety Office in fulfilling the requirements of staff identified through Display Screen Equipment (DSE) or Occupational Health assessments. There was no similar scheme available to staff prior to the Hardware Loans Scheme, and many members of staff access the Scheme following referral from one of these assessors. 68% of staff borrowers declare that they have a short term health impairment rather than a disability. This may be a short-term requirement or a longer term need whereby after trying equipment the School or Service they work for will be required to purchase equipment for them. 39% of staff respondants to the Quality of Life survey said they purchased the equipment after trialling it.

Staff overwhelmingly agreed in the Quality of Life survey that the use of the Loans Scheme equipment increased their productivity levels and reduced the amount of pain they experienced, as one respondant commented “It has been very helpful in reducing pain when using my computer.” Although almost impossible to measure, we hope that by providing staff with instant access to assistive technology we reduce the number of days absence taken having enabled them to function more effectively at work.

As with students, staff have the opportunity to try equipment before purchasing it. This assists the School or Service to spend their accessible technology budget carefully and it also gives staff the opportunity to try a range of models before buying the most suitable one. One member of staff has tried two different types of ergonomic keyboard, whilst another has tried several types of recording devices before purchasing the one that is easiest to use with visual impairment. Two quotations from staff from the Quality of Life survey exemplify this too:

It was very helpful to be able to borrow and try out the equipment before asking my School to purchase the items for me.

The item of equipment that I borrowed was a writing slope. I have rarely had need to use it, and will be returing it to the library as it had no effect on my ease of working. I did, however, appreciate the opportunity to try it out.

Discussion

Lessons from the first year

Efficient systems for registration, referral and loan management are vital to enable easy access. Paper-based systems are quick to implement but are time-consuming to complete and process. The introduction of online registration has significantly reduced the amount of time required to process a borrower’s first loan - from up to 20 minutes to less than 5. It has reduced the amount of work completed by Reception staff and has given borrowers and referrers much more autonomy.

It is essential to provide sufficient and appropriate training for staff within the Loans Scheme, in particular assessors. The assessors at Newcastle University have experience of equipment within their speciality but lack knowledge of the wider assistive technology arena. The Loans Scheme has made available a far wider range of equipment for assessors to recommend, so training is required to encourage them to make use of these items. Training and information dissemination is ongoing and takes a variety of forms including briefings, information cards and emails. Staff connected with the Scheme but not directly involved in it also require adequate briefing, for instance School Safety Officers, Human Resources and Library. Short briefings and information cards have been provided in the second year and this has improved access.

Continued publicity and awareness is important to encourage borrowers to seek help through the Scheme on their own accord and take an active approach to managing their own welfare. Publicity in the first year was low-key but has increased significantly in the second year and we now have 0.4% of the student population and 1.6% of the staff population registered with the Scheme. This compares unfavourably with national statistics which suggest that 5.31% of first year UK home students in HEIs are declared disabled (Higher Education Statistics Agency 2003), and 15% of the population are registered disabled (Corporate Social Responsibility Europe 2005). We realise that sustained promotion will continue to improve these coverage statistics and continue to look for new ways to promote the Scheme.

A flexible, on-demand delivery system is beneficial in assisting borrowers to collect and return equipment. We provide limited ad-hoc assistance for borrowers collecting or returning equipment, which often involves voluntary deliveries by loan staff. Demand for delivery or collection has been very low but there have been a few requests for assistance. We plan to use an external courier service that borrowers would pay to use, should demand become unmanageable.

Future directions

The coordinator/management role that I undertake and the work of the Reception staff is completed voluntarily, and the Scheme relies upon short-term funding due to finish in June 2007. Whilst this has so far been sufficient, within the next year we hope to obtain integrated funding within the main University budget plus create a dedicated coordinator post to manage the Scheme.

Conclusions

We have clearly demonstrated that there is demand for a specialist loans service within the University of Newcastle to provide assistive technology to anyone needing it on campus. Our approach has always been inclusive, going beyond the’disability’ boundary. This holistic, comprehensive and integrated approach (Leung, Owens et al. 1999) has been fundamental to the success of this Scheme and firmly integrates it within the University framework. The project has continually drawn upon a range of expertise and experiences throughout the University and our collaborative approach enabled us to establish the project quickly and efficiently. These arguments will be imperative for the long-term integration and development of the Scheme that now needs to occur for its continued success.

Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge the work of my colleagues especially Sue Rzepcynski, Steve McCready, Ian Grunhut, Janice Craggs, Az Mohammed, Dave Alsop, Christine Henderson, Julia Brown and Jannine Williams.

Rebecca McCready
School of Medical Education Development, Faculty of Medical Sciences,
University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.
rebecca.mccready@ncl.ac.uk

References

Adams, M. (2005) Disability Discrimination Act 2005 Briefing available at: http://www.natdisteam.ac.uk/documents/DDAct2005.doc accessed: 29th October 2005

Corporate Social Responsibility Europe (2005) Disability: Facts and figures available at: http://www.csreurope.org/csrinfo/csrdisability/DisabilityFactsandfigures/ accessed: 26th August 2005

Disability Rights Commission A (2004) Disability Discrimination Act 1995: Code of Practice: Trade Organisations and Qualifications Bodies. London, The Stationary Office.

Disability Rights Commission B (2004) Disability Discrimination Act 1995: Code of Practice: Employment and Occupation. London, The Stationary Office.

Higher Education Statistics Agency (2003) First year UK domiciled HE students by qualification aim (#12), mode of study, gender and disability 2003/4 available at: http://www.hesa.ac.uk/holisdocs/pubinfo/student/disab0304.htm accessed: 30th October 2005

Leung, P., Owens, J., Lamb, G; Smith, K; Shaw, J and Hauff, R.(1999) Assistive Technology: Meeting the technology needs of students with disabilities in post-secondary education, Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Commonwealth of Australia.

Vaudin, S. (2000) Diversity in higher education: HEFCE policy statement. Bristol, Higher Education Funding Council for England.

List of Tables

Table I. Equipment stocked by the loans scheme in October 2005 showing codes assigned to each item for stock management, the number of each item stocked, and whether any restrictions are in place for the item.

Table II. The number of loans against the UCAS disability codes for the first year of the loans scheme.

List of Figures

Figure 1 shows Quality of Life survey responses from staff and students to the questions "In the environment(s) that you use the Scheme's equipment, how comfortable would you say it was before you borrowed the equipment?" and "In the environment(s) that you use the Scheme's equipment, how comfortable would you say it was whilst borrowing the equipment?".

Figure 2 shows Quality of Life survey responses from staff and students to the statements "The equipment I borrowed enhanced my working environment", "The equipment I borrowed reduced the amount of pain or discomfort I experienced" and "The equipment helped to increase my productivity levels".


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