Court case shows that education must be accessible

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2007 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.
Also posted on: Accessibility

In a recent article, I argued that vendors need to look at the accessibility of all stages of their sales cycle—not just the product itself. In particular this should include accessible education and this has been highlighted in a recent successful legal action.

Sam Latif is an IT project manager at Procter and Gamble in the UK and has been registered blind since 1988. In 2004 she decided to further her career and her professional expertise by studying for and (hopefully) acquiring the “Project Management Professional”, qualification, known as the “PMP” from the Project Management Institute which is based in the US. She had significant difficulty obtaining the necessary course reading material in a format that she could use and further difficulty with sitting the creditation examination which she did pass.

She, with the assistance of the Disabilities Rights Commission in the UK, took her grievance to an Employment Tribunal and has been awarded £3000 compensation in respect of injuries to her feelings. A more detailed description of the case can be found in an article.

Several important issues come out of this case that all IT vendors should consider:

  • The case was brought under UK law against a US based organisation. This suggests that companies should aspire to best practice in accessibility and not just the letter of the law in their jurisdiction. The new UN Convention on Disabilities should greatly aid this process.
  • Being able to acquire externally recognised qualifications is vitally important for people with disabilities and every effort should be made by the software vendors and educational establishments to assist.
  • Educational material includes not only specialist course material but all related reference documentation and all of this needs to be accessible.
  • Trying to retrofit accessibility on to existing documents is hard. The Institute provided both PDF and Word versions of the documents but neither was suitable for a screen-reader. The problem goes back to the authoring of the documents. If they had been structured properly using style sheets they could have been made accessible. The sad thing is that a well structured document is easier for everyone to use and much easier for the author to modify but so few organisations know how to use styles properly.
  • Providing suitable facilities for examinations is complex. Allowing extra time is straightforward but needs to be seen to be fair to all students. Providing students with a human reader/transcriber and a quiet environment for them may be necessary. The best solution is to enable the student to use the assistive technologies (screen-readers, voice-recognition, tactile diagrams etc.) they are familiar with; the challenge is how to do this without breaking the normal technology provided by the examiners and not allow the student to abuse the situation by having access to private ‘crib’ information.

As with most accessibility issues, resolving the situation early in the design cycle is by far the best solution and will, by its nature, create other usability benefits to the wider community.

As a post script I would suggest that the Reading Employment Tribunal, that heard the case, learns from this case and puts its own house in order. The findings are available in PDF, RTF, DOC and HTML versions but none of them has been structured (no headings, titles or even ordered lists were used), so they are all relatively inaccessible. The PDF version is a scanned document so a screen-reader cannot read anything. In my opinion legal documents in any modifiable format are of dubious value. What is needed is an accessible PDF version. I am sure this problem is not confined to Reading but is true of most court documentation and an issue that the DRC should raise and resolve.