Connected Learning Internship: Accessibility and Inclusivity in Disaster Studies | Opening up the Conversation
By Joshua Anthony, on 5 May 2021
Authors: Eleanor King and Fran Kurlansky
In a world where our lives are increasingly digitilised, and there is increased awareness about curating accessible spaces and ensuring optimum representation of all people, taking on an internship working on facilitating accessibility and inclusivity was very important. This is even more crucial in a year filled with challenges created by the pandemic. Covid-19 has challenged educational providers to further enhance online learning, making it imperative for content to accommodate all learners, regardless of their identity and additional requirements.
For two months across December-January, we reviewed the content of postgraduate modules taught at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR): the Conflict Humanitarianism and Disaster Risk Reduction module, and the Gender, Disaster and Conflict module. This was part of an Arena Centre Connected Learning internship supervised by Dr Jessica Field and Dr Virginie Le Masson in IRDR. We were equipped with the UCL Inclusive Curriculum Healthcheck and the Accessibility and the Internet document, both of which provided a solid foundation from which to scrutinise and assess the content of our assigned modules.
Improving Accessibility: Definition and Challenges
An institution providing digital accessibility means ensuring that documents and online platforms can be accessed by all students regardless of additional learning requirements. Features that all documents and online platforms should have inbuilt—but unfortunately often do not—include: tags to allow users to navigate through text and images; alt-text, so that readers with visual impairments can use a screen-reader to have images conveyed to them in detail and in context; and resizing text and implementing the appropriate contrast ratio between text and background. From a technical point of view, conducting accessibility checks was a challenging aspect of the internship. Whilst utilising the resources, including advice from IRDR PhD students who had completed accessibility tasks on other modules, and becoming familiar with the functions of Adobe Acrobat, for instance, the process of making content accessible can vary between documents.
A prominent issue was creating image descriptions (alt-text), especially if the document was image-heavy. Some images, such as “word clouds”, graphs, and tables, are very detailed and contain a lot of written information, so condensing high quantities of information into captions proved to be virtually impossible. Another issue faced was knowing whether edits, colours, and some images were simply aesthetic and could be removed, or functional and so important to retain. Not being the original creator of module documents (such as PowerPoints) made these decisions difficult, as context is often needed. These elements can place pressure on someone carrying out accessibility checks, as we found, not being experts in the field of Disaster Studies.
These were important challenges to face, however, in generating discourse about why accessibility and inclusivity work is important. While we were essentially working backwards, trying to unpick major flaws in documents that were not designed to be accessed by someone with additional requirements, it made the need for educating staff on accessibility requirements even greater.
The Importance of Accessibility in an Academic Environment
Currently, information about accessibility is disseminated among staff. Yet a problem can arise when that information is not made a priority for all staff at all times. Awareness of not only how to implement checks and corrections, but why they are necessary, must be prioritised by departments and the university, and a better system of providing accessible digital education needs to be explored. This way, staff can make digital teaching materials accessible prior to a module beginning, thus, making a more accessible learning environment for students to enter into. A deeper understanding of the need for inclusivity and accessibility is imperative if there is going to be a culture shift which then provides a safer educational experience for all students.
Enhancing Inclusivity: Definition
Working within the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, it was also crucial to explore, using an intersectional framework, the inclusivity of the module content which we worked on. A term first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality provides a framework through which to understand how people’s different social characteristics—such as race, gender, or class—“intersect” to create complex oppressions. The framework is most commonly applied to feminist theory, highlighting that, for example, a middle-class white cisgender woman does not face the same oppression as a working-class Transgender Black woman, even though they both face misogyny.
Making Academia more Inclusive
In an IRDR teaching context, this requires an awareness of the effect of disasters on people of all races, genders, and classes, as well as ensuring the voices of those individuals are platformed. Rather than having a week on “women” or a week on “LGBTQIA+” within the module, a holistic approach to people’s complex identities and the way these impact their experience of disasters is not only a more inclusive approach, but it also provides a more thorough analysis.
Crucially, the UCL Inclusive Curriculum Healthcheck spotlights the ‘attainment gap’ (the discrepancy of achievement between students of different backgrounds). It notes how, through making a curriculum that greater encompasses the student body—that is, going further than celebrating diversity and actually creating modules that students can relate to—the gap can continue to reduce in size. There is a direct correlation between representation and achievement.
Evaluating how both IRDR modules incorporated the stories of people from different cultures, ethnicities, genders and sexualities was imperative to ensuring that, as required in the Healthcheck, they captured a multitude of experiences, fostered inclusivity and ensured that content was reflective of the diversity of student experience. In addition, checking that both modules facilitated the students’ sharing of their own stories and perspectives in a safe digital space would help to ensure that the students could voice issues in a supportive environment.
We were able to build on these analytical skills through conducting a critical appraisal of a guest lecture by Dr Virginie Le Masson on Gender-based Violence and Disasters. Utilising both the accessibility and the inclusivity elements of the internship, and working closely with Dr Le Masson, we delivered feedback from the perspective of students, and were able to draw on our own experiences as students navigating online learning to create further considerations for lecturers to take. For example, when presenting information about the experience of women in disaster situations, we advised it was also important to analyse the experience of trans men who felt they had also been victims of misogyny when coded by others as women.
Inclusivity was an important element of the internship, and this task exemplified this; we conversed with IRDR staff about how to deliver feedback in a constructive manner, how to cater to the diversity of the student body, and creating good support systems for both students and staff. It was a unique opportunity for a dialogue between students and lecturers, and meant that we were able to work in a collaborative way to create the best learning experience for all.
Learning from Experience: Holistic and Methodical Approaches
Having completed the internship, there are several things for us to consider in retrospect and to recommend for future practice. For the department and the university as a whole, we would advise that an important element of digital accessibility and inclusivity work is planning and time-management. For anyone assigned with making documents more accessible and inclusive, it is important to start working on these tasks sooner rather than later, experimenting with how much time you allocate a task and at what part of the day you work best until you find a rhythm that fits your individual work style. For example, the assignment may seem daunting in the beginning and could require some practice and further research. In this case, you may find that approaching it in twenty-minute slots to be more manageable. On the other hand, larger chunks of time may be more suitable if you find yourself wanting to complete a document’s alt-text in one session, for instance.
It is particularly imperative to work in a holistic manner. As accessibility and inclusivity work can be detail-orientated, the module leader or convener should keep the bigger picture in mind which helps to assess the content as a whole. This is particularly important in modules with lots of guest lecturers. Whilst each guest lecturer may include content written by women, it could be that each lecturer has predominantly platformed cisgender women, and the voices of trans women and genderqueer individuals are marginalized. Being methodical is key here, as is approaching the task sooner rather than later or retrospectively.
Working in a finite internship affected our experience of the work. 35 hours in two months is not a lot of time in relation to the tasks we were required to work on. What is most important in this internship are the skills we learned, understanding the root problems and what can be done to solve these—in this case: increasing provisions for technical literacy and a deeper understanding of what accessibility and inclusivity are, and why they need to be made more visible on a widespread scale.
Eleanor King is a postgraduate student at the Institute of Education, studying for her MA in Digital Media: Critical Studies. She is currently working on her dissertation on the dissemination of misinformation through social media. Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fran Kurlansky is a postgraduate student, studying for her MA in Jewish Studies. She is also working for UCL Human Resources as a Digital Accessibility Assistant. Email address: email@example.com.