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Providing Digital Resources to Enhance Employability Skills for Disabled Students - Featherstone, Lisa

Lisa Featherstone
JISC TechDis, York, United Kingdom



In 2011, the employment rate of disabled people in the United Kingdom was 48.8 per cent, compared with 77.5 per cent of non-disabled people [1]. The rate for disabled adult employees has been rising consistently in the last 10 years and there is still a significant discrepancy compared to those without a disability. In addition youth unemployment at around 20 % [2], and one of the main indicators generated by the financial crisis in Western Economies, is of increasing concern.

The CBI’s (Confederation of British Industry) Education and Skills survey in 2011 highlights the concerns of Employers in relation to the low level of numeracy, literacy and employability skills of many school and college leavers [3]. Although many of the skills as set out by the CBI are not those that can be addressed with traditional digital resources there are many technological solutions which can enhance and promote their use. For example, an individual’s time and self management can be significantly improved by the use of scheduling applications.

In 2011 JISC TechDis were commissioned by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills to provide a range of resources to improve the employability skills of adults with disabilities and or difficulties. Employability Skills are recognised as “an essential precondition for the effective development and use of other, more specialist or technical skills required for particular jobs. And they are a key underpin to [your] effectiveness at work” [4]. To this end, the TechDis Toolbox was developed to hold a collection of digital resources aimed at improving the skills of adults with disabilities in order to increase their employability.

Existing Resources

JISC TechDis have a history of providing simple easy to use resources which focus on the need for teachers and tutors to be able to provide accessible teaching materials for their students. The most successful of these were ‘Benevolent Bill – What Microsoft does for Accessibility’ [5] and the ‘Accessibility Essentials’ Series [6]. The crucial factor in success of these resources is their highlighting of how everyday office applications such as Microsoft® Word and PowerPoint can be used to create accessible teaching material which can benefit all students.
All the JISC TechDis resources have so far been purposed with the tutor or lecturer in mind. They were written for academic staff using academic or more formal language.

Digital shorts

The advent of YouTube in 2005 transformed the way in which many young people access information as it allowed users to upload their own content. Much of this is of limited value and of an individual nature, but there is also a wealth of information on any given topic. Although it is possible to upload videos longer than 15 minutes the majority of the videos are short – less than 10 minutes long [7]. The statistics for the site are unprecedented – 48 hours of video are uploaded every minute and there is more video uploaded in 30 days than the 3 major US TV channels produced in 60 years [8].

In 2007 Michael Wesch produced a short video on ‘A Vision of Students today’ [9] in conjunction with his ‘Introduction to Cultural Anthropology’ class in 2007. He was aware that although the students attended his lectures, their attention was not completely on him and the information he was imparting [10]. The video highlights the anomalies between traditional academic practice and the way in which these students behaved. The video was viewed over a million times in the first month [11]. It highlighted that although the surveyed students would read 8 books in that year and write up to 42 pages for their class, they would also write 500 emails and view over 2300 web pages and 1281 Facebook profiles.

The increasing popularity of the microblogging site Twitter also shows the astonishing ability of the internet to disseminate information. Although only sending messages of 140 characters in length the site can spread news in a way previously unthinkable. In January 2009 when an aircraft crashed into the Hudson River in New York the news and images were spread by twitter users with the world’s media desperately trying to catch up [12].

With this knowledge in mind we started to plan the sort of resources that would be of use and interest to the current ‘digital consumers’. Our target audience for these resources were students with disabilities who would possibly rely even more on digital content than others to meet their access and inclusion needs. We therefore had to produce resources that were focussed, simple, short and linked. A crucial aspect of the project was the involvement of disabled students themselves in both using and commenting on the resources and disseminating them with their peers.

Student Centred

The first part of the process involved speaking to adults and young people about how they used technology. We conducted a number of short focus groups with disabled students in a number of different settings. These ranged from special schools, independent specialist provision for young adults, mainstream colleges and students from Higher Education with diverse needs.

In general the results showed that although most of the students used technology with the college or classroom situation, the technology itself was limited and usually dated. One group of 16 year old boys with learning difficulties and/or disabilities explained how the teacher had to be helped to use the virtual learning environment. They also talked about how they used their games consoles at home and had an informal network of friends and enthusiasts who helped each other out if they got stuck in a particular game. They were adept at manipulating these consoles and had received no formal training or instruction. They also had essentially developed their own online community where they shared music, videos and things they found interesting on the internet.

Developing the resources

It was vital to ensure that any resources created would be relevant to students and would directly influence their Employability Skills. An analysis of our existing materials identified gaps that required further resources. These included updates to Accessibility Essentials to encompass both Word 2010 and the Windows 7 built in accessibility features; the extensive accessibility feautures in both the Mac OS X (Mac operating systems) and the iphone/iPad operating system iOS; and basic information literacy.

JISC TechDis commissioned consultants with experience of teaching, an understanding of pedagogy and knowledge of the existing TechDis materials to produce the Toolbox resources. Although the production of the resources was done by external consultants there was a clear work flow for their development. Agreement on the language to be used, and approval of scripts for audio and video files, had to be given before any resources were created and this prevented unnecessary and time consuming editing of multimedia. Resources were created in the format deemed to be of most use to the users (an audio file, video file, step-by-step guide or a combination of these). Video and audio files were required to be less than 3 minutes in length and have little or no technical jargon.

Phase one resources

  • Getting to know Google – 9 videos starting from absolute basics
  • Mac OSX accessibility
  • iOS
  • Windows 7
  • Windows XP
  • Word 2010
  • Reading PDF documents on screen

Phase 2 resources

  • Self Management
    • Email
    • Calendar
  • Planning
  • Team working 
  • Free and Open Source Software
  • Freemium Services
  • iLife


Once the resources were being produced we recruited further young people and adults to act as reviewers. These were in three distinct groups.

Digital Outreach Trainers

A European funded project in South Yorkshire supports a number of young people in further education to become Digital Outreach Trainers (DOTs) [13]. The project enables students in further Education to share their expertise using computers with friends, relatives and colleagues who may be reluctant or unable to get online. This is to further the Race Online 2012 agenda [14]. There are currently over 400 DOTs. The students complete a portfolio to show how they have supported or helped those previously without connectivity to engage with and use the Internet in a productive and useful way. JISC TechDis are working with this group of DOTs to encourage them to use the Toolbox resources. They have been used in ways in which we hadn’t anticipated, for example, to help refugees in learning English as well as ICT skills with a basic series of videos on ‘Getting to Know Google’. Other DOTs have used the resources to encourage siblings with disabilities to engage with Internet resources in a way which is meaningful for them.

Feedback from the DOTs has resulted in additional material being commissioned. They explained that a lot of the people they were working with did not have the most up-to-date hardware so would not have access to Windows 7 for example. As a result of this we commissioned accessibility guidelines for users of the Windows XP operating system. Despite our showcasing the options for reading word documents and PDF files on screen these videos remain the most popular with all our testers.


TechDis have recruited a number of students from many educational backgrounds. These have varied from independent provision, work based learning providers, mainstream FE colleges and Higher Education. They have trialled some of the resources that were relevant to them and provided feedback. High quality videos to capture this feedback as case studies have been commissioned to further promote the Toolbox resources.


A secure social network tool has been developed with two Independent Specialist Colleges and a mainstream FE college in the North West of England [15]. This has been developed to promote good e-safety practice and to enable students with learning difficulties and/or more complex needs to be able to share their experiences and rich digital content. The system has been piloted with students aged between 18 and 24 in the three colleges and is proving to be very popular. The students have been asked to comment on the Toolbox resources and share those that they find useful with each other. This feedback process will begin in January 2012.


The toolbox project resources will be hosted on a microsite of the main JISC TechDis site. http://tbx.jisctechdis.ac.uk. The materials will be available as standalone resources, but also will be linked in an easy to access format where appropriate. For example the Word 2010 videos on creating accessible documents work in conjunction with each other and the user will be able to easily browse from one to another. The site will also have each of the resources in context allowing the user to find the right resource for the information they need.


All the users mentioned in the previous section use various tools on the internet for communicating and sharing information. We will encourage them to share the toolbox resources using their own preferred methods which will include, twitter, facebook, Webdoc and possibly Pinterest.

Future work

Work done so far on the Toolbox project is only a start with further resources planned. These will include further resources on problem solving, information literacy and a section on Apps for accessibility. We anticipate that the communities fostered as part of phase 1 and 2 of the project will develop and continue to act as reviewing and steering process. The feedback we have received from them has been practical and relevant. They are our main audience and focus.


[1] Disability Employment Factsheet: Employment Rates (PDF, 5 Pages, 46 KB).
[2] http://www.economist.com/blogs/dailychart/2011/07/youth-unemployment.
[3] Bolton C. Building for growth: 2011: 48. Available at: http://www.cbi.org.uk/business-issues/education-and-skills/in-focus/employability/.
[4] NUS CBI. Working towards your future. Making the most of your time in Higher Education. Available at http://www.cbi.org.uk/media-centre/press-releases/2011/05/universities-must-embed-employability-skills-in-course-structures-cbi-nus/.
[5] http://staffpacks.jisctechdis.ac.uk/Staff%20Packs/Benevolent%20Bill/index.xml.
[6] http://www.jisctechdis.ac.uk/AccessibilityEssentials/.
[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/YouTube#Uploading.
[8] http://www.youtube.com/t/press_statistics.
[9] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGCJ46vyR9o.
[10] http://mediatedcultures.net/ksudigg/?p=119.
[11] http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2008/10/a-vision-of-students-today-what-teachers-must-do/.
[12] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/twitter/4269765/New-York-plane-crash-Twitter-breaks-the-news-again.html.
[13] http://www.makingitpersonal.org.uk/.
[14] http://raceonline2012.org/about-us.
[15] http://inbook.beaumontcollege.ac.uk/ access limited – log in required.

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