Project @pple’s (2004-2006) overarching aim was to explore, from a multidisciplinary perspective, the terms on which people with learning disabilities can access and participate in the range of opportunities presented by e-Learning and the World Wide Web
The Project established a wide ranging consortium comprising; Xtensis, a commercial e-Learning Developer; Macromedia, the US multimedia software corporation; Mencap, the leading UK learning disability charity; and researchers from the disciplines of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Psychology (both UEL) Informatics (UCL), and Communication and Language Science (UEA). The Project was coordinated from The Rix Centre at the University of East London.
There is increasing recognition that people with learning disabilities are vulnerable to exclusion from many aspects of mainstream life. ‘Valuing People’, the government’s plan for improving the quality of life of people with learning disabilities, was the first White Paper to approach this issue for 30 years. It placed an expectation on local service providers to develop ‘person-centred’ policies that are responsive to the needs and wishes of each individual. However, the communication difficulties and deficits in social functioning that typically accompany a learning disability make self-advocacy a difficult process.
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can facilitate self-advocacy by providing a medium through which people can indicate their needs, wishes and abilities via personal profiles in the form of web pages and multimedia presentations. The ‘personalisation’ of learning, whereby individuals pursue a curriculum tailored to their specific progression needs and abilities, also appears particularly well matched to the diversity of need in the learning disabled community. Personalised learning already features in Special Education’s use of personal ‘Statements of Special Educational Need’, which form the basis of Individual Education Plans.
The use of interactive multimedia has proven especially suitable for this user group, reinforcing their achievement with encouraging feedback and providing an infinite capacity for repetition and learning at the individual’s own pace. Positive enhancements to friendship, social interaction and learning have also been cited in studies on the effectiveness of ICT with children with developmental disabilities . Multimedia also provides new opportunities for students who have restricted ability to work with text and printed matter.
‘Multimedia advocacy’ can support person-centred planning. It takes advantage of increasingly user-friendly digital photography, audio and video authoring technologies to enable individuals with a learning disability to make their own multimedia to organise their thinking, reinforce their memories and communicate their preferences and viewpoints. For example, Trans-active, an initiative developed by Mencap and the Rix Centre at UEL, provides a whole approach to transition planning and person-centred practice in schools ( www.trans-active.org.uk ). Pupils with learning disabilities use digital cameras to produce individual rich media albums that capture self-concept and personal preferences as they face the difficult period of ‘transition’ to adult services and independent living. In short, the Trans-active project attempted to introduce into the school curriculum a truly ‘person-centred’ self-advocacy platform for transition. Project @pple took this idea further by widening the age and ability range served, extending content to various curriculum areas and attempting to personalise the experience to suit the diverse abilities of individual users.
The project was also concerned with informing the debate on accessibility. ICT can prove impossible to access for learning disabled people without substantial support. Furthermore, accessibility guidelines for people with learning disabilities are reported to be ‘almost non-existent’. The existing lobby for the accessibility of ICT has been driven by those with visual and auditory impairment, who have achieved the development of standards and guidelines through the World Wide Web Consortium’s Accessibility Initiative Group (W3C WAI) that are enshrined in law internationally. These guidelines often fail to address the specific access needs of the learning disabled community and indeed, sometimes run counter to their requirement, specifically around the use of ‘rich media’ – sound, imagery, video and animation – which can make content meaningful for a learning disabled user – but is deemed inaccessible in existing standards without alternative formats and complex mark-up.