Identifying the Needs and Expectations of
Users with Learning Disabilities
Lynne Hall Gill Mallalieu
University of Sunderland University of Northumbria
School of Computing and Technology, School of Informatics,
University of Sunderland, University of Northumbria,
Sunderland, SR6 0DD Newcastle, NE1 6ST
The learning disabled are frequently excluded from social, economic and everyday activities
including the use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs). Here, we discuss our
approach to identifying the ICT needs and expectations of users with learning disabilities, using
focus groups to gather information relating to the potential and requirements of ICTs. We report
that adults with learning disability can and do use (and want to use) ICTs. We conclude that the
lack of policies, products and support for ICT use by the learning disabled reflects the
discrimination that must be confronted to gain an acceptable level of e-inclusion.
Supporters of the Information Age are highly optimistic, with suggestions that “information
technology can empower ordinary people and their communities” (Commission of the European
Communities Information Society Forum, 1996). Yet, access to computers and the net is by no
means guaranteed, particularly amongst those with low incomes or who are in disadvantaged
groups (Kruger, 1998).
This paper focuses on the learning disabled, who are one of the most vulnerable groups in the
general population, tending to be both socially and economically excluded (Department of Health,
2001). This group have received remarkably little attention in relation to their potential and actual
use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and in this paper we present research
into the awareness and use of ICTs by learning disabled adults.
The focus of this research was to identify the potential and requirements of ICTs for the learning
disabled. Here, we discuss the use of focus groups to gather user requirements from the learning
disabled and the requirements issues that we identified. These included access to and enjoyment of
computers; views on software and hardware (e.g. games, office software, different input devices);
social and economic aspects of computer use; and ways in which the learning disabled felt that
they could be better supported by ICTs.
Section 2 discusses the learning disabled. Section 3 discusses focus groups. Section 4 outlines the
results we obtained. Section 5 presents our conclusions and outlines future work.
2 The Learning Disabled
The definition of learning disability used, is that provided in (Department of Health, 2001):
“A significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, to learn new
skills (impaired intelligence) with a reduced ability to cope independently (impaired social
functioning) which started before adulthood, with a lasting effect on development.”
Impaired intelligence is determined using the WAIS-R and resulting in a score of, or below, IQ 74
for mild and of, or below IQ 50 for profound learning disability. Here, the focus is on mild
learning disability (this accounts for 1.2 million people in England (One North East, 2000)).
2.1 E-Exclusion and the Learning Disabled
The learning disabled face exclusion in virtually all aspects of their lives and, until recently, have
been poorly dealt with by society, often receiving sub-standard care and support (Simons, 1998).
As people with learning disabilities are frequently vulnerable and in the difficult situation of being
unable to speak up for themselves, this situation has resulted in an extreme level of discrimination
and exclusion (Sutcliffe, 1994).
The assumptions that the learning disabled are unemployable, unsuited to education, incapable of
dealing with their financial activities are all being challenged with some success. However, little
attention is given to the e-inclusion of the learning disabled with almost no reference to ICTs in a
recent white paper (Department of Health, 2001). This contrasts strongly with other government
policy documents aimed at social and economic change, where considerable attention is frequently
paid to the potential of ICTs to support that change.
The aim of the UK government is to move more government business and services on-line. Yet,
their failure to consider the learning disabled suggests that such services will exclude or fail to
consider the needs of the learning disabled to obtain services on-line. Thus, the learning disabled
will lack access to facilities that could be of considerable benefit to them, with many learning
disabled being in receipt of government services and benefits.
The producers of software also seem to consider that their software products have limited
relevance to the learning disabled, with very little software specifically aimed at the learning
disabled adult. This lack of software is significant, as software exists for a multitude of activities,
from game playing to writing screen plays to creating family trees, etc. The software that does
exist for the learning disabled tends to be aimed at the school market, for the teaching of children
with special needs.
3 Gathering Requirements with the Learning Disabled
In considering the potential impact of ICTs on exclusion for adults with learning disabilities, it is
clear that their views and input must be acquired from the earliest stages of any project seeking to
increase their inclusion (Department of Health, 2001). Requirements gathering techniques are
primarily aimed at the non-disabled, adult, business / work-oriented sector. However, some of
these techniques are applicable or may be modified for use with non-standard user groups. For
example, a range of modified techniques have been used successfully with primary school children
(Hanna, Risden, & Alexander, 1997), (Brouwer-Janse et al., 1997). Adults with learning disability
have a number of similarities to children in terms of requirements gathering, including:
• lack of awareness of software application potential
• communications difficulties (including low literacy levels)
• high willingness to agree with the analyst
• potentially limited social and interaction abilities.
3.1 The Selection of Focus Groups for Requirements Gathering
A technique has been used successfully in a number of contexts, including with information
managers (Crocker, 1995) and children (de Vries, 1997), is focus groups. Focus groups permit
group discussion and provide the analyst with a mechanism to gain user viewpoints. Focus groups
typically involve six to twelve persons, guided by a facilitator and are used “to gain an
understanding of participants’ attitudes and perceptions relevant to a particular topic” (Gorman
& Clayton, 1997). The principal alternative to the focus group for requirements analysis was
interviewing, however, focus groups were selected as they are non-threatening, social and can
result in considerable input into the requirements process.
Focus groups were selected for eliciting expectations and needs from the learning disabled as it
was felt they would result in the maximum amount of quality data. They allow a range of
perspectives to be gathered in a short time period in an encouraging and enjoyable way. The short
time period was felt to be important as typically people with learning disabilities have a low
attention span (Clyne, 1972). The satisfaction of the participants was also felt to be of considerable
importance and focus groups tend to be enjoyable, stimulating experiences.
4 Using Focus Groups to Gather Learning Disabled Requirements
This requirements gathering occurred as part of the initial investigation into the validity of creating
an ICT centre for learning disabled adults in Newcastle (North East England) for SHAW
(Sheltered Housing and Workshops). SHAW provides training and work experience opportunities
with the aim of enabling people with learning disabilities to enter supported, and ultimately, open
employment. The majority of SHAW’s clients have mild to moderate learning disability and many
have additional physical disabilities.
The experimental design for the focus group is provided in table 1.
Table 1: Focus Group Session Design
Duration 2 hours
Time / Location The session was incorporated into one of the weekly training days, thus
facilitating session organisation and avoiding the problem of non-attendance.
Participants 8 learning disabled adults
Member of support staff (facilitator)
Group Pre-existing (Pre-Employment Training group at SHAW)
Facilitator Member of support staff
This staff member had contributed to the design of the focus group session and
had considerable experience of discussion groups with the learning disabled.
Data gathering Note taking (researcher, who made little contribution to the group discussion).
Debriefing session with facilitator after session used to supplement the data.
The discussion was aimed at being relevant to the everyday life experiences of the learning
disabled, reflecting real life rather than simulated and adult to reflect the adult status of the
participants. The questions that were prepared for the focus group session aimed to provoke
discussion on learning disabled adult’s expectations and perceptions of ICT. These questions were
developed through a period of consultation with support staff and management at a support agency
for the learning disabled. The questions were iteratively refined through an initial pilot with other
support staff and then with a small group of 3 adults with learning disability.
Initial questions were aimed at identifying the level of computer use and awareness by the
participants. Computers in this context were the standard PC set up, devices (such as phones /
palm tops) were not included nor was reference made to computational entities such as Automated
Teller Machines. The focus was on the use of applications such as writing applications (such as
Word) and computer games (such as Tomb Raider, Monkey Island, etc.).
Questions on needs in relation to needs and expectations of computers focused on what the
learning disabled adults felt they required, to be able to use a computer or what they could use a
computer for. Social issues were included in questions related to use of the internet (including
cybercafes) and discussions with friends.
4.1 Needs and Expectations identified with the Focus Group
The focus group identified that adults with learning disabled can and do use ICTs and further that
they enjoy this use and would like to be able to incorporate the use of ICTs to a greater extent in
their lives. The use of computers was seen as a valuable employability skill, extending
possibilities for the learning disabled for the types of employment that they could achieve.
Teleworking was not viewed as particularly attractive, participants identifying that a key part of
employment was the interaction with other employees. Participants identified that they would like
to learn more about using computers, for both work and leisure. They would prefer this learning to
occur in groups with one-to-one support from an instructor.
The focus group identified some of the difficulties the learning disabled have with using
computers, relating primarily to their lack of basic ICT skills and the difficulties of learning how
to use applications, compounded by the difficulty of using help systems. Difficulties of using
standard word processing software were largely related to problems understanding icons and how
to achieve common tasks. However, this contrasted strongly with the ease of use experienced with
games. Although some “tricks” of games were hard to discover, few difficulties were experienced
in learning to play games and having an enjoyable experience with playing games was common.
This suggests that software can be developed for the learning disabled which is easy and enjoyable
for them to use.
The net was viewed with enthusiasm, offering lots of useful and usable information from the web.
The participants had relatively limited knowledge of the potential of the net, but all wanted to
experience the net and see what it could do, particularly in the social setting offered by a
The expectations which the group had were fairly limited, with little awareness of the potential of
specifically developed applications for the learning disabled. The expectations of most were that
mainstream software would be difficult to use, with no expectation that it could be designed
differently to support learning disabled needs. Participants could think of a number of potential
applications, such as poster making and learning useful skills through computer use, identifying a
group of potential software products for the learning disabled.
The focus groups were a successful means of eliciting information from the participants. The
discussion was lively and the participants all seemed to enjoy the experience. The facilitator was
pleased with the session and felt that it had been a beneficial, useful and enjoyable experience for
the participants and had stimulated considerable discussion and interest.
One of the reasons that the requirements of the learning disabled have not been widely considered
is due to the perception that this requirements gathering exercise will be particularly difficult with
this user group. In this study, focus groups were selected for eliciting expectations and views of
ICTs from the learning disabled and were found to provide a non-threatening, social context, that
resulted in considerable input into the requirements process and provided a satisfying experience
for the participants.
Future work focuses on monitoring the impact of an ICT Centre that has been created by SHAW
with the support of European Social Funding on the e-exclusion of the learning disabled.
Successes have already been achieved, with learning disabled adults gaining employment using
Adults with learning disability are aware of the growing importance of ICTs and do not wish to be
left out of the information revolution. The results obtained identify that the learning disabled have
an awareness and interest in ICTs and a desire to use ICTs. We conclude that the lack of software
products and ICT policies for the learning disabled are a result of discrimination and that the
learning disabled have considerable potential as a user group.
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