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 email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org Abstract 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. 1 Introduction 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 for ICTs 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 Researcher 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 cybercafe. 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. 5 Conclusions 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 ICTs. 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. References Brouwer-Janse, M. D., Suri, J. F., Yawitz, M. A., de Vries, G., Fozard, J. L., & Coleman, R. (1997). User interfaces for Young and Old. Interactions, 4(2), 34-46. Clyne, P. (1972). The disadvantaged adult: Educational and social needs of minority groups. London: Longman Group Ltd. Commission of the European Communities Information Society Forum. (1996). Networks for people and their communities: making the most of the information society in the European Union. Brussels: European Commission. Crocker, K. (1995). Focus Groups. AIMA Newsletter, 10(2), 2-12. de Vries, G. (1997). Involvement of School-aged Children in the Design Process. Interactions, 4(2), 41-2. Department of Health. (2001). Valuing People: A New Strategy for Learning Disability for the 21st Century. London: Department of Health. Gorman, G. E., & Clayton, P. (1997). Qualitative Research for the Information Professional: a practical handbook. London: Library Association Publishing. Hanna, L., Risden, K., & Alexander, K. (1997). Guidelines for Usability Testing with Children,. Interactions, 4(2), 9-14. Kruger, D. (1998). Access denied? Preventing Information Exclusion. London: Demos. One North East. (2000). North East of England Objective 3: Regional Development Plan, 2000 - 2006. Newcastle upon Tyne: Government Office North East. Simons, K. (1998). Home, work and inclusion. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Sutcliffe, J. (1994). Integration for Adults with Learning Disabilities. Leicester: NIACE.
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