lunchBOX interview 007
Ben Watson + Nik Duncan
OPERA, University of Kent
11 February, 2021
lunchBOX: Hello, good day, and welcome to lunchBOX. On the menu today, we're honoured to welcome not one, but two legends of accessibility: Ben Watson and Nik Duncan from the OPERA team at the University of Kent.
Ben and Nik are the driving forces behind the University of Kent recently achieving the first ever 100% ASPIRE education review for the quality of their accessibility statement.
We're delighted they could join us to talk about their work, their favourite people, their thoughts for the future, and, of course, we'll answer the burning question of the day: what do they like for lunch? So, without further hesitation, let's find out. Bon appetit everyone...
1. Who are you and what do you do?
BW + ND: Ben Watson and Nik Duncan, we are the OPERA (Opportunity, Productivity, Engagement, Reducing barriers, Achievement) team which is a university-wide project to mainstream solutions for embedding accessibility which is leading on developing strategies for embedding accessibility at the University of Kent.
We are involved with many projects and collaborate with many departments across the University to mainstream accessibility by design within as many projects and processes as possible.
Our day-to-day work is varied and has evolved a great deal. We now manage the alternative formats service, assistive technology provision as well as providing training and support for digital accessibility for The University as well as wider Kent and sector networks. This includes leading on the University's response to the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) Accessibility Regulations (2018).
2. How did you come to be involved in the world of accessibility?
ND: I studied the Multimedia Design and Technology BSc and then the Mobile Application Design MSc at Kent. I found the modules about usability fascinating. The most profound moment for me was on the BSc, in a first-year module on design and visual communication our lecturer, Ania Bobrowicz, organised guest speakers who used assistive technology such as NVDA. It really hit home how important accessibility is and how we need to consider it at the outset of designing systems and interfaces.
I carried this philosophy to everything I do and when I was working in the library, I mentioned the need for accessible reading materials. A colleague, Matthias Werner, recommended I should go to a lunch time presentation Ben was running about accessibility. It was so inspiring to find someone else as passionate as me about accessibility. So, I owe Ania and Matthias a huge thank you!
3. What does accessibility mean to you?
BW + ND: Enabling everyone to access anything they would like to in the way that suits them best – regardless of disability.
4. What has been your biggest challenge in promoting accessibility?
BW + ND: Getting fully accessible content from publishers. Fortunately, many publishers do share their material on RNIB Bookshare and the list is continually growing.
However, there are still some publishers who require requests to be made directly to them which causes unnecessary delays, especially some publishers who make the process more convoluted with departments in different regions. Others simply ignore the requests.
It would be great to have more input from the publishers to create and share more accessible materials (such as greater push for the ePub file format).
5. What’s been your biggest success in relation to accessibility?
BW + ND: The OPERA project was recognised with the Times Higher Education Award for Outstanding Student Support.
6. What is the most enjoyable part of your job?
BW + ND: The relationships we build with students and seeing them grow in confidence both during their time at University and keeping in touch with them as they pursue an amazingly diverse range of careers beyond Kent.
7. How have you or your organization made a difference?
BW + ND: We have helped to define a set of standards and best practices for embedding accessibility in the learning and teaching environment, these are called the Kent Inclusive Practices (KIPs). These are now part of the requirements for developing modules at Kent.
8. If you could click your heels and make one thing easier for yourself at work, what would it be?
BW + ND: Mandating accessibility training as a core part of the appraisal process.
9. What is the most exciting development you’ve seen this year in the accessibility sector?
BW + ND: The new public sector regulations have been extremely helpful in focusing attention on digital accessibility and giving us new opportunities to highlight the benefits of accessibility by design as something that is good for everyone.
10. Where do you see accessibility in 10 years? Any new developments you are keeping a close eye on?
BW +ND: Artificial Intelligence is going to be a huge help. We are so lucky to be working in the digital age where technology really can be the answer to so many accessibility barriers. When content is designed with accessibility in mind there is no barrier to what people can do with it. Hopefully, AI will improve the ease with which people can create and consume accessible information.
11. How and where do you learn about new accessibility initiatives in the sector?
BW + ND: The various Jiscmail lists are great. The accessibility network is extremely generous and always happy to share good practice.
12. What or who is your accessibility inspiration?
BW + ND: Mike Oliver, who developed the concept of the Social Model of Disability. Mike was an alumnus of Kent and gave a fantastic talk at a Disability History Month event a couple of years ago. It was very interesting to hear his thoughts on how the campus had changed to be more accessible (and to focus us on our continuing work).
13. Which single accessibility tool do you use the most?
BW + ND: SensusAccess. It is a fantastic resource for students to produce alternative formats. Whilst we offer a range of strategies for supporting students, SensusAcccess is so powerful as it empowers students to be self-sufficient rather than making us act as gatekeepers to accessing alternative formats.
14. Tell us your favourite accessibility story.
BW + ND: We were supporting a student with a significant visual impairment in a STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) subject. This was quite tricky as the nature of their subject was very technical and highly visual equations, laboratory experiments, chemical models, and structures). One of the issues we faced was helping them to engage in lectures as they could not see the PowerPoint slides to follow along in real time. Using a live stream, we were able to beam the lecture recording in real time to his laptop that enabled him to use magnification to zoom in and follow along. Although a simple solution the impact was huge. The student was really delighted and commented that it was the first time in their educational life that they felt like they could fully participate in a class.
15. Which lunch would describe your organization and why?
BW + ND: Kent has a wonderful diverse community with staff and students from a range of backgrounds so a huge feast of different cuisines. Washed down with a drink from a local brewery in Kent (preferably Breakwater in Dover).
16. What would be your favourite setting for that lunch?
BW + ND: The University of Kent is positioned in a beautiful location on a hill overlooking the city. Anywhere on the grass overlooking the cathedral would be great.
17. Which 10 people from any time or place would you invite to your lunch?
JD Salinger – I'd love to find out more.
Arthur Mee – his gazetteers of the towns and villages of England are an amazing resource and incredibly timely (pre-war) so preserve a great deal of our national heritage that would otherwise be lost.
Barry Sheene – a riot on two wheels.
18. What are you reading at the moment?
ND: The Steve Zennon Adventures: The Sardon Offensive. It’s an action-packed sci-fi novel written by Kenneth Norrington who is a former colleague of ours at the University. I’m not really a sci-fi fan but there’s a lot of humour and action in this book to appeal to a much wider audience.
BW: Too Far Gone by Todd Blubaugh. A really moving photo diary of a motorcycle road trip across America.
19. What are the applications/services that you couldn’t live without at work or personally?
BW + ND:
20. Anything totally secret to tell us? We’re amongst friends…
BW: Nik lives in a castle.
lunchBOX: This is an excellent, medieval secret. We'll be sure to put a moat around it and keep your secret safe.
Thank you so much to both of you for taking the time to join us for a suitably socially distanced lunch today. Ben - one of your dinner guest choices will be sending you £10 in the post shortly. Congratulations again on your 100% ASPIRE education review.
Thank you for your patronage. We know that you could choose other luncheon establishments. We'll take care of the bill...and thanks for the Alan Partridge Soundboard recommendation. Jurassic Park...