How the 2021 summer of sport showed the Six Domains of Mental WellnessTM in action

How the 2021 summer of sport showed the Six Domains of Mental WellnessTM in action

After the false start to 2020’s sporting calendar one thing I’ve enjoyed this summer is the return of sporting events such as Wimbledon, the Euros and, of course, the Summer Olympic and Paralympic games. Athletes had to learn to navigate disrupted training due to the pandemic with swimming pools, gyms and cycle tracks closing for unknown amounts of time, it was fantastic to see the athletes doing what they do best, often in front of a global audience.

The most important take-away that we gained from the 2021 summer of sport has to be the open discussion around mental health amongst the athletes and how this is just as important as their physical health. US gymnast, Simone Biles, pulled out of the Olympic all-round final to prioritise her mental health, Japanese tennis player, Naomi Osaka, withdrew from the French Open earlier in the year and decided not to compete in Wimbledon to preserve her mental health. In July England cricketer, Ben Stokes, decided to take an indefinite break from all cricket with immediate effect to prioritise his mental wellbeing.

At Learning Labs we are lucky enough to have access to a mental wellness portal which enables us to learn about mental wellness then assess and develop our own mental wellness. The portal is based on our very own unique concept called the Six Domain of Mental WellnessTM. It was while I was seeing the coverage of athletes opening up about their mental wellness that I realised I was seeing real-life examples of, at least, two of our six domains in action.

Your Social Wellness Domain in action

One of the drivers behind the social mental wellness domain is community. Having a community available to support you when you need it can have a positive impact on your mental wellbeing. During the pandemic, when many people were experiencing difficulties maintaining their mental wellness, communities came together to help each other whether that be checking on people living alone to prevent feeling lonely or shopping for elderly or shielding neighbours. When she was unable to train due to gym closures, Canadian Paralympic wheelchair basketballer, Arinn Young’s, local community worked together to find weight room equipment and space for her to practice.  However, a community is not limited to your immediate geographical community. It can be a community of people who share the same interest e.g. football fans, an online community such as a forum or Facebook group or people who share the same profession.  During the pandemic many people’s perception of community would has changed. Due to lockdowns many people turned to the online world to find their community.

When Simone Biles announced her break to concentrate on her mental wellbeing she received an outpouring of support. Simone tweeted “the outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.” Via twitter, Simone was receiving support from her online community. People from all corners of the globe were helping her maintain her Social Wellness. She also received support from a different community, other professional athletes – people who shared her profession. Her fellow team USA gymnasts offered support as well as former Olympic figure skater, Adam Rippon, British gymnast Max Whitlock and Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba, just to name a few.

Your Motivational Wellness domain in action

Autonomy is one of the drivers for the Motivational Wellness. This is the ability to act on personal values and interests and therefore feel in control of your behaviour and decision making. When Naomi Osaka made the decision to withdraw from the French Open she was doing just this. She was aware that press conferences were affecting her mental wellness so she acted on her personal values and interests and decided to remove herself, temporarily, from the situation. Over the last few months any interviews she has conducted with journalists have been via email. Earlier this year British Paralympic swimmer, Hannah Russel MBE, talked openly about her break in 2019 after she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. She said “For me, taking out a little bit of time was really, really important for me and my mental health. I realised how much I missed my swimming”.

Within the Motivational Domain you can learn about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. It goes into a lot more detail than this but in a nutshell extrinsic motivation focuses on behaviours driven by external rewards such as money or praise and intrinsic motivation focuses on behaviours driven by personal values and interests. It is safe to say that when Naomi decided to withdraw from the French Open she was acting on her intrinsic motivation as not only was her decision met by many unjust negative comments but she also got fined $15,000 by the heads of the French Open.

Naomi’s decision was driven by her intrinsic motivation, which in this instance outweighed the external motivation to compete. Occasionally we need to weight up the pros and cons of each motivator and follow the motivation that leads to the most positive outcome for our mental health.

What do you think?

A survey found that 40% of men won’t talk about their mental health so, the fact that male athletes like Ben Stokes, who has 964,200 followers on twitter, are putting conversations around their mental health into the mainstream is certainly a step forward. But where do we go next? Now that mental health conversations are taking place it’s important we act on these conversations and ensure mental wellness support is available from school through further and higher education and into the workplace and beyond. Only then will we see the topic of mental health truly normalised. 

As always, I’d love to hear from you. Are there any other notable individuals you’ve seen recently speak out about their mental wellness – they don’t have to be a professional athlete. Also, do not hesitate to contact me if you’d like a demo of the new Learning Labs mental wellness portal to see how it could benefit your students, employees or future Olympians.

CPD Revolution live events

CPD Revolution live events

We're bringing back CPD Revolution live events, starting in November. The theme for CPD Revolution 2021 is 'Diversity and inclusivity in our work'.

Our events will be Covid-19 Secure, ensuring you feel comfortable and remain safe attending our events across the country. We ask that you follow government guidelines when it comes to mask wearing. 

What is CPD Revolution?

CPD Revolution is an interactive event for disability professionals such as DSA and workplace assessors.  

All eight events will start with an engaging keynote address from equality, diversity and inclusivity consultants, EW Group. 

Throughout the day you will take part in five interactive workshops showcasing the latest releases and features from our Assistive Technology partners. 

There will also be the opportunity to network with like-minded industry professionals as well as visit the stands of our exhibiting partners.

Where are the events taking place?

Register your interest

If you know which CPD Revolution event you would like to attend, you can register your interest via the link below.

As soon as the venue for that location is announced we will email you the details, to book your free space. 

Initiatives that are providing inspiration on accessible approaches

Initiatives that are providing inspiration on accessible approaches

Technology is frequently providing new and innovative solutions which make the world more accessible. However, it can feel like every day there is a new app, piece of software or website revealed. Working within the DSA sector I am aware that when it comes to widening accessibility in education and workplace universities are leading the way in inclusive learning strategy. It’s important to not get tunnel vision though and only concentrate on the sector you are working in. It’s important to look at what other accessible approaches are available from other sectors. That’s why for this month’s blog I’m discussing accessible approaches that may have passed you by due to them not being associated with the DSA and education sectors.    

Making your weekly food shop more accessible

In the UK, there are almost 2 million people living with sight loss. Of these, around 360,000 are registered as blind or partially sighted. New accessible approaches are frequently being offered. Last month Guide Dogs committed to supplying more than 3,500 visually impaired children with free iPads and iPhones after research revealed the damage caused to their personal development by a lack of access to technology. Following a successful trial last year cereal brand, Kellogg’s, has announced they will be adding world-first NaviLens technology to all of their cereal boxes in 2022. NaviLens is a code, similar to a QR code, which can be scanned by a smartphone. The smartphone will then relay to the user the information that is held by the NaviLens code, in this case ingredients and allergy information. Unlike other types of printed codes the new NaviLens technology includes high contrasting-coloured squares on a black background. This means that users do not need to know exactly where the code is located to scan it. In fact, a smartphone can pick up the code from up to 3 metres away. After the initial trial earlier this year the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) conducted an evaluation which found that 97% of the participants agreed that they would like to see more of these accessibility features available on grocery packaging in the future.

 

Using an app to take away the anxiety of visiting a business for the first time

Research has shown that 75% of disabled people have had to leave a store or website, unable to go through with their purchase because of their disability. Last year, a survey by accessibility review website, Euan’s Guide, found that 93% of respondents try to find disabled access information before they visit somewhere new. WelcoME is an app which has recently launched. The app enables users to set up a unique profile where they can list factors such as their access needs and support they may require. Businesses also register on the app. Current businesses using the app include Scottish Parliament, Salford Leisure and Edinburgh branches of Next. When the user selects a business that is also using the app the business receives the information from the user’s profile as well as advice linked to the information the user has inputted e.g. how to interact with a guide dog. Businesses can ensure that any support such as a sighted guide are readily available enabling the visitor to immediately start their work out or shopping spree.

The app doesn’t just benefit that particular user. It benefits future users as well. By providing accessibility training that the business can then immediately put into practice staff are more confident for the next time that customer, or someone with a similar disability, visits.

Similar to the training offered by WelcoME, at eQS we ensure that all new members of staff complete our Disability Awareness Course which provides knowledge and facts about disability today from legislation to appropriate support. Please drop me a message if you’d like to talk more about our disability confidence course and the possibility of offering it to your workforce.

Helping with metre readings whilst being miles away.

My colleague Richard recently told me about Be My Eyes, an app he has downloaded which connects blind and low-vision people with a sighted volunteer. When a blind or low-vision user requires assistance the app will connect them to a sighted volunteer via a live video call. The sighted volunteer can answer the call or, if it’s not a convenient time, they can choose to ignore it and it will be picked up by another volunteer. As of last week, the app had 5,006,058 volunteers, of which I am now one, was supporting 322,892 blind and low-vision people in over 150 countries using over 180 languages.

A few days after downloading the app Richard received a call from someone needing help with an electricity metre reading. Richard said: “It felt really good to have helped someone and it only took a couple of minutes out of my day.”

What do you think?

Whilst researching this blog I came across the following quote from a user of the WelcoME app, “It’s not the technology doing the job, it’s the technology empowering people.” I think this sums up perfectly the role new apps, pieces of software and websites should play in providing accessible approaches.

I want my blogs to start conversations so please let me know of any other accessible approaches you’ve discovered. Do you think there’s a current issue that could benefit from a new accessible approach? I’d also love to hear of any topics you’d like me to cover in future blogs. 

The people and organisations raising awareness of autism 52 weeks of the year

The people and organisations raising awareness of autism 52 weeks of the year

If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you’ll probably have noticed I love a national day/week/month. They are a great way to get people talking about a particular issue, for example, from 26th March – 4th April National Autism Awareness Week took place with World Autism Day occurring on Friday 2nd April. It was through researching autism during this period that I learnt it’s estimated there are 25 million autistic people in the world. Until a generation ago autism was frequently misunderstood and misdiagnosed, creating autisms ‘invisible generation’. Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, who has performed a comedy special for Netflix where she talks about her autism, was diagnosed at the age of 38. Scottish singer Susan Boyle was diagnosed at 51 and Welsh actor Sir Anthony Hopkins was 77 when he was diagnosed.

It’s important the conversations and education that are prompted by a national day/week/month continue throughout the whole year so we can increase our knowledge and understanding. That’s why this month I wanted to talk about the people and schemes that are championing inclusivity of autism all year round.

Discovering an authentic voice

Representation of autistic characters in TV and film have often been perceived as stereotypical geniuses such as Raymond in Rain Man or Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory. Yes, some aspects of these characters are true of autism for some people. However, as with all developmental disabilities, the strengths and challenges each person experiences varies. By ensuring mainstream media includes an authentic, more diverse representation, a greater understanding of what autism is and how it effects the individual can be achieved. This can also empower autistic people who see a more authentic representation of themselves on screen.

English naturalist and TV presenter, Chris Packham, Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, and Paralympic swimmer, Jessica-Jane Applegate MBE are three autistic people that are challenging these stereotypes. Within their efforts to raise awareness of pressing subjects such as conservationism and climate change, they are also educating the world about autism simply by being themselves.

A powerful voice in global politics

Greta Thunberg first made it into the public eye in 2018 at the age of 15. She had started spending her school days outside the Swedish Parliament to call for stronger action on climate change by holding up a sign that read Skolstrejk för klimatet (School strike for climate).

Greta was diagnosed with autism during childhood, at the age of 12. When Greta first made it into the public eye, she did not disclose her autism diagnosis not because she was ashamed of it but because she knew (in her own words): “many ignorant people still see it as an ‘illness’, or something negative”. This unfortunately still rings true with many trolls targeting her on social media due to her autism. Greta has fought her corner brilliantly often using humour to silence her critics, who sometimes include world leaders. After one trolling experience Greta tweeted: “when haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning!” Her autism is now something she freely talks about in interviews describing it as gift that “makes me see things from outside the box. I don’t easily fall for lies, I can see through things.”

At just 18 years old she has already received several honours and awards such as inclusion in Time’s 100 most influential people, being the youngest Time Person of the Year, inclusion in the Forbes list of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women (2019) and three consecutive nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize (2019–2021). By being vocal about her autism and standing up to trolls Greta is using her platform to help educate people on autism as well as showing autistic people old and young that they don’t need to hide in the shadows. They have a voice and they can use it to create great change.

Representation on National TV

Chris Packham has been a regular on TV for over 30 years. You may know him from his time presenting The Really Wild Show in the mid 80’s to early 90’s. More recently, he has become a staple for BBC nature programmes such as Springwatch and Winterwatch.

Chris was diagnosed with autism at the age of 44. Since then, he has been using his established TV career to help raise awareness of autism. Talking about his autism in a 2018 interview Chris said:

“I’ve been very fortunate to have been given a small voice because of the work I’ve done on television and elsewhere and I think that therefore I have a duty to use that voice to try and make things better for others. It’s very difficult for some members of the autistic community to articulate the way that they feel and the problems that they have […] I hate the idea of loads of people out there not able to have fulfilled lives, play a role simply because there isn’t a wider understanding of the condition and a degree of tolerance in society. I had a duty to stand up for all of those people that didn’t have that voice.”

In October 2017 he became an ambassador for the National Autistic Society. That year he also presented a BBC documentary about his experience of autism. You can watch the documentary in full here. During the documentary Chris is walking his dog in a forest, a setting that is associated with calm and relaxation. Chris explains the sensory overload he is experiencing. Not only is there traffic in the distance and a jet flying overhead but there are also several birds, all of which he can name, singing to each other.

To have a better understanding of autism it’s important to be aware of experiences such as sensory overloads. The National Autistic Society has produced an insightful video (below) which tries to convey the sensory overload an autistic person may experience when in a busy shopping centre.

Inclusion in sport

During her career as a Paralympic swimmer, Jessica-Jane Applegate MBE has set more than 70 British records. At the age of 15 she was the first British S14 swimmer to win gold in this category. When she was four years old she was diagnosed with autism. Similar to Chris Packham and Greta Thunberg, Jessica-Jane uses her voice to educate and raise awareness around autism, particularly autism in sport.

In the summer of 2019 Jessica-Jane was a guest speaker at the very first Sport You Can conference. The conference took place in parliament and showcased the best examples of inclusion within sport for people with learning disabilities such as autism. Speaking at the event Jessica-Jane said “Sport must become accessible to everyone whether you want to take part yourself, coach, volunteer, spectate or socialise. It’s fantastic for physical and mental health and actually changes lives.” Unfortunately, the event did not take place last year due to the pandemic but hopefully it will become an annual event.

Jessica-Jane has also helped open up discussions around autism in sport through her work with Sport and Autism (UK) CIC, or Spautism for short. Spautism was formed last year and aims to improve the quality of the experience for autistic people competing, spectating or working within sport. From interviews with successful autistic sports people to sharing positive autism in sport news stories, Spautism is opening up the conversation around inclusion within sport whilst empowering autistic people that may have some concerns about joining a sporting community.

Over to you

As always, I’d love to hear your views. Let me know in the comments of people/organisations/schemes you know of that are championing autism awareness during all 52 weeks of the year. The above are examples of work being done by a few individuals. Imagine the acceptance and inclusivity that could be achieved and the stereotypes that could be banished if the conversations that were created around National Autism Awareness Week took place every week.

The six-point mental wellbeing plan I’m taking with me out of lockdown

The six-point mental wellbeing plan I’m taking with me out of lockdown

There’s no denying mental wellness has been a hot topic over the last year across all ages, sectors and regions around the globe. Towards the end of 2020 NUS surveyed 4,000 students. More than half said their mental wellness had deteriorated during the pandemic but less than a third had asked for help. A recent survey by Mind found that 60% of adults (aged over 24) said their mental health got worse during lockdown. UK introductory live-in care agency, Elder, found that 1 in 3 elderly people were lonelier in the wake of COVID-19.

The pandemic has changed our way of life. It has layered on daily challenges and obstacles that make it harder for each of us individually to understand and effectively maintain our mental wellbeing. Lockdown restrictions have forced us to try activities we wouldn’t normally consider, from Zoom quizzes with the family to racking up miles in outdoor walks. It’s safe to say we won’t miss lockdown restrictions when they finally come to an end. There are however, certainly actions I have learned to take during this time that have helped maintain my mental wellbeing, which I will continue to practice post-lockdown.

A new concept for understanding and managing mental wellness

At the same time as learning to manage my own mental wellness in my personal life, the Learning Labs team has been developing a new concept for understanding and managing mental wellness. Learning Labs teamed up with New Economic Foundation (NEF) to carry out extensive research which resulted in the discovery of a new mental wellbeing concept, the Six Domains of Mental WellnessTM. This takes the daunting and intangible subject of mental wellness and makes it easy to understand and manage. It also forms the foundations of the newly developed Learning Labs mental wellbeing digital tool. As this has now reached launch stage, I have been an early tester, enabling me to assess my mental wellness daily. This has been a reflective process during lockdown restrictions and I realised the steps I had already been taking to manage my mental wellbeing actually aligned with the Six Domains of Mental WellnessTM. It also highlighted some areas that I had missed and could try new things to maintain.

Here’s my wellbeing plan based on the Six Domains of Mental WellnessTM concept – something I will continue even when restrictions are lifted because in many ways, I feel a lot happier and healthier mentally than before. For the parts that are missing (e.g. socialising!) I am looking forward to feeling more fulfilled with when we can meet people and interact as normal.

1. 10,000 steps a day for my Physical Wellness

From March until the end of June last year, there were almost one million downloads of the ‘Couch to 5K’ app. This was a 92% increase compared to the same period in 2019. I am proud to say I am one of the people who downloaded the app. I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed running and how much it positively affected my mental wellness.

A 2019 study found that spending just 20 minutes in a park, even if you don’t exercise during that time, is enough to improve your mental wellbeing. Even if I don’t feel up for a run, I aim to walk 10,000 steps a day. I use it as a time to reflect (more on that later) and to listen to some podcasts. My favourites at the moment are Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place and Grounded by Louis Theroux. I also have the added benefit of interacting with other people even if it is a simple ‘hello’ to a dog walker. I think we can all agree social interactions are one of the main things people have missed the most during lockdowns.

2. FaceTiming mum and dad daily for my Social Wellness

Growing up in Liverpool and now living in Newcastle, like many people, I’ve not been able to see my friends and family as much as I would like over the past year. I’ve made sure that I have FaceTimed my friends and family regularly to maintain that social connection for them as well as myself. As a result I’ve probably spoken to them more frequently than prior to the pandemic!

Luckily, we live in a world where technology enables us to almost instantly discover how our friends and family are. Can you imagine experiencing the pandemic without WhatsApp, Facetime or Zoom? During the first lockdown the proportion of UK online adults making video calls doubled, with more than seven in 10 doing so at least weekly. There’s no surprise that the app to see the biggest growth was Zoom. In January 2020 there 659,000 adults in the UK using Zoom. By April 2020 13 million adults were using it – a rise of almost 2,000%.

3. Setting myself goals for my Spiritual Wellness

At the beginning of the year not only was it dark, cold and wet but we were entering our third lockdown. To try and keep myself focussed on what I wanted to achieve in 2021 I made a goals board for the year ahead. There were big goals, like passing my driving test, but also smaller goals such as drinking more water and reading a book a month. So far this year I have read ‘Everything I know about love’ by Dolly Alderton, ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’ by Renni Eddo Lodge and I am currently reading ‘Not a Life Coach’ by James Smith. The process of making my 2021 goals board not only supported my sense of self-esteem and purpose (which are key drivers of Spiritual Wellness) but also helped maintain my Intellectual Wellness, which is all about stimulating your mind.

4. Painting (by numbers) for my Intellectual Wellness

When lockdown started, I thought it was a great excuse to have a Netflix binge – what else was I going to do? Like the rest of the country, I got obsessed with the likes of Tiger King and Normal People. Watching TV was fine for a couple of hours but I found, for my own mental wellness, I needed something more stimulating than the life of Joe Exotic. I’m not the most gifted person when it comes to arts and crafts so I started paint by numbers. It’s basically colouring in the lines for adults. My masterpieces so far include a vase of purple flowers and a Tiger King inspired colourful tiger.

I’m not the only one who has taken up a new hobby during the last year. A recent survey found 22 per cent of respondents had taken up a new pastime in lockdown, while 35 per cent had rediscovered an old one. 41% of those taking up a new hobby reported a positive impact on their mental wellness, compared to 30% for those focusing on old hobbies.

5. Reducing my phone screen time for my Motivational Wellness

Motivational Wellness was a little trickier at first for me to think of how I had or would support this domain. Intrinsic self-motivation is all about our ability to make daily choices and feel in control of our lives – something lockdown restrictions certainly impacted. I realised though that something I had done was reduce my screen time and specifically my hours spent on social media. It’s all too easy to find yourself mindlessly scrolling through social media, even more so during a national lockdown and a global pandemic. There were constant news reports and a mix of posts you did or did not want to see on social media. I realised by being more present in my life and focusing on the things I could control made me feel a lot more motivated. Plus, the blue light emitted from your phone can also disrupt your sleep-wake cycle. Therefore, I have been making a conscious effort to not look at my phone two hours before I go to bed. With a better night sleep, I am more likely to feel energised and willing to go for a walk which will improve my Physical Wellness. If I am not on my phone, I can be doing other things like painting which maintains my Intellectual Wellness.

6. Concentrating on positives for my Emotional Wellness

It’s all too easy to concentrate on negative experiences, particularly during a global pandemic. I have started to spend a short amount of time every day writing down all the positives that I have experienced. These can be something simple like completing a piece of work or finishing a book, keeping me on track for my goals of 2021. I often use the time on my daily walk to reflect on the day and focus on the positives I’ve experienced. Being able to assess my overall wellbeing using the Learning Labs tool has also provided a regular interval for reflection of my emotions. The Lab on Emotional Wellness explained to me that it’s not about being happy all the time, it’s about maintaining a healthy balance over time, which I feel is far more realistic and achievable.

Over to you

UK mental health charities and experts have recently said the lifting of restrictions could trigger heightened levels of stress and anxiety for many people. It’s therefore important that once restrictions are lifted, and once the pandemic has ended, we continue the discussions about mental health. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. How have you been maintaining your mental wellness during lockdown restrictions? How do you intend to keep it up pre-lockdown? Also, feel free to recommend any podcasts I could listen to during my walks or books you think I should add to my reading list, I’ve got nine more to read this year.

You can now get in touch with Emma if you are interested in a demo of the new Learning Labs mental wellbeing hub: emmasheakey@e-qualitylearning.com. The Learning Labs mental wellbeing hub has been designed for DSA students, DSA professionals and university site licences.

Three initiatives creating positive visibility of autism in society

Three initiatives creating positive visibility of autism in society

Great minds think alike. It’s a funny saying isn’t it and, in my opinion, not true. The proverb is over 400 years old so obviously the world has changed a lot since then, including our understanding of the mind and how unique it truly is from person to person. Neurodiversity, such as autism, can affect the way people think, communicate and interact with the world. We know you don’t have to think the same as someone else to succeed, in fact, having a unique outlook can often put you at an advantage.

I mentioned in last month’s blog the benefit of national awareness campaigns and how they can get people talking about a particular topic and from 29th March to 4th April World Autism Week takes place. A report by Britain’s National Autistic Society (NAS) found that only 16 percent of autistic adults were in full-time work in 2016 and over a third of autistic adults have reported serious mental health problems. This got me thinking, aside from the national awareness campaigns, what else is being done to put autistic people front and centre in the world of work and society as a whole and affect positive change to the NAS stats?

Creating an awareness of autism from an early age

Looking back at the TV and films I watched as a child I can’t think of one example of a character that had a disability or learning difficulty. Thankfully, that has changed and children’s TV and film today is more inclusive. This helps educate the audience that everyone is different and enables children with disabilities or learning difficulties to identify with characters they see on screen.

Loop is a short film by Disney Pixar and is available on Disney+. The film follows two youngsters on a canoe trip. Marcus is neurotypical and Renee is on the autism spectrum. The film follows them as they learn to see the world from each other’s viewpoints. The character of Renee is voiced by an autistic actress, which gives the character an authentic autistic voice and speech pattern. The film gives you a view into Renee’s world by literally letting you see the world through her eyes during various points of the trip.

Through researching Loop, I learnt about the Sesame Street character Julia. Julia is an autistic character who has featured on the show since 2017. Her first episode was aired in April, during World Autism Awareness Month, launching in Spanish and English-speaking countries before being rolled out to more of Sesame Street’s 150 televised countries. In Julia’s first episode her autism is celebrated rather than seen as something that can prevent her from succeeding. Julia’s autism sees her flapping her hands when she gets excited and needing to take a break from playing and do some breathing exercises when some passing sirens become too much for her sensitive hearing. This is all explained and understood by the characters. Julia soon became a fan favourite and has been in Sesame Street ever since. Talking about Julia, Rose Jochum of the Autism Society of America said: “for all the little kids who have autism, it’s validating to see characters like themselves on television, instead of feeling invisible.”

You’re hired! Helping autistic people gain employment

Recent research has found that autistic graduates are the least likely of all disabled students to find employment. Only 33% of autistic graduates are in full-time work. In 2018 the Westminster AchieveAbility Commission conducted a survey of 600 neurodivergent people in the UK which found 52 per cent had faced discrimination during recruitment processes. So why not, during the recruitment process, email questions to neurodiverse candidates in advance or arrange interviews so the candidate doesn’t have to travel during busy rush hours? UK charity, Ambitious about Autism, has teamed up with Santander Universities UK to create the Higher Education Network – an employment programme specifically for autistic students and graduates. The programme helps autistic students and graduates access paid internships and tailored careers support and advice. There are 17 universities signed up to the programme covering all corners of the UK from Bangor University to Kingston University London to Northumbria University Newcastle. Ambitious about Autism trains careers staff at these universities so they can fully support autistic students.

As part of the programme autistic students and graduates at the universities can take part in a six-week internship. The aim of these six-week internships is to encourage students to prepare, apply, successfully complete and reflect on their work experience while at the same time effectively educating businesses and organisations on the benefits neurodiversity can bring to their workforce. These internships are due to start in June this year. Click here to find out more about the internships and how businesses and organisations can get involved.

#OurVoiceOurRights

ENABLE Scotland, National Autistic Society Scotland and Scottish Autism are working on a campaign called #OurVoiceOurRights, which aims to make Scotland the best country in the world for autistic people and people with a learning disability. The three organisations are campaigning for all major political parties in Scotland to commit to a Commissioner for autistic people and people with a learning disability.

The Commissioner would be an active voice for the 120,000 people with a learning disability and the 56,000 autistic people who live in Scotland. By having the Commissioner in place, autistic people and people with a learning disability would be more likely to gain better access to additional support in education and employment. Hopefully, a Commissioner is appointed not just in Scotland but in the whole of the UK, if not the world. How great would it be if all countries aspired to be the best residence for autistic people and people with a learning disability?

Click here to find out more about #OurVoiceOurRights

Over to you

These are just some of the ways greater visibility is being created for autism. I’d love to hear of any others you know of. Let me know in the comments. It doesn’t have to be a big movement or campaign, there are simple measures that can be put in place.

At Learning Labs we have developed our own Disability Confidence Course which aims to provide a clear understanding and awareness of disability. Get in touch if you would like to talk more about our Disability Confidence Course and the possibility of offering it to your workplace.

Our brain is as unique as our fingerprint so it makes sense that we don’t all think alike. We all think differently and bring something unique to the table. It’s initiatives like the ones above that help highlight this and educate that this is OK. As Big bird said when he made friends with Julia “All of my friends are different. Each one is unique.”

The new science of e-learning: This time it’s personal

The new science of e-learning: This time it’s personal.

Personalisation is everywhere. It has become so engrained in our everyday that we probably don’t even recognise it anymore. Amazon recommending products you may like – personalisation. Every marketing email you receive that uses your first name – personalisation. Generation Z or the iGen (people born between 1995 and 2012) are even more familiar with personalisation. They have grown up with social media, online shopping and even their university intranet will be personalised within their own profile.

Why is personalisation so important when it comes to learning?

Learning is very different to shopping on Amazon. Learning is all about forming long-term memories. One of the most important areas of the brain that does this is the limbic system, which includes the amygdala and the hippocampus. For long-term memories to be formed, they have to pass through the amygdala to reach the hippocampus, where they can be sent to long-term storage.

A recent study took three websites, the Facebook newsfeed, entertainment-orientated Yahoo and the heavily informational New York Times. The study found that “memory scores tend to be higher when stimuli are personally meaningful and provide opportunities for learning”.

The study concludes by saying that “online activity, which is both personal and social is more immersive, more emotionally engaging, and more cognitively stimulating”.

Due to the personalisation of the Facebook newsfeed, more memories were generated from this website than the other two, as the content was relevant and meaningful to users’ lives.

This echoes the reasoning behind personalisation in Learning Labs. We believe our learners must become key drivers in their learning so that it becomes meaningful, valuable and personal to them – and therefore they engage with the portal more. Learning Labs already gives students the chance to learn the same thing in different ways with our Do, Watch, Read, and (more recent) Quiz Labs. However, we wanted to take the personalisation further.

My most effective way of learning is different to yours

When we started developing our new personalisation features, it was important that the student was always in control and that any new features fitted in with the latest learning design theory and neuroscience findings.

Many studies have shown that cognitive overload can hinder a student’s learning experience. As is the case when several people talk to you at the same time, having a mix of information on the same page can make it difficult to concentrate. However, it is also important to realise that what could cause cognitive overload for one student may not affect another.

When students log into Learning Labs, they are now greeted by ‘My workspace’ – a personal learning environment, which they can tailor to meet their needs. The learner has the power to select which Labs are relevant to them based on the Assistive Technology they have been recommended. This drops the relevant Lab suites into their workspace and avoids cognitive overload of unnecessary and irrelevant content.

Their personal workspace also includes the new ‘engagement dashboard.’ Here the student can see dials and percentages not only to help motivate their learning, but also to show which Lab type they have engaged with the most. This gives the student a clear and concise snapshot into how their learning is developing and helps them to feel a sense of achievement.

Having this information at their fingertips means the student can personalise their learning experience. They can see particular categories of Lab that they have not engaged with, prompting them to try this learning type rather than continuing to work through the same style of Lab.

To help the uninterrupted flow of learning (you may recall that feeling when you zone-out and have to take a step back to find your place again), Learning Labs also has a ‘Resume last Lab’ and a ‘Next suggested Lab’ button within ‘My workspace’. This enables the student to jump back in to their learning from where they left off or continue on without distractions in the learning content. These functions emulate social media such as YouTube, Instagram and the latest bite-sized video channel, TikTok.

The learner is in the driving seat

From our knowledge of cognitive overload, we know that these features may not be beneficial to all students all of the time. The human brain is more unique than a fingerprint, so it was important that our new features could be controlled by the user. Students can now add/remove menu and content items at the flick of a switch, creating a unique learning experience for every user. As easily as they are turned off, they can be turned on again.

Unlike social media, Amazon and those ‘Hey Chris! We thought you might like…’ marketing emails, we want our personalisation to create a truly beneficial experience for the end user. Our personalisation features assist users in achieving their academic potential, which will benefit them beyond their current course.

See for yourself

Throughout April and May, Learning Labs is hosting a series of CPD Revolution Online events, which will feature a live demo of our new personalisation features. Click the link below to book your free place on one of these dates and see personalised e-learning in action. Oh, and hear more about the science too.

https://bit.ly/CPDRevonline

To read more on the study mentioned in this article, ‘The Premium Experience: Neurological Engagement on Premium Websites,’ click here.

Tyneside ed-tech firm eQS snaps up Devon firm Amano Technologies

Tyneside ed-tech firm eQS snaps up Devon firm Amano Technologies

A South Tyneside education specialist has made its first acquisition, two weeks after completing a management buyout and £20m investment deal.

Hebburn-based eQuality Solutions (eQS) has snapped up Amano Technologies, based in Devon, in moves it says put the company on track to achieve its turnover target of £20m by 2023.

The education technology specialist for inclusivity and mental wellbeing said it acquired Amano Technologies, in West Devon Business Park, Tavistock, to expand its geographic reach and to add capabilities in the education and workplace support market.

The acquisition marks eQS’s first step in an ambitious ‘buy and build’ strategy, supported with the £20m funding from London-based Shard Credit Partners, and aimed at expanding its specialist technology and service offering.

Amano’s 10 Devon-based staff and 160 consultants based across the South West will join eQS’ 120-strong team.

eQS provides assistive technology equipment, training and software that help to remove barriers to learning, and following the acquisition of Amano, it also provides learning support services known as non-medical help (NMH).

Amano’s services cover a range of one-to-one learning support services, designed to help study skills tutors, mental health mentors and British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters.

eQS CEO Andy Gough said: “Amano has an outstanding reputation for providing high quality services that improve people’s chances at life and the genuine care of its staff and company culture in maintaining these quality standards, reflects how we work at eQS. The undeniable synergy between our companies made this feel like a natural fit for both companies.

“We plan to double the Amano contribution to the eQS group over the next two years by investing heavily in marketing and utilising our existing sales channels.

“Our aim long-term is to build a national presence offering innovative, high-quality, specialist services, all led from our North East base.”

Amano cofounders Graham Coiley and Paul Wood launched the business 10 years ago and, having been approached by eQS, made the decision to sell the business earlier than planned.

Mr Coiley said: “The inclusion of Amano into the eQS family will give Amano much greater scope for growth in the future.

“We know the eQS team well, they are a professional company who share our approach to student support, particularly around quality and innovation.

“We are very proud that eQS plans to preserve and enhance the Amano reputation, continuing to use our fantastic systems and understanding the value of our committed consultants. We are excited to follow the future of Amano as its specialist support reaches even more people across the UK.”

Advising eQS on the acquisition was Newcastle-based RG Corporate Finance (RGCF), while legal advice was provided by Ward Hadaway.

RGCF partner and head of corporate finance Carl Swansbury said: “The acquisition of Amano is the first step in the fast-track growth plans eQS has set for the next three years.

“The team at RGCF will be actively identifying further acquisition opportunities, particularly of businesses that provide specialist disability and mental wellbeing services to the private sector and have their own proprietary software that can add value to eQS’ capabilities. We look forward to helping the eQS management team scale the business over the coming months.”

Why invest in accessibility? Because we all matter

Why invest in accessibility? Because we all matter.

Imagine visiting your favourite website. Maybe this means searching for the latest tech gadget or you want to look up that banana bread recipe everyone’s been baking during lockdown. Now imagine you’re on that website but you can’t read the text, or you can’t click a relevant link. Unfortunately, this is too often a reality for the 13.9 million people living with a disability in the UK.

That’s a total of 22% of the UK population living with a disability. Therefore, for some of the people reading this blog, you will have already experienced a barrier to your online browsing in some form.

Accessing opportunity during lockdown

When the word ‘accessibility’ comes up many people will immediately think of the physical aspects such as wheelchair ramps into buildings or signage in braille. Less people will think about the digital world.

Even less will think about hidden disabilities and how these can affect day-to-day life and be further amplified during this time of restriction. As a father of two children, who both have hidden disabilities, I’ve seen first-hand how a lack of awareness and accessibility can impact the affected individual and their family.

The current global pandemic is forcing us all to rely on digital resources more than ever. Yet 70% of UK websites are still not fully accessible. It is no surprise then, that 90% of disabled users click away from a website rather than report accessibility issues.

This is why now, more than ever, is a good time to focus on developing the accessibility of our digital landscape and, ultimately, opening our minds to a truly inclusive society.

Our commitment to supporting accessibility

For me, Global Accessibility Awareness Day is always an ideal time to take stock and set some new goals to actively improve any areas of accessibility within our business.

Promoting an inclusive culture at work

As a business that operates in the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) sector, we are lucky to be right on the pulse of new assistive technology launches or updates that can support accessibility.

Plenty of this stuff also makes for brilliant workplace tools and it’s not just for people with specific disabilities – and that’s the key – assistive software publishers have designed their products with total inclusivity in mind from the start. Real design accessibility means a product should be usable by everyone – it does not mean it is designed for one specific disability.

Our staff always use the latest assistive technology to support them at work; for instance, I like to use mind mapping tools when we are coming up with product development ideas. You can put everything down in one diagram and it’s easy to share with the team.

We also run a monthly Lunch ‘n’ Learn programme with workshops often led by staff members for staff members. This has included a sign language workshop, which we recently put into practice to help celebrate Deaf Awareness Week. This was a lot of fun and helped bring the team together whilst we are all working remotely (you can watch a video of our efforts here, which proudly for me includes a guest appearance from my kids).

Our CPD Revolution Online programme has been running for the last two months whilst in lockdown for DSA professionals, this has offered over 6 hours of free CPD on nine different assistive technologies, plus a keynote on mental health. Thankfully, mental health is starting to become a much more prevalent area for people to talk about but is another area which we will be continuing to put a particular focus on in terms of raising awareness in the coming months. Over 95% of our staff were able to log in and attend themselves, helping them to better understand the mental health & accessibility needs of the end users we are supporting every day.

Supporting end-user accessibility

There are a multitude of tools available to disabled internet users. Since 2009, mobile screen reading usage has increased by 70%. It is therefore important our e-learning portal is designed to enable these devices to interpret content correctly. Imagine walking into a cinema and joining a film halfway through or, more likely in my case, being woken up half way through by your disappointed Son. You’ve no idea who is who or what is happening – is the person on screen a hero or a villain? You lack context to understand what is taking place. Website page headers, hover descriptions and alt text provide users with the purpose and context of that particular webpage and of its content. Screen readers can communicate this information to the user aloud, supporting them in their decision making on the page.

The last few years has seen a significant rise in the popularity of video content, but how effective is it if only 78% of your audience can engage with it? This is why captions are so important, and if this isn’t possible then an equally informative, alternative content option should be easily accessible.

At Learning Labs, we don’t want to just tick a box and assume our portal is accessible. We are constantly looking at functions we can add that will support diverse needs. When users now log into the Learning Labs portal they are greeted with their own personal ‘My workspace’ page, as well as personalisation settings to further customise their experience. You can read more about the science behind this personalisation in Chris Collier’s latest blog. Although we are proud of these latest developments, we will never be ‘finished’ because there is no end point to true accessibility – we see our responsibility towards accessibility as a long-term commitment.

Our team is currently undertaking a project that identifies areas of weakness in the Learning Labs portal and will be working on these to increase our accessibility. For instance, over the coming month we plan to improve the user experience for users where keyboard only navigation is essential with the introduction of consistent shortcut keys, improved tab ordering and active focus indicators.

We know, just like anything in life, there is always room for improvement. We are committed to consistently improving our accessibility and that includes only developing new features in Learning Labs that are inclusive.

How to support Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2020

From our own research into accessibility we know what a complex subject digital accessibility can be. That is why we have put together our ‘is it accessible?’ checklist for use when assessing a digital resource’s accessibility. We also have the CPD Revolution running today, which you can still sign up for, plus there are endless webinars, downloadable documents and conversations happening online that anyone can access.

  • Enquire about our free ‘Is it accessible?’ checklist to help you determine if an AT product meets your requirements. Email info@learninglabs.co
  • Today we are running a live demo of Learning Labs as part of our CPD Revolution Online – this is the final day of the series and you can still sign up here: https://bit.ly/BookCPDOnline
  • Join the accessibility conversation on social media using the hashtag #GAAD today.

There’s no denying the internet is rooted in all that we do. I challenge you to go a day without using it; there would be no Netflix, no social media, no supermarket delivery. In fact, you’d have to stop reading this blog. I also challenge you to try accessing a website for 10 minutes without the use of a mouse just to get a different perspective on accessibility. When something is so engrained in our everyday lives it can be difficult to see its weaknesses or see it from other people’s viewpoint – we just get used to it. Global Accessibility Awareness Day does a great job of highlighting issues, so if you are able to take an action (no matter how small) that generates further awareness, or improves digital accessibility for someone, then I encourage you to do so. If you can’t think of anything else, maybe just share this article with ten friends or have a five minute conversation about accessibility with your family at tea time. Because ultimately, we are all different and we all matter.

Turning new challenges into new opportunities in light of 12th November 2020 – uni dropout day

Turning new challenges into new opportunities in light of 12th November 2020 – uni dropout day

You may not know but today, Thursday 12th November, is an important date. Aside from being the 30th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for the World Wide Web, a survey by London’s New College of the Humanities found that 12th November was the date when first-year students are most likely to drop out of university. Today we are in the midst of a global pandemic and the challenges facing new students are therefore greater than ever before – could 2020 see the highest dropout rate to date? Or could the peak date move earlier? A more important question we are all thinking about in the sector is, how can we better support students?

The life of a university student is, most of the time, a positive one. Students arrive on campus, go to lectures, go to a party or two, make new friends, take exams, complete coursework and graduate. However, like any area of life there can be challenges, which in a worst-case scenario results in the student dropping out and missing out on their opportunity at a degree. Every year since 2015 there has been a rise in university dropout rates with two-thirds of UK universities being affected.

So why is there this constant increase in students leaving university? I’m sure if there was an easy answer to that question the rates would be decreasing and not increasing, for now, let’s focus on why this time of year is a particular cause for concern. Come November students are a few weeks away from completing their first term, the novelty of student life is a distant memory. Freshers’ week has been and gone, they’ve met new people, started their course and given university life a good go but for whatever personal reason it’s just not worked out.

Mental health, has seen a significant increase as a reason for dropping out of university over the last few years. When comparing statistics in 2009/10 to 2014/15 there was a 210% increase in university dropouts among students with mental health problems. This is a big increase and this year we know mental health is a much bigger challenge not just for new students but also for the entire global population. Our DSA Sector Lead, Emma Sheakey, has written a blog which looks at the innovative ways universities are trying to support students’ mental health.

The figures mentioned above illustrate that mental health is having an impact on the universities dropout rates, but it’s not all doom and gloom. I like to think of myself as an optimist – my glass is always half full. Therefore, I like to concentrate on the new opportunities that can help to overcome the current challenges associated with mental health and the dropout crisis. There are two key challenges at this time which we can manage, one is keeping new students engaged in their course and the second is maintaining healthy mental wellbeing.

Challenge 1: Keeping Students Engaged During a Pandemic

Opportunity 1: Data-driven Personalisation and Inclusive Learning

There’s no denying 2020 has been the year of remote learning and working. Not only has it helped students continue to learn whilst self-isolating or in lockdown, but it has recently been announced that all university teaching must move to online by 9th December to support students getting home for Christmas.

When learning takes place in person it’s difficult to truly know how engaged your audience is. With online lectures you can access data that tells you if students are looking at a different screen or clicking somewhere else – indicating they are not engaged. This may seem a bit ‘big brother’ but using this data positively can help personalise the learning experience.

Brockenhurst College in the New Forest analyses student’s data before the student even arrives. The college looks at student’s geo-social demographic backgrounds, their previous qualifications, how they engaged in the recruitment journey, and what they do on the website, tracking information like what they’re searching for. By looking at this data the college can understand the best support staff to work with the student as well as develop a suitable timetable for them and even see if they are on the correct course, creating a truly personalised experience.

Nottingham Trent University recently piloted an initiative to use students’ data to improve relations between tutor and student and hopefully improve retention. They monitored four factors which signalled student engagement – library use, card swipes into buildings, virtual learning environment use and electronic submission of coursework. The pilot found if a student’s average level of engagement is low only a quarter make normal progress from first to second year. If there is no student engagement for a fortnight then tutors get an automatic email encouraging them to start a dialogue with the student.

Personalisation in a digital learning experience is endless; assistive software like Recite.Me can enable a user to fully customise the format of content on the web to suit their needs, programmes like Caption.Ed will automatically transcribe a lecture for you in real time and e-learning tools like Learning Labs will teach you how to get the most out of all of this assistive technology.

Providing assistive technology means providing a high-quality inclusive learning strategy, which is ideal at a time when more students are learning remotely than ever before. This new world approach could present an opportunity to further improve inclusivity, as we will have greater volumes of digital data than previously, which could uncover new findings about the way HE students learn best.

This idea of personalisation to help with student’s learning is not new to us at Learning Labs. You can read more about this in Chris Collier’s blog from a few months ago. In addition to these personalisation features Learning Labs has a positive message bar sharing healthy wellbeing tips that help motivate learners to maintain a positive mental state whilst studying.

Challenge 2: Student Isolation and Feelings of Loneliness

Opportunity 2: Increase Mental Wellbeing Awareness

In any normal year, students’ mental health will play an important role in how they adapt to university life. This year has been anything but ordinary so it’s no surprise students’ mental health has reflected this. A recent survey found that 26% of full-time students reported feeling hopeless as well as 36% saying they felt lonely. How can you combat loneliness during lockdown? Different strategies work for different people but just by being aware of the issue is a major step forward. We now need to take the challenge of students’ mental health and use it as an opportunity to empower students, and society, to have a greater awareness of mental health as a whole, and for individuals to have greater awareness of their own personal mental wellness status at any given moment in time.

A recent survey found almost nine in ten students struggled with anxiety, which was an increase of almost 19 percentage points when compared to 2017 figures. With mental health it’s not always enough to have someone there to talk to. Sometimes you need that person to make the first move.

Historically mental health and physical health have not been seen as equals. How many places have you worked where there has been at least one trained first aider? And how many places have you worked where there has been at least one trained mental health first aider?

This is partly due to mental health first aiders being a relatively new initiative. Mental Health First Aid England launched as a community interest company in 2009. During that time more than 114,000 Mental Health First Aiders have been trained in England. A special mention has to go to Arts University Bournemouth which has recently been named as having the highest ratio of mental health first aiders to students. More than 200 of the staff at the university are trained mental health first aiders which accounts to 58 qualified staff members per 1,000 students. The next university is the University of Leicester which has 38 mental health first aiders per 1,000 students.

Arts University Bournemouth is taking this idea further. Not only are they ensuring there is an effective amount of mental health first aiders available to students but they are also offering a mental health first aider two-day course to all graduating students, setting them up perfectly for the world of work.

Something we have considered at Learning Labs is that if we were able to combine remote, digital resources and the subject of learning about mental wellbeing at this time we could make a huge positive impact on student mental wellbeing. All I will say for now is watch this space…!

Hopes for the class of 2020

There’s no denying we are in unprecedented times. None of us have ever experienced university like students today are. Who could have predicted, before 2020, that students would have had to be tested before they could go home for Christmas to be with their family?

It’s these challenges that will ensure students’ mental health is at the forefront for some time to come and this will undoubtedly have an effect on the dropout rate. Ever the optimist though, I honestly think we need to look at these challenges and see them as opportunities then, hopefully, 12th November can be remembered only for the likes of Tim Berners-Lee.