Today host Lori Boll speaks with Patrick (Paddy) McGrath, who is an international speaker, blogger, podcaster, and Head of Education Strategy at the Texthelp Group. Paddy shares how we can use digital tools to help our students better access our documents but emphasizes the importance of making the content accessible first and foremost. You’ll leave today’s podcast with an easy way to make your documents more accessible and with more understanding of Universal Design for Learning.

Resources from Today’s Show


Patrick is an educator, international speaker, blogger, podcaster, Honorary Fellow at UU and Head of Education Strategy at the Texthelp Group – the world’s largest specialist assistive technology company. Patrick is passionate about ensuring that technology has a positive, meaningful and sustainable impact on teaching & learning through a focus on inclusion, accessibility and universal design


Transcribed by Kanako Suwa

[ Introduction music plays ]

Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hours worth of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour. 

Lori: Hello everyone. Today I speak with Patrick or Paddy McGrath, who is an international speaker, blogger, podcaster, and Had of Education Strategy at the Texthelp Group. Paddy shares how we can use digital tools to help our students better access our documents, but he really emphasizes the importance of making the content accessible first and foremost. You’ll leave today’s podcast with an easy way to make your documents more accessible and with more understanding of Universal Design for Learning. It’s a great podcast today and I hope you enjoy it. So now, onto the show. 

Hello Paddy and welcome to the podcast. 

Paddy: Hey Lori, good to be joining you today. Honored to be here.

Lori: Yeah, it’s great to see you again. We had uh, you came to our Bonn conference and were a presenter and…

Paddy: I had a fabulous, fabulous time there and Lori, I don’t think I’ve stopped talking about it since – just the enthusiasm throughout your organization and the people that were there was bindless and it was such a fabulous experience.

Lori: Ah, I’m so glad you enjoyed it, because I know everyone there really enjoyed your presentation and learned so much from you. 

Paddy: Thank you. It’s always good to get feedback, no matter which way it comes, so thank you. 

Lori: Well, today, we’re going to be discussing accessibility. And so I want to start off easy and just ask, what is accessibility? 

Paddy: Yeah, I suppose we should put a word in front of accessibility because what we’re talking about is digital accessibility today, just to be clear on that. I think what happens as educators and teachers and professionals is, we will use things like assistive technology, for example, and we’ll talk about text to speech or dictation or screen readers, or if you’ve got a visually impared child, we’ll look at things like JAWS… these are things that can really help make a difference in the classroom, but when it comes to accessibility, the one thing that helps is accessible content. The foundation of  content that sits underneath any of them to work. So for all of those tools we may choose to use with our students and pupils, if the underlying digital content is not accessible, is not readable to all of these wonderful tools we have access to, then it’s really not useful. And it goes beyond that as well. Accessibility is about making sure that any content we use, any content that we create, is more generally accessible. So pause for one second and go, is that content readable? Is it spaced well? Are the colors right on it? Is it going to be accessible to every single student that you may work with across multitude of ways and if we make sure our purpose and our plan to keep our digital content accessible, it becomes more readable, more digestible, more easily understood, whether with or without assistive technology tools. So for me, it’s a fundamental tool but sometimes it gets lost in the sea of all the wonderful tools and strategies that we’ve put in place and that’s really the foundation.

Lori: Yeah, thanks for pointing that out and I’ve seen members from your group, Greg O’Conner and Greg O’Conner has been a guest of ours at our conferences and our podcast and he actually shared with us something you all use to ensure your work is accessible or that the content is accessible. It was like SAM-R or something like that, is that correct? 

Paddy: There’s a range of models – we actually, Texthelp that we work for, we use an internal tool that kind of helps us identify things like is it readable? It’s what we call plain English, so that’s not necessarily accessible but it helps us make sure that we’re not overly using particularly complicated vocabulary words or words that are beyond an age grade or level. But in terms of accessibility, we’ll run third party tools and anybody has access to these and they can run a document through it. Most of, let’s say, Microsoft Word, if you use Microsoft Word or Google Docs, just write a document. You can actually just right click on the accessibility checker, just on the right click menu anywhere in the document and that’ll tell you, oh no those colors aren’t quite right or the language isn’t quite in place or the font size could do with a bit of an adjustment or this reference you’ve made about a kid may not be the right way to talk about that individual. So there are loads of ways that the in-built tools we all use can help us support access and tell us what to do.

And then there are other tools online, and I don’t know Lori, if you’ve got show notes on this podcast but by all means, I’ll send you something so that you can post those, but…

Lori: Sure, yeah. 

Paddy: so you can share it across the community, but there are web-based tools where you can simply upload a document or copy and paste it into and it’ll automatically say “look, these are the things you might want to consider changing” and then there are the rule based things – web based things. And that’s more advanced but that’s again, more… it’s not going to be for us educators. Stuff like that is more web professionals, we want to make sure that their content online is fully accessible because if they make their content accessible, that means when our students go to read it or consume it or engage with it, it’s going to be fully accessible to them as well under their guidelines. 

So there are lots of ways this could be done. My advice on that is to always run the accessibility tracker, something simple as Microsoft Word, or Powerpoint. It’ll tell you straight away what you could do to change it, to make it more accessible. 

Lori: That’s great. Fascinating, actually. And on our SENIA website, we’ve made our website accessible as well so there’s a little button that people can click and get different fonts and different areas so that’s pretty nice. 

Paddy: I think that also, Lori, goes into whenever I was at the SENIA conference, they were talking about UDL, Universal Design for Learning, and of course one of the caveats for that is we need to have multiple forms of representation, like we give our students multiple ways to look at a piece of digital content. Lots more to it than that, but that’s one of the strands and so if you imagine giving a student, let’s just call it a Word Document, you must have that document accessible because otherwise the student is just going to sit there and say I need this font to be bigger because visually I need it to be bigger or I’m dyslexic and I need to have wider spacing on the line or I need a screen layover on this to help me read this and reduce distractions… All of those small ways, if it’s not accessible, they can’t have access to it. So just things like UDL strategies and multiple ways, students need the opportunity to change the compound themselves, and it’s exactly like what you said. Things like font size, or font type, are really really important. 

Lori: hmm. Interesting. Well, thanks for mentioning Universal Design for Learning. How… can you expand more on how accessibility fits into Universal Design for Learning? 

Paddy: Yes, so if you take any piece of content, so this could be as a teacher, maybe we create something as sample work or document and we want to share that. Or perhaps we buy a PDF resource and we want to share that. But if you take either of those pieces of content or even a powerpoint or Google Slides slide deck, if we share that and if that’s not accessible, we can’t actually adhere to Universal Design for Learning or at least some of the strands of Universal Design for Learning because of course Universal Design for Learning and those multiple means of representation may say, look we may have to navigate this particular lesson or particular topic and use more images or cultural references, that’s absolute. But that’s not accessible in terms of what we’re talking about today. 

What we’re talking about today is for people who might, say, they get a word document and maybe they want to apply text-to-speech and have it read aloud. If it’s not accessible, they simply can’t have that read aloud. This particularly applies to things like PDFs. Many PDFs that we as educators might buy or maybe colleagues and peers have created, they’re not accessible. So imagine a pupil, they open that document and they want to use their favorite tool and press play and listen to it because it helps them understand. If it’s not accessible, that can’t possibly happen. And UDL obviously calls for the fact that we need to have that foundation of accessibility in order to access things in multiple ways. 

Now for example, students prefer to listen to a piece of content. Headphones in, just like you and I are on a podcast today. Headphones in and in a different position, a different learning position. They want to, for example, listen to it as an audiobook. Well, as a teacher, you may actually have to produce a document and then figure out how to produce an audiobook version of it – perhaps get a narrator or get a tool for it. If you go down UDL on this, and you start with the foundation of an accessible document, then that student has the part that can turn into whatever it is that they want. The larger font size. The different font type. Move the diagrams around. Read the labels from the diagrams. Change the layout. Change the spaces. Change the break lines. Simplify the text and remove the charts that may be confusing. So accessibility that is at the core gives students the voice and choice and that’s key under those UDL design principles that they have the flexibility that they need on that accessibility and accessible document.

Lori: Mmmhmm. Thanks.  And where does it all fit into inclusion? 

Paddy: Again, I think from an inclusive perspective, if we look at the diversity of students in our classroom, you know, we all know, we all talk about it a lot, you and I, and your members at SENIA, every single student we work with is different and they have different learning preferences, they have different ways that content should be consumed or understood and from an accessibility perspective, ultimately, what we’re doing is giving every single student a choice. And in my book, that’s a necessity for inclusion. Because if we make it so that we’re not having to make things for a specific student set… like, student A, Arial font, 10 point size and we’ll do it all in black and we’ll just leave it at that, we’re making the same mistake that we’ve always made, which is non-inclusive design, which is aiming for the middle ground. You know the bowling pin analogy, and that’s a real problem. If we make it accessible, the choice is ultimately with the student to change the content in the way they want. For me, it’s more than that. It’s making sure, from the get go, from the start, that that piece of content, because it’s accessible by design, is including as many students as it possibly can from the start. Without any modification or without changing anything. Even going anywhere near a digital tool. It’s more inclusive, right from the start. And I think that’s the fundamental importance and we can’t forget it. 

Lori: Yeah, it’s paramount. I love the student choice. And they can make the choice to make their document more accessible, right? I mean… 

Paddy: Yeah. You think about the stigma involved in that, as well as… you know, we talk a lot about assistive technology and part of the challenge with assistive technology is stigma. The 3 pupils out of the 30 pupil classroom that’s getting this tool or this laptop, to remove that, the obvious thing to do is, why not give everyone a laptop and give everyone the same tools… but the same is true of an accessible document. So let’s assume we have the basis and I give all 30 of my students an accessible document. That means the 2 people in the corner who might be struggling to read can change the font size. Nobody’s gonna know. 

Lori: Right!

Paddy: They’re included, they’re working on the same document, they’re able to change it in their ways. 3 pupils on the other side of the room, or spread around the room, may well simply need to increase the spacing or may need to increase the font. Not one person in that class needs to know what that pupil is actually doing. They can change that to suit their way. Everybody on the surface is using the same document and there’s no student service support required for that. They’re not saying “well, we’re going to produce A3 print outs for student A in the corner here and everyone else can use their laptop”. We’re giving them the same document. So there’s a reduction of markers, but for me, far more important, is that there’s less stigma and far more inclusivity in the classroom when we start at the… start, let’s say. 

Lori: Yeah. I mean, I want to bring that back to, just… many, I think it was 6 or 7 years ago when my daughter was taking her drivers’ test, here in the United States and the written portion of the test was done on a computer so you read it and you click buttons but they gave the option of also having it read aloud to you and you could take the test. So the first time she took it, she didn’t pass. And you know, my daughter has no learning disability in reading or anything but it was a difficult test. And then she said, I wonder if I could try the read-aloud option, I think I might do better that way. And she did. She passed it immediately and it was just that choice that she was given to be able to do that. Anyone can take that option so there’s no stigma involved in it so I just thought it was a really cool design that the department of Motor Vehicles did that for people and we can be doing that in our schools, easily. 

Paddy: Absolutely. Exactly. But what used to happen there, Lori, is you would’ve had 2 papers, just another example, where one was readable on paper and one wasn’t, and that just seems crazy. I mean, think about… not that we would ever want to do this, but park inclusion for one just second of the podcast and think about the workload for people that are creating these things – accessible from the start and you’ve cut the workload in half and then the max of upside is it’s more inclusive for people. And when I talk about things like text-to-speech, we don’t start with the basics of the word, like here’s how we can have the definition of the word and here’s how we can have it read aloud and this helps. But let’s take a really advanced paper at the university level for example. And let’s go… right, this is my dissertation that I’ve been writing. And you have no obvious challenges, no dyslexia, no obvious learning issues holding you back, you’re a good student, you’ve worked hard, you’ve written this paper and use the same tool to have it read back to you and understand if it simply just makes sense. Is it coherent? Are the punctuations in the right place to make sense of that sentence or that paragraph? So the same tools but ultimately, what it all comes down to is, is that one document accessible. You should just say, I talk about documents, you know… the hardest thing about the current moment is the amount of PDFs we use in our schools because there are so many of those things we’re buying and using that are just not accessible. And you give that to students who has an individual need or individual support, and they’re like “what am I going to do with this, it’s not accessible” and as teachers, we have to start from the start again and go, alright, what on earth do we do to actually make that more accessible? 

Lori: Yeah, well, that leads to my next question, is, where are we in education in our schools with this idea? 

Paddy: Yeah. That’s a really good question and from my perspective, I think we do need to see a change there. And I know people like you and me, Lori, and the members of SENIA are talking about changes and we’re quite passionate about driving things forward but you know, with something like accessibility, I think there’s recognition that it should be done but what there is not is necessarily is the mandate that okay, when we’re writing our Google Doc or Word Document, please use this font, please use this font size. Because I think a lot of people feel like it’s about brand and failing, but it’s not. It’s about accessibility. We need to have these rules in place, we need IT administrators to look at how we can go across organizations and set the right font and space for a document with the right font size. So from a teaching perspective, you just open up a new document and you start typing and you don’t have to worry about the accessibility piece. It’s done for you. And those are not big steps to take, either from a management perspective or an IT perspective, but they can make a world of difference to a child or a student or teacher’s workload. So I think that’s the way to go. 

It’s interesting because you know, I live in the UK, for your listeners, and in the UK, it’s actually a legal requirement as it is throughout most of Europe, under European law and that in higher education, everything must be accessible by law. So it has to be accessible, so the font has to be right, the alt-tags, the hyperlinks, all the things we all know, they all have to be done by law and they’ve had to go through over the last few years and over the pandemic times and revisit legacy content that’s on the website or the learning management platform teachers and lecturers are using have had to make it accessible. Huge job so it’s set a bit of a precedent, certainly across Europe and in the UK, and you know, I would love to see that. Maybe not mandated as such but certainly by leadership taking it on board, that we only need to do tiny tiny things there to make a huge impact. We’re not asking people to redefine how they teach, we’re not asking people for new frameworks, we’re not asking for UDL adoptions in schools at this point. Just make some small changes and make huge changes. Those small changes are super simple to do. 

Lori: Well, the fact that you mentioned the IT person at the school, I think, as an educator, none of us have thought to go to that individual and speak to them about this. So I think what I’m getting the most out of this podcast is to go right now to your tech person and help them figure out how you can change the entire system. They change it, and then teachers, they have access to it. It’s so simple, really. 

Paddy: Absolutely. Agreed. And that’s the… look, we all know getting a change in schools is challenging. And to do it… you can also do it by yourself. Lori, maybe we can link it in your shownotes, a link of a short video of the standard size of fonts in documents…

Lori: Sure!

Paddy: And it’s literally 3 clicks. And one of the reasons, I should say, that video was created was because it was asked about so many times at your conference in Bonn, like how do we do this? And that means as a teacher, I kid you not, you can literally take 10 seconds out of your day and you can just change the standard font size and the layout, just in Google Docs or Microsoft Word, and every time you open a new document or create something, it’ll be set up in a much more accessible way than it was before. And I promise you, it’s less than 10 seconds to do that, it’s so quick. 

Lori: Okay! 

Paddy: And I’m sure you know, we’re heading towards more accessible documents, but if you can get your IT department to do something as a teacher, you’ve made headway and I’d absolutely encourage people to do that. 

Lori: Yeah! Well, amazing. Yes. Please send us that link. We will definitely post it. I know our listeners are going to hop right on it to do that. The point of our podcast is not to talk about Texthelp but I do think it’s important that we hear about this tool. So can you briefly share a bit about it? 

Paddy: Yeah, so I suppose most people know Texthelp for a tool called Read & Write. It kinda does what it says on the title, but it will support pupils with reading, writing, studying, and in our case, exams. Fundamentally at its core, it talks about and uses things like text-to-speech but then it also goes on to say look, if you need help with a word, you can right-click on the word and you’ll get a dictionary definition and visual representation as a way to access that. But it acts as a toolbar so that, like, the accessible content we’re talking about here, this will just open but not anywhere special as the tools we use but it’ll give your students access to that. So it’s very much a student centered tool and it will give them dictation and it’ll do screen masking and the words on the pages it’ll remove distractions, so they’ve got this kind of… really neat suite of tools that unobtrusively sets at the top of the page and users can choose the right tool to support their reading, writing, and studying to a degree as well. And that’s for web pages or documents or PDFs or learning platforms. So anywhere a pupil and students may need some help with reading and writing, there’ll be tools that they actually need. And that, Lori, is being used by 16 million people globally, so people are getting quite a lot of help from that tool and so it’s doing something right and I know it’s well respected. It used to be for dyslexia support, I have to say first and foremost, and generally in many other areas actually, because it has dictation built in and stuff like that as well. So Swiss Army knife, like our SEALS people would talk about. Swiss Army knife for reading and writing. 

Lori: Well, it is really helpful and one of the international schools I’ve worked at before, we’ve adapted it as a school and some teachers used it more than others but it was helpful for all of our students and so many of them benefitted, whether they had a learning challenge or not. So, yeah, it’s a pretty powerful tool. Well, you are also going to be presenting at our upcoming virtual conference which I’m excited about of course, can you share a bit about what you might be discussing? 

Paddy: Well, we talked earlier about Universal Design for Learning and that is the real, sort of passion of mine. I’ve seen the difference it can make. But I also understand that it can be hard to implement that some skill, because it’s not prescriptive and there’s lots of things to do, so the session at the virtual conference is around UDL but specifically from the technology lens, and many aspects of UDL, as you know, Lori. But this is really looking at, what are the 3 areas of UDL and what are the technology tools, whether they’re free or paid for or online and offline, what technology tools can I actually plug in into UDL and start to fulfill some of the requirements. Because as you roll out UDL, we’ll look at how many different ways can we represent content or how many different ways can we engage content, and I think it’s always really useful to have that toolkit of technology at your disposal and understand how these tools impact UDL so it’s a practical session because there are so many good speakers looking at UDL principles and UDL design so I want to do something a bit more practical. So UDL but complete technology toolkit and what UDL tools are right there and what can you use within your UDL strategy to enhance your learning situation. 

Lori: Cool, well, I can’t wait! 

Paddy: Super practical, super hands on… and hopefully everyone can take away at least, and everyone says I just want to take away one thing, and this time I want everyone to take away at least 5 things because there’s so many simple technology tools that can make a world of difference right there. 

Lori: Cool. Cool. I can’t wait! Thanks. Well, I think that’s all we have time for today in our podcast. Thank you so much for taking the time today and sharing all your incredible knowledge with us!

Paddy: Thank you. Always a pleasure! 

Thank you for joining us for today’s show. For more information including how to subscribe and show notes, please head to our website. That’s SENIAinternational.org/podcast. Until next time, cheers.