Why Accessible Education Needs to be More Than a Tick-Box Exercise


What image comes to mind when you hear the word accessibility? Most likely, it is the wheelchair sign. This means that there are larger sized parking spaces, which are closer to entrances, so that people can park accommodating vehicles and reasonably access public places.

The physical dimension of educational accessibility means that students are able to make their ways to the door and through that door and then move about within the room. Sometimes inaccessibility is at this physical level, whereby there is no ramp to get to the door, the doorway is too small to allow a wheelchair through and/or there is a tiered lecture theatre whereby a student has to stay down at the platform with the lecturer, rather than up in the seats with student peers.

Educational accessibility goes much further than the physical sense. The advance of technology has levelled the playing field in some cases. For example, closed captioning now means that deaf students can access videoed content. However, emergent technologies have also introduced new complexities. For example, graphic design has introduced images, fonts, colours and layouts faster than screen-reading technologies can adjust to translate into spoken text that blind students can access.

Education technology has had such far-reaching consequences for accessibility that it has earned its own metaphor – electronic curb-cuts. Admittedly, the metaphor was coined in North America, so some explanation is required. Curb-cut refers to the raised lip between the footpath and the bitumen. They are seen most often next to shops and other public places such as hospitals. They were initially designed for wheelchair users, but are used far more frequently by parents pushing prams or trollies and by people on pushbikes. Adding electronic to the metaphor, means that the equivalent phenomenon is taking place online and/or in the digital sphere. So, for example, even though screen-reading and dictation software were designed for blind people, we have a colleague with a shoulder injury who is using it until she can once again use her arms to type. There are a lot of drivers (without disabling conditions) who are now using the same type of technology, to speak their texts rather than diverting their attention to their screens and moving their hands from the wheel.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

The metaphor of electronic curb-cuts has become the metaphorical image for universal design for learning. The concept of universal design came first (in architecture), and was applied to learning later. Our stand-up desks result from universal design. A universally designed desk or kitchen bench, can be easily lowered for someone in a wheelchair and raised for a tall person with back problems. Applied to learning, UDL means that with some forward-planning, accessibility does not need to be costly, cumbersome or stigmatising. In other words, by planning education that accommodates the needs and wants of diverse learners, most of the students will benefit.

There are three UDL propositions – Multiple means of …

  • Representation
  • Engagement
  • Expression

Representation stands-for the educator’s teaching. Online, this means that the teacher presents the same materials in multiple ways. For example, the educator might post a podcast lecture, an explanatory video showing the concept in context, the transcripts of that lecture and video, a glossary of key terms and a practice test that gives students immediate and specific feedback on their learning. Not only does this mean that blind and deaf students can access the materials, but it also means that students with learning disabilities can revisit the concepts in multiple formats, and students from non-English speaking backgrounds can see the terminology in print so that they can double-check what they thought they heard and increase their discipline-based vocabulary.

Engagement is a synonym for motivation. UDL recognises that diverse students are motivated by different factors and in different ways, and that the same student needs to be engaged differently at various stages of schooling or within the degree. For example, one of the perceived failings of secondary and higher education is that educators are rarely explicit about the connection to employability. Why does the psychology curriculum focus on theories, theorists and statistics when the student enrolled to be a counsellor? There are valid reasons, but these need to be shared with the students. It has long been recognised that assessment is the key motivating factor in education. Is it on the test? How many marks is it worth? In diverse classrooms, there are also those who engage for the love of learning. Multiple means of engagement, reminds us that people are motivated in different ways, and that we need to find lots of creative ways to invite and sustain participation.

Expression stands for what the students create as part of the learning experience and/or to demonstrate their learning, or in other words, assessment. We have all seen the cartoon about the ridiculous notion of grading a fish on its ability to ride a pushbike. Yet, how often do we do this in education? Multiple means of expression means that we are explicit about the expectations and guidelines and then allow the students to create and present in the way that they choose, and hopefully that best represents their learning.

There are now many case studies and good practice guides that feature ideas and strategies to implement accessibility and scale-it-up so that other students benefit, through universal design for learning. Furthermore, the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative features ‘practical tips anyone can use.’

However, even with these standards, educational accessibility is still mostly a tick-box exercise. True impact for those with disabling conditions has not been achieved. In Australia, students with disabling conditions have lower success rates and are much more likely to drop-out of university than students without disabling conditions. Education institutions are much better at physical accessibility than digital/online accessibility. Furthermore, support services are usually provided face-to-face and therefore do not accommodate online/external students. There are many instances in which educators do not comply with the institution’s own guidelines.

Reasons why education needs to be authentically accessible

The first reason why schools and universities need to be accessible is that when an improvement is made to learning and teaching for one or two students with disabling conditions, the change almost always makes it better for most of the students. One year, a teacher we knew had a hearing impaired student in her class. To accommodate the student, the teacher used a microphone, speaker and FM system. The next year, the student went on to the next class and the initial teacher stopped using the accessibility technology. The children who had visited her classroom the year before and were now in her class asked her to start using it again – We like it so much better when the teacher is easier to hear.

In higher education, an educator in online learning changed the font and the contrast for a student with low vision and started posting the full transcripts from his recorded lectures for a deaf student. The educator received a flood of emails from many members of the class thanking him for making the changes. He noted that many of these thanks came from students from non-English speaking backgrounds. International student education is Australia’s third-highest export industry and many research studies show that educators who apply UDL, better meet the needs of these learners.

The second reason why schools and universities need to be accessible is that education has the power to change lives for students with disabling conditions. There are approximately 7.6 billion people in the world and approximately 7% have a university degree. Approximately 1 billion of our total population has some type of disabling condition. As compared to the general population, people with disabling conditions, overall, have far less years of schooling, are much less likely to have graduated year 12, are very unlikely to have enrolled in higher education, and even less likely to have graduated. They are far more likely to live in poverty and require social assistance. People with physical or cognitive impairments are far more likely to be lonely and to develop mental health conditions.

One of the major underlying reasons for the education/opportunity gap is that education is inaccessible. An extreme negative end of the accessibility continuum is that many schools and universities find reasons to deny enrolment to students with disabling conditions. Claimed barriers include physical access restrictions (e.g. no ramps), too many students and not enough teaching staff and/or prohibitive fees.

When students are admitted, they are often excluded, socially and educationally. For example, children with disabling conditions are often seen playing alone or with a paid adult, because schools do not make the effort to support their social acceptance, appreciation and inclusion. Many children and adults with disabling conditions are taught separately and/or with different curriculum and experiences than students without such conditions. When they are taught together, educational activities and materials are often prohibitive. For example, even with today’s technology, blind students usually receive Braille versions of university course-texts half way through the semester.

The travesty of exclusion is that education is a social process designed to add value and thus opportunities for individuals and societies. When education is designed to work for all students, regardless of whether or not they have a disabling conditions, the outcomes level the playing field. University graduates with disabling conditions (as compared to adults with disabling conditions who do not have a university degree) are far less likely to be impoverished, lonely and to develop mental health conditions.

The third reason why accessibility is not optional in education is that the law requires it. Under the Australian Government, the Disability Standards for Education (2005) require that students with disabling conditions can access and participate in education on the same basis as other students. The onus of responsibility is on the educational institutions to provide: admission, participation and use of facilities and services. The Higher Education Standards Framework (HESF) requires that education creates equivalent opportunities for academic success. Institutions are required to monitor participation and success of identified groups and to make improvements and support accordingly.

In closing, it is essential to recognise that accessibility, universal design for learning and accessibility are most powerful when considered as a value-add and a strength, as opposed to obligation and burden. We close this article with a passage from our University’s Disability Action Plan in a section titled, Strength in Diversity.

An inclusive, diverse institution is a strong and flexible one. Rising to the challenge of creating an equitable and accessible environment is to lead by example, to drive innovation, to empower and to inspire. Ultimately, it leads us towards achieving the best possible outcomes for our staff, students and communities.

Shelley Kinash is the Director, Advancement of Learning and Teaching at the University of Southern Queensland

Akshay Sahay is an Electrical and Electronics Engineer registered with Engineers Australia.He is a Senior Technical Officer in Assistive Technologies and an Academic in Engineering at the University of Southern Queensland

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Shelley Kinash

Shelley Kinash

Director, Office of Learning & Teaching at Bond University
Dr Shelley Kinash is Director, Office of Learning and Teaching at Bond University. Prior to Bond, Shelley taught as a Visiting Academic to the Faculty of Education (Graduate Certificate in Higher Education and Early Childhood) at University of Southern Queensland. Shelley was an Academic in the Faculty of Education (Educational Technology and Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies) at the University of Calgary for 12 years. Shelley earned her PhD in Educational Technology in 2004. Her dissertation topic was Blind Online Learners, which she authored as one of her three books published by Information Age - Seeing Beyond Blindness. Shelley remains research active. You can contact her on skinash@bond.edu.au

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