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Blackboard: Accessibility in education

OpinionHigher Education
By Heather McLean | 19 May 2017
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Create DateMay 19, 2017
Last UpdatedMay 22, 2017

By Nicolaas Matthijs, product manager for Blackboard Ally, Blackboard.

Approximately one billion people in the world have some form of disability, according to the World Health Organization. When we look at education and disabled learners in the UK, Government research tells us that disabled people are around three times less likely to hold any qualifications compared to non-disabled people, and around half as likely to hold a degree level qualification.

Considering the diversity in student populations, that number is surprisingly high. And those are just the students we know about. Researchers posit that 60% to 80% of students who have a disability choose not to disclose it once they enter higher education.

Better understanding

According to the Papworth Trust, adults aged 16 to 64 in the UK with impairments are twice as likely as their peers to experience barriers to education and training opportunities.  As educators, it’s time to start asking ourselves why.

In my role, one of the first things I wanted to do was better understand the perspectives of students with different learning abilities. I talked to many of them, I learned a great deal, and I gained some insights about the academic journey for students with physical or cognitive challenges and how technology can help.

Here are some of the key things I learned: most disabilities don’t impair a person’s academic capability, they just change the way that person accomplishes learning; students with disabilities want to continue their education. It’s just a lot harder for them to be successful in today’s models; disabilities are not always easy to spot. The majority of cognitive disabilities are invisible and often go unnoticed by peers and teachers because students have learned how to cope.

Also, our society is still reactive about disability support, especially in education.  The problem is not just the lack of awareness, it’s a lack of imagination around how to make the education system work in favour of these students.

Thinking inclusively

More recently though, with shifting expectations around technology solutions, I’ve started to encounter an increase in the number of teachers who are thinking more inclusively about the way they design their classrooms, and especially their online content.

For many years, educators and education policy makers have worked to provide integrated classrooms. This means students with disabilities are physically located in the same space as their able-bodied peers, given the same work and the same assessments. On the surface this seems like a good thing. The challenge is that not every student learns and communicates in the same way. Expecting everyone to do the same work, in the same way, doesn’t breed consistent success.

With technological advances, what’s emerging now is a more inclusive mindset.  When you start thinking more about inclusion and less about integration, you start creating experiences that empower students to meet the same goals, and achieve the same outcomes, in their preferred style.

For example, teachers need to be aware that a student may not have an obvious disability in the real or virtual classroom and understand better how technology can help. In fact, while some technology can be unbelievably empowering for a person with a disability, others can create significant barriers to a student’s success. PDFs, for example, are extremely useful and account for 50% of all material currently stored on learning management systems although some students find them difficult to learn from because the documents are not always designed to be compatible with screen readers.  More accessible content plays a key role in boosting student productivity.

Benefits for all

Inclusive learning approaches benefit learners of all abilities but disabled students, in particular, are better off.  Often students with disabilities feel isolated from their peers and don’t know how to engage with them, especially when it comes to discussion in class.  Some can find a virtual conversation, conducted from their own computer, more comfortable that speaking up in a face-to-face situation.

Inclusive thinking is just a small mental shift that happens when you understand more about how a student with autism or cerebral palsy learns, or when you change your assessment practices to provide differentiation, allowing a blind student to select a non-visual approach to communicating their understanding of the subject matter.

Inclusion isn’t really a new concept, but its broader adoption is making a big difference to students with diverse abilities, and importantly it’s becoming more of a priority in education.


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