Does your institution offer teaching and learning opportunities that are accessible to all students? Discover why digital accessibility is so crucial in the higher education landscape.
All students have the right to access higher education, and the onus is on universities to ensure they’re providing an inclusive learning environment.
For students with disabilities, there are several challenges associated with studying and learning in a traditional university environment.
It’s imperative that higher education institutions make the most of the technology and digital content at their fingertips and ensure the courses they offer are designed with all students in mind.
With the recent rise of coronavirus across the globe, alternative learning options and online learning platforms have come under increased scrutiny as more and more universities digitize their offerings due to quarantine and self-isolation restrictions.
So, why is digital accessibility so important and what can your institution do?
A new way to access education
Technology has irreversibly shifted the way higher education operates across the globe.
Digital tools and technologies have significantly democratized access to higher education, but there are still some improvements to be made when it comes to ensuring digital accessibility for all students.
Under the UK’s Equality Act, universities are classified as public authorities and are subject to a higher level of duty; the Public Sector Equality Duty.
This requires universities to: “minimize disadvantage suffered by disabled people; take steps to meet what may be the different needs of disabled people; encourage the participation of disabled people in public life; tackle prejudice; and promote understanding.”
Under this legislation, universities must be proactive and anticipatory when meeting the needs of disabled students, with equality duties demanding that both physical and virtual learning environments are accessible.
In the US, similar legislation dictates that a university’s electronic and information technology, such as websites and online services, “must be accessible to students with disabilities and conform to the standards of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).”
Common challenges with digital accessibility
Unfortunately, many institutions and organizations struggle to ensure digital accessibility for all.
People with disabilities can encounter a range of digital barriers when browsing the web, such as videos that aren’t adequately captioned, audio that isn’t transcribed, text and pages that can’t be enlarged, poor contrast between text and background colors, missing alternative text for images, and moving or blinking content that can’t be hidden.
These factors can act as digital barriers for people with disabilities, preventing them from using or making the most of a website or app.
One university that is taking proactive steps to address these technological barriers is Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso (TTUHSC El Paso), which introduced a comprehensive digital accessibility solution and conducted a thorough assessment of its digital properties.
By designing or updating virtual learning environments with disabled students in mind, higher education institutions can improve their digital accessibility and remove any learning obstacles these students may face.
Digital content for all
It’s vital that universities offer both digital platforms and digital content that cater to students with disabilities.
For example, Yale University stipulates that all digital content should be accessible to people with visual, cognitive, learning, neurological, physical, or speech disabilities.
TTUHSC El Paso conducted an accessibility overhaul of its digital properties, updating its websites, videos, PDFs, and apps to ensure all students could access them.
RMIT University in Australia implemented a Digital Accessibility Framework, “setting design standards for accessibility of all digital resources [and] outlining roles and responsibilities for compliance.”
Additionally, utilizing tools like descriptive text, navigation tools, and web accessibility checkers can empower students with disabilities to provide feedback to institutions.
Listen to your students and help them to learn in the way that best suits them; whether it’s providing lecture slides to a student with dyslexia who could struggle to read during the lecture, or a student with a visual impairment who prefers to listen to an audio file.
Inclusive practice and targeted support
Beyond building accessible virtual learning environments and providing inclusive digital content, universities must ensure that they implement a joint approach of inclusive practice and targeted support.
Targeted support allows universities to provide specific materials and resources to individual students with disabilities.
In the UK, Disabled Students Allowances (DSAs) are government-funded allowances that can be used to provide targeted support for disabled students, such as a laptop with assistive software.
In the 2016-2017 academic year, the UK government scaled back the DSAs program and doubled the funding to universities to support disabled students, urging institutions to create a more inclusive learning environment rather than relying on targeted support.
The government promoted inclusive practice, with the aim of nurturing greater independence for students and less reliance on individual interventions.
For example, instead of hiring support workers to take notes for students with disabilities in lectures, universities were pushed to provide lecture recordings to all students.
It’s important to note that inclusive practice and targeted support should be used in tandem, with one complementing the other and vice versa.
This combined approach can empower institutions to establish digital accessibility and democratize access to education.
To find out more about creating an inclusive higher education environment, download a free copy of our white paper: The State of Inclusivity in International Higher Education.