Accessible Education Content – Bridging the Gap for Students with Diverse Needs
General Manager- Marketing
“One in five children, adolescents and youth are entirely excluded from education,” reports UNESCO. While there are multiple reasons for this, including poverty, gender, ethnicity, language, religion, location, etc., one of the primary reasons is disability. In fact, the UNESCO report goes on to state that children with disabilities are “disproportionately excluded from school.”
If we, as a society, aim to better the lives of our children and their children after them, we need to start now by working to reduce barriers to equitable education access for all. For us, as technology-based solution providers for the education sector, this is a mission that takes precedence over our ambitions to garner market share or maximize revenue.
Students with disabilities face not just physical barriers to education but also technological and attitudinal barriers. The most common barriers to education include:
Educational institutions in most countries lack the infrastructure to support physical access for students with disabilities. The lack of ramps, accessible washrooms, appropriate tile marking for students with visual impairments, accessible transportations options, and accommodation facilities are the most common obstacles.
The one-size-fits-all approach does not take into account the strengths and individual needs of differently abled students. Stringent policies, such as those for suspension, or minimum attendance requirements, that don’t consider the varying abilities and requirements of differently abled students can lead to discrimination. This also holds true for the pace of curriculum progress and support.
While strides are being taken to promote DEI, negative stereotypes regarding students with disabilities still exist. Lack of awareness and/sensitivity among educators and students can make it difficult for students with disabilities to access equal opportunities in education. In some countries, students with disabilities are provided education in separate institutions, propagating existing attitudes and stereotypes.
Availability of braille, audiobooks, or text-to-speech materials for students with visual impairments, captioning for students with hearing impairments, access to multiple content formats for students with learning disabilities or ADHD, etc., can go a long way in ensuring education content accessibility.
The role of inclusive learning materials in improving access to education is undeniable. Educational publishers and EdTech solution providers are the critical link to creating accessible materials and spaces for students with disabilities. The starting point is compliance with the web accessibility guidelines and standards for education content and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework.
UDL provides concrete guidelines to ensure that all types of learners are able to “access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.” The framework is based on scientific research on the way humans learn. Here are the basic guidelines at a glance:
A whopping 90% of websites did not meet the WCAG standards, as of 2018. The situation has not improved despite the shift to online resources in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. A study of 1,000,000 websites revealed more than 51 million different accessibility errors and an average error count of 51.4 per home page, as of 2021. The web accessibility guidelines and standards are crucial for ensuring accessibility in education content with learning becoming increasingly hybrid, remote and virtual.
By following the UDL and WCAG 2.1 guidelines, inclusive learning materials that help in improving access to education can be created.
Choose colors, fonts, size, contrast, layouts and headings that are easily distinguishable, especially for students with visual impairments or learning disabilities. Clear structures and layouts go a long way in promoting accessibility in education content.
Add image descriptions, alt tags, and alt text to provide text-based alternatives for images. This helps those using screen readers for learning materials. But keep this text concise and avoid embedding important information as text within images. This is not machine-readable.
Closed captioning is crucial for students with hearing impairments. This also helps students who might access videos in public spaces, where it is difficult to use sound or hear clearly.
Multiple formats will cater to the learning styles and preferences of all types of students, including those with disabilities. They also prove useful for students with ADHD and learning disabilities, allowing access to materials in audio, video or text format. Also, offer the flexibility to view materials online as well as offline, via downloads.
The Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of the United States lists 13 categories of disabilities that could hamper learning. Data released by the National Center for Education Statistics in May 2023 reveals that about 14% of students enrolled in public schools in America can be classified in at least one of these categories.
Ensuring accessibility in education can further our attempts at ensuring Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity (DEI), especially for students with special needs. Fortunately, the creation and distribution of accessible educational content has been eased with the availability of cloud-based, AI/ML-powered technology platforms. Now, all that needs to be done is to choose a powerful platform to further accessibility in education.
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