Digital Accessibility in Education

Every educational institution, regardless of how large or the age of the population it serves, is grappling with accessibility issues, and digital accessibility is a big one. Everyone wants to do the right thing for every student, and the imperative is great as new laws and guidelines to that effect are being implemented. There has been steady progress on many fronts, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and Universal Design for Learning, but this is a long-term endeavor.

Per the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA), the term Universal Design for Learning means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that:

(A) Provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and
(B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient.

What is exciting is that there are so many ways to use digital technology to respond to the needs of students and educators at every level. Digital accessibility in education is still in its infancy, and thus far has been a need that is under-resourced in terms of both institutional support and supplier and developer investment. Research and Development and bringing appropriate digital tools to market have been slow.

Learning is an adaptive process in the brain, and everyone is different. How your brain works has a lot to do with the type of digital experiences you prefer.

The success of every student, not just those with disabilities, is dependent on matching the individual with the mode of information delivery that best suits their abilities and preferences, whether it be TTS (text-to-speech) software or enlarged type on mobile devices. There are many ways for assistive technology to impact learning, and the technology is improving all the time. The best case scenario is for students and teachers to have access to technology that is easy to find, easy to use, affordable, and most importantly, meets the needs of the user and the situation at hand.

Accessibility encompasses many different components that have to work together to provide the best digitally adaptive experience for learning. These components include the instructional material, such as digital textbook, web page or app. This material is then delivered via a digital platform, such as an e-book reader or web browser, and all of it must be supported by the actual computing hardware and operating system that the platform software and instructional material are rendered on.

In an educational setting, most material should be available via a range of assistive technologies such as text magnifiers, screen readers and braille embossers. Other specialized software and hardware that cater to specific learning needs are becoming more available as well. The biggest challenge going forward is to get all of the stakeholders to work together to create systems of accessibility in education that will work for, and be accessible to all.