Education is a necessity that has historically challenged some students more than others. When schools and classrooms require students to learn through a singular method of teaching — for instance, through textbooks or in-person lectures — it tends to leave students with disabilities at a disadvantage.
As classrooms become more digitized and e-learning rises, conversations about accessibility in education are more important than ever — and not just as a solution for people with disabilities. Accessible design is increasingly being recognized as good design.
Here we’ll explore what accessible education entails and why it matters, and provide four strategies schools can implement to make education more accessible.
What is accessibility in education?
Put simply, accessibility in education is about making information readily available and easy to digest for all types of students. Accessible education empowers students with disabilities to develop the same skills and achieve the same level of knowledge as their peers.
In the past, students with learning disabilities or physical impairments were typically sent to a special classroom, separated from their fellow students. By increasing accessibility in education, we are allowing those students to learn in the same classrooms as their peers, with all the educational, emotional, and social benefits that inclusion allows. The modern sentiment is that this method of inclusive education is far more beneficial than separation, for both the management of learning disabilities and for the education of students who are facing those challenges.
The demands of accessible education are constantly shifting. As methods of teaching change and technology evolves, tactics for boosting accessibility must evolve, too.
Why Accessibility in E-Learning Is a Growing Need
Education is growing increasingly digitized for students in all walks of life. Approximately 63% of high school and 45% of elementary school students use online tools at school every day — including many who are enrolled in fully virtual schools — and nearly 52% of college students take at least one online course.
Corporate adoption of e-learning is also at an all-time high. With the corporate e-learning market expected to reach $450 billion by 2028, professional learners are no longer sitting in physical classrooms in their continuing education journeys.
As virtual and in-person classrooms become more inclusive and integrated, e-learning will have a significant effect on accessible education.
On one hand, e-learning can present greater challenges for students with disabilities, who make up 14% of public school populations and 19.3% of the workforce. Students with vision or hearing impairments, for instance, must navigate a digital landscape that offers no physical cues. On the other hand, e-learning can support inclusivity by increasing access to assistive technology. E-learning allows software and computers, which many students and schools already own, to replace the need for costly niche equipment.
Accessibility in e-learning is no longer optional. To prevent students with disabilities from falling behind as digitization rises, online learning must be designed with all students in mind. In fact, governments around the world are increasingly passing legislation that calls for accessibility online and offline. For example, in the United States, Section 508 requires education institutions to provide accessible electronic content for people with disabilities.
The A11Y Project, a movement that calls for inclusive digital experiences, is working in the socio-cultural realm to build awareness for and destigmatize disabilities. As our view of disabilities shifts, for example, to emphasize the positive — such as linking dyslexia with creative thinking — we may witness a continually growing demand for accessibility in e-learning.
As global populations shift and diversify, the role of accessibility in education will only grow more vast. Sharp rises in the U.S. immigrant population are contributing to the continued growth of students learning in a language other than their mother tongue, as well as learning English as a second language. Accessibility can also empower immigrant family members of students, who don’t speak fluent English themselves, as a support for their learning experience — for instance, by making mathematical concepts easier to explain.
5 Ways to Increase Accessibility in Education
The benefits of accessible design in education aren’t exclusive to learners with disabilities. Accessible design is simply good design.
Just as wheelchair ramps can be used by students with and without physical impairments, accessibility can make information easier to process for all. While students with disabilities may reap the most evident benefits, their progress is only the start of the positive outcomes that can come from accessible classrooms.
Here are five strategies you can implement in your classroom to provide every student the best, most effective education environment possible:
1. Leverage text to speech.
Some of the most common obstacles to accessibility are learning disabilities, language barriers, visual impairments, and literacy problems. Around the world, there are:
- 1 billion people with moderate to severe vision impairments or blindness
- 773 million adults with no literacy skills
- 5 million U.S. students who are English language learners
- 2.3 million U.S. public school students with learning disabilities
For these students, technology like text to speech (TTS) makes learning from books a reality, without the difficult (and at times impossible) task of reading words from a page. Instead of struggling to sound out words, students can focus on word recognition and reading comprehension by using TTS to listen to their reading material.
In general, around 30% of people learn well by listening to content. Whether or not these learners have disabilities, TTS can help them retain the majority of information they hear.
2. Support diverse learning styles.
Offering more accessible education materials is key to supporting accessibility in education.
While text-based materials have long been the norm for both in-person and online classrooms, educators must move toward offering a wider range of learning formats for students with disabilities. In addition to providing images and videos for visual learners and TTS for auditory learners, consider the need for formats like Braille, enlarged print, alt text for visuals, and more.
This is where Universal Design for Learning (UDL) comes into play. By using accessible technology and adaptable lesson plans, schools can help students embrace their unique learning styles instead of taking a linear approach to education.
Even for students moving along as expected on the development curve, this strategy can be beneficial. Though these students may not have a diagnosed condition, everyone learns best in different ways. Not every student has the time to sit down and read or the desire to consume written material. Additionally, many students actually enjoy learning but are deterred by learning styles that conflict with their preferences. By presenting the same information in a variety of ways, educators stand a better chance of sparking intellectual interest.
Once again, accessible design is good design — not just for one student, but for all.
3. Openly communicate about student needs.
Many people struggle with undiagnosed disabilities throughout their lives. Around 60% of U.S. adults have learning disabilities that remain untreated or undetected. However, early detection allows schools to implement transformative accessibility initiatives — and early intervention (which should occur by the first grade) allows 90% of students with learning disabilities to catch up with their peers.
Teachers are often the frontline when it comes to identifying disabilities and unique learning styles. Learning the signs that indicate the need for change — like test stress or difficulty following directions — allows educators to become effective advocates for their students. In turn, administrators can commit to listening to insights from teachers and working with disability services coordinators to cater to rising accessibility needs.
Digital tools like Bloomz can streamline communication by allowing teachers to capture trends in student behavior, which can be an indicator for accessibility needs. Bloomz can also support parent-teacher communication, allowing parents to be collaborators in bettering their children’s education.
On top of fostering open communication, administrators can also utilize digital resources provided by the A11Y Project, which offers actionable accessibility guidelines for the web.
4. Evaluate accessibility tools for your school.
Without the assistance of technology, administrators and educators need to invest extra time and resources into providing accommodations, like giving students more time to take assessments. Strategies like these can eat up your school’s budget, making it difficult to implement long-term accessibility solutions. However, with the right software, schools can easily meet all the accommodations requirements outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), while maintaining greater control over their budgets.
To find the right software for your school, participate in trials or programs that allow you to test learning tools before you make sweeping changes. For example, ReadSpeaker offers an evaluator program that gives qualifying coordinators access to our TTS tool.
Many online resources also provide guides for assessing assistive technologies for specific student populations. For example, this guide for English language learner populations and this guide for visually impaired students provide helpful questions to ask when choosing tools to invest in.
For schools that want to evaluate the current accessibility of their online programs and websites before choosing new software, accessibility assessment tools like the following can provide instant feedback:
- Online-Utility.org, which tests the readability of your content, so you can improve accessibility for students with learning disabilities
- Tenon, which helps evaluate the accessibility of websites and software during the design and development process
- A11Y Compliance Platform, which assesses your website’s compliance with current Web Content Accessibility Guidelines issued by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
5. Get feedback from students.
Implementing the right accessibility initiatives for your school is essential for helping students with disabilities learn at the same pace as their peers. However, when you’re simply tracking metrics like GPAs and test scores, you may need to wait until the end of the semester to understand your progress. If you want more immediate indicators you’re moving in the right direction, gather feedback from students now.
Consider recruiting students to test the assistive technology or curriculum you want to implement. Through careful observation — as well as the use of survey software like Google Forms and screen recording software like Loom — you can understand how students interact with the software you’re evaluating. Then, you can determine the potential success of your initiatives and decide the best ways to improve accessibility in education for your students.
For more information on how ReadSpeaker is helping institutions make content more engaging and accessible for all kinds of learners, download our free e-book, Enhancing the Learning Experience.