Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for Accessibility in Learning?

Past barriers to accessing education have been replaced with new ones in the move to online learning. Online learning can be made accessible but problems lie where institutions have not embraced it wholly, leaving some students behind. 

People may be right to assume that the requests of disabled students are being met only in a pandemic situation. The ability to access lectures at any time and not needing to leave the house are two major benefits to online learning for a lot of students regardless of their disability status. Personally, it has meant I can study in a comfortable setting, pause my lectures and don’t have to exert myself by trying to get across campus, making it much easier for me to manage my conditions. However, it is important to consider the sheer diversity of accessibility requirements of disabled students and not come to overly broad conclusions. Different students have vastly different accessibility needs and all of these need to be addressed in order to bring about total accessibility. Not understanding the need to consider a range of accessibility requirements can have a massive and negative impact on students.

For instance, students that normally have note-takers and/or sign language interpreters could be left without the resources to enable them to access their online lectures properly. Even when we aren’t in the midst of a global pandemic, issues with bookings and timetabling can normally cause issues for the students that need these resources to access their learning. For students whose disability or deafness is affected by stress, now more than ever they need higher education institutions to step up and ensure that they have the same opportunities to succeed in their education as those enjoyed by their peers. 

Prior to the move to online learning, universities have had a temperamental track record of accessibility, from choosing texts that do not come in different formats to building lecture theatres where mobility aid users cannot go further than the front door. In one case, a student only received 3% of the required readings for his final year in a format that was accessible to him (Gary Copland).

Any steps forward for accessibility that are made during this time cannot be retracted after the education system goes back to ‘normal’. Students deserve much more than that, especially those that are marginalised by wider society for their disability.

To keep the education system from taking a step backwards, students need to engage with their education institutions and make their voices heard where they can. Constructive and persuasive efforts to shape future policy could bring us closer to a future where all students have equal opportunities to access their courses. Everything needs to be looked at through the lens of accessibility: not just services aimed at disabled students. As institutions begin planning a return to campuses, accessibility of learning must be at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

Photo by Kimberly Farmer

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