Technologies can help people with disabilities engage with learning in ways that previously weren't possible. Being able to access learning content and activities online can be liberating for people who are housebound, whether for physical or other reasons.
Technology can be a means to broaden and enable equitable access to learning, but isn't necessarily a catch-all solution. Not all students with disabilities will want to access learning in the same way, or will find different technologies or formats accessible or supportive of their particular needs.
If you or your institution develop online courses or classes, you’ll need to take the requirements of students with different needs into account. A good starting point is to consider the content creation tools you currently use with this accessibility checklist and test how accessible they are.
Surprisingly, some of the expensive industry standard tools produce content with significant accessibility barriers whilst open source tools like Xerte toolkits have much higher levels of native accessibility.
Ensuring resources are mobile-friendly is one way of potentially increasing accessibility because many mobile devices have inbuilt assistive technologies like text-to-speech.
Improving student access
In addition to considering how students with disabilities will access, learn with or use online technologies, think about how specialised assistive technologies can improve student access. There is a wide range of commercial and open-source products available with specific functions such as screen readers, spelling aids and on-screen keyboards, as well as software with built-in accessibility features.
Assistive apps for mobile devices are more commonplace with touch-screens proving valuable for a range of needs.
Policies and legal requirements
Your institution is likely to have policies on assistive technologies, for both staff and students and there may be financial student support. It's important to assess how accessible these technologies are in relation to online learning and consider alternatives if non-institutional technologies aren't sufficiently accessible.
The Disability Discrimination Act makes it a legal requirement to provide students with disabilities alternative formats of learning content. Producing content in alternative formats, such as text, audio, video, images, and guiding students through content using headings and formatting, can also help students with different languages or personal preferences.
Supporting Jisc guidance
We have several guides on supporting students with different needs:
- Enhancing staff support for learners with disabilities
- Making assessments accessible
- Widening participation
- Meeting the requirements of learners with special educational needs
Producing alternative formats
Curriculum development and teaching staff may need support in producing different formats, and there are additional cost and time factors to consider.
A central team, with specific expertise in producing a range of formats, and who can make links to the staff with knowledge around disabilities, might be best placed to do this. A good deal of accessibility however can be achieved by choosing an appropriate content creation tool that outputs to accessible formats like HTML5 or EPUB3.
Wherever possible avoid outputs in Flash format because these have very low native accessibility.
Teaching staff can also use accessible open content to provide alternative and additional sources to augment their course materials.
|Barriers||What you can do|
|Assistive technologies and how they can help students with disabilities, are not well understood.||Involve student disability support staff in curriculum planning|
|Provide staff awareness and training activities|
|Ensure that institutional policies include the needs of students with disabilities and that staff have time to properly engage with these.|
|Lack of time to develop new learning content in a variety of formats.||Provide central support teams to help staff develop alternative formats.|
|Difficulties in making student-generated content available in accessible formats.||Incorporate accessibility into general digital literacy elements of the curriculum|
|Create a culture of sharing and remixing of student content so that they produce different formats|
|Provide additional support to students with disabilities to produce their own content online.|