Global Accessibility Awareness Day 2021: Let’s put accessibility at the heart of education

Let’s embrace Global Accessibility Awareness Day as an opportunity to elevate the needs of disabled students, making them central to post-pandemic rebuilding in the higher education sector

Today is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. This is a critical time for parliamentarians and educators to come together, creating a better future that delivers greater opportunities for all, and makes a real difference to students’ experiences.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on disabled people is, and will be, particularly significant. So – as the education sector restructures and rebuilds – let’s grab this opportunity to embed digital parity at the heart of change.

A collaborative approach

Advocating for the rights of disabled people has long been a passion of mine. As co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Assistive Technology, I’m determined to work collaboratively, and ensure the opportunities that have arisen from the unexpected shift to digital teaching and learning can deliver long-term positive transformation for a more accessible education system. This is our chance to redesign both what and how students are taught to ensure the best possible outcomes for all.

Through my work with the APPG on deafness, I’ve seen how digital accessibility can enhance the lives of people who are deaf or hard of hearing, whether it’s provision of captioning on video, new apps for automatic speech transcription, or bluetooth-enabled devices that improve the quality of sound received by hearing aids and cochlear implants. I am always keen to learn of progress that is being made, and eager to see how we can extend those positive steps.

Discussions and action

Earlier this year, Sir Michael Barber, the former Chair of the Office for Students, published his independent report into digital teaching and learning. The report cited an APPG for Assistive Technology report as it emphasised the universal benefits of accessibility, stating ‘digital content, designed to be more usable for disabled students, can benefit all students. For example, when course documents are produced in accessible file formats, they can be converted into podcasts.’

I am pleased to see this emphasis on the mainstreaming of accessibility embraced by leading voices in the sector. For example, the Learning and Teaching Reimagined, project, led by the education and technology not-for-profit, Jisc, in partnership with Universities UK, Emerge Education, and other organisations, sets out a vision for technology-enhance learning that, according to Jisc’s position statement on accessibility, puts ‘inclusivity at the heart of online curriculum development’, naming accessibility as ‘fundamental to online education design and delivery’.

As the same time, greater attention to the accessibility of learning content has prompted a number of surveys of the sector, which reveal how far we have still to go. A review of universities’ own public accessibility statements found that only 63% claim to be fully or partially compliant with accessibility regulations, and, in a Policy Connect survey, a quarter of respondents rated the accessibility of their course at just one or two out of five.

Inclusion at the core

Let’s design accessibility into our educational models, embedding flexibility and inclusion at the core of all students’ learning experiences. With higher education stakeholders working together with industry bodies, policymakers, and the sector, I believe we can ensure parity of educational experiences. This is how we will level the playing field for both disabled and non-disabled students.

Lilian Greenwood is Labour MP for Nottingham South and Chair of APPG Assistive Technology

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Access for all: New report released on how to provide a more inclusive experience for disabled students

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