In the 50-odd years since I graduated from university, the world has changed in many ways – not least for disabled students and those with specific learning difficulties.
While the expansion of higher education in the 1960s brought greater opportunity to so many, there was still no internet, no Google and, for those without sight, no easy reproduction of books and journals. Students supported students, and tenacity was the driving force to overcome both physical disabilities and what William Blake called ‘mind-forg’d manacles’.
None of these tools were available to me, and my education was poorer for their absence – David Blunkett
How times change. For today’s learners, assistive technologies are often part and parcel of everyday life. Richard Wheatley, for example – who has been blind since he was five years old – used assistive technologies to support his education at New College Worcester, a residential school for blind and visually impaired students, and then at the University of Lancaster, where he studied physics. Similarly, Rozanna Piddington, an education studies undergraduate at the University of Bedfordshire, uses screen-readers and apps to support her dyslexia. None of these tools were available to me, and my education was poorer for their absence.
Levelling the playing field
Across the UK, many institutions are working harder than ever to improve accessibility, often prompted by the EU Web Accessibility Directive regulations. Since September 2019, these require colleges and universities to make their documents and resources accessible to all. Now, the Higher Education Commission Inquiry into the experiences of disabled students seeks to inform further change – because, even in 2020, Wheatley and Piddington’s positive experiences are not universal. We could do more to level the playing field. We could be bolder and braver in our use of technology to support students with additional needs.
Geena Vabulas, Policy Manager for Assistive Technology at the cross-party think tank, Policy Connect, points to some institutions that are leading the way – including the University of Kent and De Montfort in Leicester. Both are embracing assistive technologies and introducing adjustments to make learning more inclusive. Goldsmiths University in South London has brought in alternative assessments to support neuro-diverse students, Vabulas adds, allowing them to present their work as a video rather than an essay, for example.
Jisc, the UK’s digital agency for lifelong learning and research, envisages a future in which Industry 4.0 technologies help transform education. As Chief Executive Dr Paul Feldman explains, “That’s about providing opportunities that will benefit all learners – whether through subtitled content for students with hearing impairments or virtual reality field trips for learners with limited mobility, funds or time. Accessible technology can make a critical difference to the student experience, especially for disabled students who haven’t previously had equality of opportunity. It’s time to shift towards a digitally-backed education ecosystem that meets everyone’s needs”.
Part of the problem hitherto has been a lack of support for teachers, as highlighted by a 2019 Jisc survey in which 24 percent of 3,049 further education (FE) teaching staff and 40 percent of 3,485 higher education (HE) teaching staff said they were not provided with any support in the use of assistive technologies. That’s significant. To inspire and guide all students, staff must be equipped to use the right tech at the right time.
We must embrace the opportunities technology facilitates to make teaching and learning easier, fairer and more inclusive. I know from personal experience that the learners of the past didn’t always have positive educational experiences or equality of opportunity. I want more for this generation and those ahead, providing the support to ensure that all students, regardless of their needs, will leave university knowing that they can achieve whatever they put their mind too.
David Blunkett is a former education and employment secretary, home secretary and work and pensions secretary. He is also professor of politics in practice and chair of the board of the Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield, and president of the Association for Citizenship Teaching (ACT).