By: Manuel Rivera
Access to higher education for individuals with disabilities can be approached with two scenarios:
Its benefits: access to higher education is an opportunity for young and adult persons (regardless of any type of condition) to obtain and contribute to socio-cultural and financial benefits on a personal level and within a society. Among the benefits, the most important are:
- Higher social cohesion and tolerance
- Decrease in crime and felonies
- Political stability
- Higher and better social capital
- Financial growth
- Higher work productivity
- Higher entrepreneurial attitude
- Better quality of life
Entities such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank have stated that the inclusion of children and adults with disabilities (about 15% of the total population) in the educational system is important for four main reasons:
- It contributes to better well-being and the formation of human capital.
- The high economic and social cost of excluding disabled persons from the job market.
- The difficulty of achieving the Goals of a Sustainable Development.
- The compliance with that established in the international convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.
Education is a right. As stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its Article 26, all governments and educational institutions should break any barriers blocking the access of their citizens to education. Although there are systems such as that of the United States or of France with very clear action policies, it is necessary to globally promote the inclusion of persons with disabilities in educational environments, as well as the design and construction of completely accessible surroundings.
Higher Education Online and Accessibility
The universal access to education is largely supported on e-learning, is inherently inclusive due to its flexibility in terms of times, costs, and movements. Also, e-learning integrates easily with accessible technologies, which facilitate the learning processes of individuals with disabilities.
Based on a study conducted by the South Carolina Technical College System, we have identified 3 keys to promote the accessibility to online higher education and provide an enriching experience to the disabled student.
- The hardware, software, and contents should function together and in harmony
Both teachers and technology developers should be aware that any initiative they undertake must be accessible to students and users with any disability. There are three agents that should be considered at all times:
- Hardware: computers, tablets, smart phones, which have been incorporated with accessibility functionalities.
- Software: accessibility-friendly programs, tools, and platforms. It is important to educate teachers in the use of these tools and how to configure them to make them accessible. It is also important for instructors to know how and which assistive technologies can complement the software.
- Content: it must be accessible and therefore easy to process with assistive technologies, such as screen readers. The content must be characterized by the richness of options it provides. For example, all images should be provided with an “Alt Text” with the description of what is being displayed; there should be a hierarchy in the structure; readable sources should be used; there should be a balance in the colors; videos and audios should be provided with subtitling and closed captioning, among other conditions.
- Courses should be designed in accordance with the persons´ profiles
Having students with any disabilities in a class requires a teacher to have certain ability features in order to provide proper assistance.
If the profiles of persons with disabilities are assessed previously, the probability of their academic success will increase. It is, advantageous for instructional designers to have these profiles prior to structuring a course in order to avoid creating barriers.
An activity that is recommended to prepare profiles of persons and understand their needs is recording and communicating information such as:
- Age range: to know their level of studies and their learning expectations.
- Type of disability: whether visual, hearing, speech, cognitive, motor, or psychological.
- Likes and preferences: to support teaching strategies and promoting academic success.
- Problems within the surroundings: knowing which problems are faced by these persons in their surroundings will mitigate the potential creation of gaps.
- Technology and learning environment: to evaluate which is the best teaching and learning tool option. In the case of an LMS, to know the scope of the resources, activities, and assessments, and verify that all of the elements are accessible.
- Implement the universal design rules
Learning online, among many advantages, allows persons with disabilities to conceal their disabilities when they do not wish to reveal them. Thus, the design of technologies, of programs and courses, as well as their contents should be based on the principles of universal design, namely:
- Equal opportunities that allow everyone to use them.
- Flexibility to accommodate the preferences and abilities of the persons.
- Simple and intuitive user experiences that are easy to understand.
- Low physical effort comfortable, without causing any kind of fatigue.
- Perceivable information that communicates information effectively.
- Tolerance of errors that minimize the risk of making mistakes.
- Ideal size and space to handle a device in a positive manner considering any condition of a person.
Educational institutions throughout the world are committed, before their societies, to promoting the access to higher education and having accessibility strategies that abide by institutional or governmental policies. The challenge is to build inclusive societies where equal opportunities and participation possibilities prevail for everyone, regardless of their condition.
 World Health Organization. 10 Facts About Disability. In: http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/disability/facts/es/. Consulted on September 7, 2016.
World Health Organization. Disabilities World Report. Chapter 7, Education. In: http://www.who.int/disabilities/world_report/2011/chapter7.pdf?ua=1. Pg: 205. Consulted on September 20, 2016
2015 ROADMAP TO WEB ACCESSIBILITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION. South Carolina Technical College System. In: https://www.sctechsystem.edu/downloads/web-accessibility/2015-Roadmap-to-Web-Accessibility-in-Higher-Education.pdf. Consulted on Sep. 20, 2016