by David Wright & Sharon Kerr
Schools and the parents of children with a disability are no doubt delighted at the announcement of $118.2 million dollars over two years to support their learning needs. And with the appointment of Alastair McEwin as Disability Discrimination Commissioner signalling that Disability is now a priority issue.
The proposed programs deliver much needed funds to critically underfunded schools to deliver the types of “Adjustments” found by the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data (NCCD) – School Students with a Disability project. (http://www.schooldisabilitydatapl.edu.au/).
Current adjustment programs cover categories that could be focused to deliver systemic improvements (such as: “a differentiated approach to curriculum delivery and assessment that anticipates and responds to students’ learning differences”; and “personalised learning that is implemented without drawing on additional resources”) but in practice are mostly applied only in a reactive way trying to bandaid over fundamental flaws in the way education is accessible and effective for students with disabilities and other learning challenges.
Universities, TAFE’s and Colleges for the most part address disability in the same reactive way – responses or adjustments to student’s needs.
In this post we show how systematic proactive actions can be far more effective for the student and financial sustainable for the institution than reactive bandaids.
- Funding for students with a disability has mostly been directed at reactive services or ‘adjustments’ that attempt to adjust for flaws in the accessibility of education delivery
- The greatest volume of issues faced by students with a disability can be addressed by the students themselves with limited drain on teachers time by utilising systematic proven practices such as Universal Design and Personalised Learning
- Institutions – Schools and Universities – have not embedded these practices because of:
- Limited understanding of the full business case and the direct financial benefits derived
- Viewing disability from a ‘Deficit Perspective” rather than a Diversity Opportunity.
- Lack of monitoring of accessibility levels across organisations rather than individual instance
- Lack of empowered champions
Flaws in accessibility of education delivery
Since December 2014, while it has been mandatory for all Government funded departments and agencies to ensure accessibility for all of their online materials and the imperative for accessible content is clearly stated in the Disability Education Standards 2005, our schools and universities have largely not complied nor taken sufficient serious steps to ensure that their education offerings are accessible .
The funding initiatives announced this week are directed a school children with disabilities and seek to use information collected by the NCCD project to target and fund the most effective adjustments provided to those students and the schools where funding has restricted the implementation of those adjustments. This process of optimising current practices will deliver much needed funds and benefit students.
However, the best solution to the needs of students with a disability should address proactively the causes for the current demand by students for adjustments. For many the level of adjustment needed is directly correlated to the accessibility of the material and the way in which the material can flexibly allow students to achieve learning outcomes. In these two areas current education delivery has incredible scope for improvement.
While Schools could certainly benefit from improving accessibility proactively – the practice of ‘adjustments’ has follow on effects at the University Level – where the same practices are applied but are much harder to implement effectively.
Even those students satisfied with the school based approaches will find a materially increased challenge if they move into a University. In Schools there are more standardised core materials such as textbooks and study guides that should reduce the effort required in providing in accessible form though this remains an area of great weakness. And while budgets are tight the focus on students with a disability is high. However, once this same student hits University – those 20-50 course offerings have now become 2,000-5,000 – very large parts of course materials and commonly entire courses are inaccessible – students either need to find ways to survive with whatever limited help is available or for the majority achieve well below their potential.
Practices that can achieve great results at limited cost
At Global Access Project we believe that much of the expensive support that is being required, could largely be avoided if our schools and educational institutions designed, delivered and assessed their courses using universal design principles and personalised learning.
Just as we now have ramps to provide access to our buildings for people using wheelchairs, we can design our learning in such a way that the needs of students with a wide range of disabilities are catered for. Principles of universal design and personalised learning potentially provide choice for all students in how they engage with and progress through their courses of learning.
New technologies and developments are now providing opportunities for educational providers to deliver courses that cater for the diversity of students. These principles are quite simple and require a shift in mindset, not a huge outlay of resources or the lowering of standards. Put simply there are two basic strategies that if implemented can make a huge impact on how all students engage with, progress through and master their courses:
Strategy 1: Design in Accessibility
Deliver learning materials in accessible formats so that students can utilise new and emerging technologies such as text to speech and speech to text facilities that are now in most handheld devices.
Today with the use of practices such as Universal Design and Web Accessibility Standards and new low cost or embedded assistive technologies (such as provided in Apple devices), if learning materials and experiences are accessible, students with a sensory, learning or print disability can access the full learning experience .
Being blind, having a hearing loss or being Deaf, having dyslexia or autism – are no longer reasons not to be able to fully engage with education .
As Schools and Universities regularly update their delivery – particularly as they bring more and more learning online, there is the opportunity to upgrade the accessibility of offerings without adding cost .
Strategy 2: Providing Personal Flexibility provides Students Options
Build in flexibility and variety, so that students can learn at their own pace and participate in their learning in a manner that suits their abilities, rather than being constrained by their disability.
For all students this flexibility has value – students who feel that they are falling behind or missing important items can lose momentum or fail to obtain the scaffolded learning necessary to move forward. Personalised learning can help address this by adjusting progress timelines to suit individual needs and provide options to all students to acquire learning through alternative methods. For students with a disability it provides options to address a learning task in a way more suitable to them given their disability including being able to best utilise assistive technologies.
So why do we continue opting for bandaids ?
GAP have had some negative experiences with teachers not prepared to change their practices to suit a ‘minority group’ but we have come to realise that they are the minority. Most teachers put students interests first, further when they know what can be done and how easily it can be done they are great supporters of providing systemic improvement to the accessibility of their teaching. So it is not about the grassroots of teaching.
Budgets for programmes and resources to assist students with disabilities have been dropped at the same time as the volume of demand for assistance has grown strongly.
The reaction to these opposing forces in schools and higher educations is to batten down the hatches and just address what you have to. Longer term projects that provide strong return on investment are not pursued. In effect providing bandaids only.
For schools the announcement set out above will go some small way to address this by supporting schools budgets but the current state will stay materially the same for Schools and Universities unless we find more efficient ways of addressing accessibility issues for students with a disability.
At GAP we believe that achieving far more for students can be achieved with current funding – if institutions embrace the opportunities currently available to them through proactively using universal design of learning as the foundation stone for all their courses. So it is not about the cost.
Reasonable technologies exist today and are improving all the time. But technology likewise is not the issue. It is the choices in practices that have the biggest outcome such using a media player that can be used by current accessible technologies versus the same cost alternative that doesn’t. Nor is there an absence of expertise to put these solutions in place. Not only at GAP but these practices are widely understood with a number of services providers able to assist. So it is not about the technology or expertise.
So if it is not about the grassroots, not about cost and it is not about technology or availability of expertise then why don’t we adopt these approaches?
At GAP our observations are that there are four reasons why schools, universities and the VET sector alike are currently not running with these simple strategies:
There is little understanding of the business case and return on investment that can be realised by the individual school or institution for adopting these well proven practices. Business cases that only look at cost of reactive services and adjustments miss the financial benefits that are directly delivered from proactive investment and alternative practice.
Cases for funding of programmes for investment do not generally look at returns in enrolment, retention, progression, return or student outcomes, the diversity opportunities available nor address cost savings on reactive services.
Schools, institutions and Governments alike continue to focus on a deficit perspective of disability, rather than recognise that most students with disabilities if given meaningful access are not academically disabled. This is a Diversity opportunity – and involves a very large cohort of students with untapped academic potential.
Around 5-10% of students in institutions seek assistance related to a disability but another approximately 10% of students have a disability but do not seek assistance because of the deficit label, the burden of red tape or the current state that they receive services that are extremely limited and not empowering. Most institutions would support a low cost program that materially improves the academic performance of 15-20% of all students but have not looked at this cohort in that way.
Many of the greatest professionals and academics have had disabilities, some not even knowing until later in life. But statistics show that many with similar abilities do not participate, retain, progress or return to seek further studies. Closing this GAP is an enormous opportunity for institutions and students.
A student’s capability and creativity will determine the academic ability not their disability. An institution’s capability and attitude will determine the potential achieved with the student’s true ability.
There has been a systemic failure for the monitoring of accessibility and quality of courses. Many institutions have little knowledge of the extent to which standards for course development, delivery and assessment across their schools and institutions are being achieved or otherwise. In our engagements auditing accessibility of courses we have developed a toolkit that quickly addresses fundamental accessibility requirements. However, the answer to the question: “What percentage of your courses are accessible to students with hearing and sight disabilities?” will determine the extent of an institution’s awareness.
As a senior executive of a University I was comforted by the examples of great assistance we provided individual students until I found out what was happening for the majority of students in need – had I known I would of been doing what I am doing now – trying to change this situation as quickly as possible.
For all the negatives that students with a disability face in the current position – we have not met teachers, academics or professional staff that don’t care deeply about students with a disability or wish they could do more.
But to make changes you need informed, passionate and powerful champions.
Our friends at IBM are arguably the leaders in accessibility in the many fields they operate in but they too realised this need and in June 2014 appointed a brilliant new leader as Chief Accessibility Officer (Dr Frances West) – she and her team has since improved success of people with a disability within IBM and throughout the wider community through advocacy with Governments globally.
Like IBM if we empower leadership in this area we will get results. The leaders will look at the bigger picture including all the benefits and costs and design solutions that will achieve the best result for stakeholders.
At GAP we are excited about the appointment of the new Disability Discrimination Commissioner Alastair McEwin and are hopeful that he will champion the cause of accessible and flexible education. Together as a community we need to advocate for all schools, TAFES, colleges and universities to proactively plan for the needs of students with disabilities at the time of course development and/or review.
The reasons above are all addressable within the current funding framework with an informed debate and practical acknowledgement of the change challenges that may arise.
Lets bring on that debate – the students deserve it.
1.Accessibility – Web Guide. (2016). Webguide.gov.au. Retrieved 4 May 2016, from http://webguide.gov.au/accessibility-usability/accessibility/
2.DES,. (2005). Disability Standards for Education 2005. Canberra: Commonwealth Government of Australia.
5. Kerr, S., Booth, J., & Kerr, T. (2014). Impact of accessible eBooks on learning outcomes of Indigenous students. Sydney: Office of Learning and Teaching. Retrieved from http://www.olt.gov.au/resource-impact-accessible-ebooks-learning-outcomes-indigenous-students-2014
6. Kerr, S. & Baker, M. (2013). Six Practical Principles for Inclusive Curriculum Design. In B. Tynan, J. Willems & R. James, Outlooks and Opportunities in Blended and Distance Learning (1st ed., pp. 74 – 88). Hershey: IGI Global.
7. Istenic Starcic, A. & Kerr, S. (2014). Learning environments – Not just smart for some. In K. Miesenberger, D. Fels, D. Archambault, P. Peňáz & W. Zagler, Computers Helping People with Special Needs (1st ed.). Cham: Springer International Publishing.
8. Sackley, R. & Kerr, S. (2014). In Search of Answers. In Research to Action, CADR Conference. Sydney. Retrieved from http://cadr.org.au/images/files/day2/Sharon_Kerr_Ros_Sackley.pdf
9. ABS,. (2013). Australian Bureau of Statistics 4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, July 2013 Hitting the books: Characteristics of higher education students.. Canberra: Commonwealth Government of Australia.
Free resources and examples of universal design can be accessed at:
If you would like to discuss the principles of universal design of curriculum and personalised learning for your school or institution contact Sharon Kerr at firstname.lastname@example.org