In a recent speech Apple chief Tim Cook described people with disabilities as locked in a struggle “to have their human dignity acknowledged”. All too frequently, he added, they were left “in the shadows of technological advancements that are a source of empowerment and attainment for others”.
He is right. Yet it need not be so and there are solid reasons to believe this situation is set to change. To be sure, obstacles remain – as witnessed by Andrew Trounson’s recent article that Government funding to help universities to support students with disabilities has fallen to less than half the actual cost (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/more-uni-disability-funding-needed/story-e6frgcjx-1227010315296) – nevertheless, much can be done within the existing framework.
A major part of our mission at the Higher Education Consulting Group (http://he-cg.com) is to drive this change by working closely with Australia’s higher education sector to ensure people with disabilities reap the full benefits of the technological revolution. The vehicle for this is our Global Access Program, which brings together leading international specialists to help the higher education sector provide students with a disability access to the full learning experience.
Many families and communities experience disability as part of everyday life. But too often they are marginalised and overlooked. Why is that as a society we continue to view people with disabilities as a separate community or cultural group that need to strive to gain acceptance by society’s dominant culture?
Why is it still acceptable to talk about people with disabilities as problems?
Similar to the struggle experienced by women in gaining their right to participate in education and employment, people with a disability share a similar narrative and clarion call: “We want to study, we want to work, we have skills and talents and our country will be better off if you allow us to participate.”
In Australia the first female graduate in accountancy was Jean Kerr in 1946 at the University of Melbourne, the first female professor in an Australian University was Joyce Ackroyde in 1965 at Queensland University. Once barriers to participation were removed, women took up opportunities for education with gusto. Notably, since 1987, women have outnumbered men in higher education.
In 2014 when we look through the lens of knowing that your right to education and employment is not determined by your gender and that our economies are reliant on the participation of women in the workforce, it is curious that we still hold such restrictive and arcane attitudes for people with disabilities.
However, by focusing on the normality of disability, we have the opportunity to ensure that people are not locked out of our educational institutions on the basis of our perceptions of their abilities.
As we noted above, there are solid grounds for optimism: for example, in new developments in educational technologies such as speech recognition software.
Recently HECG, through GAP, became a member of the Liberated Learning Consortium(GAP http://he-cg.com/new-partnership-set-to-bring-better-deal-for-australias-students-with-a-disability/) – a group which brings together leading industry and university partners who share the vision and ambition for seamless access to learning for people who are deaf or hearing impaired.
IBM and Nuance are the other two LLC industry partners working alongside leading international universities under the leadership of the University of Massachusetts in Boston developing speech-to-text solutions for students with a hearing loss.
Accurate live captioning of audio is the last bastion of inaccessible information, knowledge and learning. For students who cannot hear, participation in both online and face-to-face classes is still fraught with difficulties, frustrations and miscommunications. This is especially the case when dealing with new information, technical terminology and the standard cognitive load associated with learning something new.
As liberating as the widespread use of the wheelchair has been for people with a physical disability, so too is the promise of assistive technologies for people with sensory or learning disabilities. No longer will the ability to communicate, participate, or read be dependent on a person’s hearing or sight.
By removing barriers to participation for people with disabilities in our TAFE’S, colleges and universities we are doing what is in the best interests of our country, our community, and our families.
David Wright is CEO of the Higher Education Consulting Group and Sharon Kerr is CEO of the Global Access Project.