Disabled World defines accessibility as follows: “Accessibility refers to the design of products, devices, services or environments for people with disabilities.” I think we can all agree with this definition, but there is one significant term to focus on – “disabilities.” Prior to discussing accessibility, we must first understand disability.
There are numerous reports, studies and statistics that share data about individuals who have disabilities. One billion people in the world have a disability, and 12.9% of all students have a disability. Often times the method of data collection dictates that individuals identify with their primary disability, in a predefined category, lumping varying degrees of a disability together. This standardization in reporting is often then followed with an attempt to standardize accommodations. This disregards the impact for the need of specialized or varying degrees of appropriate accommodations. For example, a person that is Deaf Blind who culturally identifies themselves as Deaf, will often only report that they are deaf when required to identify a primary disability. When in fact, the combination of disabilities has a significant impact on the types of accommodations needed.
But, these numbers can be misleading. Since most of these data collection methods rely on individuals self-disclosing, there are individuals with a disability who may never be in the count. I, for one, have a significant hearing loss in my right ear and have been diagnosed with ADHD. Neither of those disabilities have ever been reported or counted. I have developed strategies to compensate and have not needed any accommodations, just as the 60% to 80% of undergrads who choose not to disclose a disability. The reasons behind this vary, but primarily these students want to blend in with all the other students in class and not be associated with common stereotypes about the disabled.
Accessibility in learning environments
For those of us in a higher educational setting, student success is our intrinsic motivator. When a learning experience has been created without barriers, all students are able to more effectively focus on the main objective. In barrier-free environments, students are able to experience all facets of higher education. While there is always going to be a need for specialized accommodations, there is a significant need for our learning experiences to be designed with barrier free intentions. If learning environments incorporated universal design throughout, we could better accommodate students needing any personalized and specialized accommodations. More to come in future posts about how we can accomplish this.
As an example, consider curb cuts. This is the place where the sidewalk meets the street and is cut down and ramped so that individuals with a motor disability are able to cross the street. When we all cross a street, we don’t look at the curb cut and think of it as a special accommodation. It is just part of the norm. Parents with strollers appreciate not having to bounce their baby off the curb when crossing the street. Individuals who text while walking are able to walk without tripping up the curb. It just makes sense. While these were initially designed as an accommodation for people in wheelchairs, they have since become engrained in our culture and everyone benefits.
There are many “curb cut” types of accommodations we can design in our student’s learning experience that would enable a majority of the 60% to 80% of students with an undisclosed disability as well as all students the ability to succeed. Let’s make accessibility as much a part of the eLearning environment as curb cuts are to our daily lives.