I’ve watched many aspects of Accessibility shift and unfold over the last 16 years, but recently, the changes are being taken to a new level.

Here are the 5 key trends I’ve seen emerge and what I think these changes mean for those of us who work in education.

#1. Greater awareness around the civil rights of the learner

Let’s start by talking about awareness. Years ago, I noticed that students with disabilities were often afraid to be isolated and ostracized because of their special needs. When colleges and universities were not meeting their needs, they either struggled through on their own, or left school altogether. In the early part of the decade the numbers of students with disabilities who were graduating from post-secondary institutions in North America was hovering around 2% – ouch.

Even with legislative requirements around equal access, the application of these laws in higher education was muddy at best. There have been clear requirements in the K-12 space for many years, thanks to things like Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in the United States; or mandated special education programs throughout North America. However, how these requirements applied to higher education was unclear. No one clearly understood the expectations or consequences of inaction, therefore no one acted proactively.

Today we’re becoming more aware of accessibility as a civil right. The more students demand action, the more proactive we’re seeing schools become. This is due in part to increasing activity by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the creation of student-led advocacy organizations like 2Gether International, or on-campus student advocacy groups at schools like the University of Washington, University of Maryland, or the University of Texas.

#2. The proactive development of programs and policies around accessibility

Over the last few years, as the Department of Education has focused on clarifying how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other accessibility legislation impacts higher education, many schools have found themselves faced with formal complaints from the Office of Civil Rights.

Resolution of these complaints almost universally requires content audits, remediation plans, and the creation of formalized policies and processes to ensure the accessibility of all public facing information – digital and print – for people with disabilities. This can be a daunting task for any educational institution. But many, like the University of Montana and the University of Cincinnati, are creating very impressive programs around accessibility support both for physical and digital experiences.

Since the initial public notifications from the Office of Civil Rights, and well-publicized lawsuits around some big players in North American Higher Ed, I’ve seen a significant increase in the number of institutions proactively creating policies, training programs, and regular audit projects around accessibility. They are understandably working to stay ahead of any potential complaint being lodged against them. What comes with it are higher expectations on the technology providers they partner with, like Blackboard.

#3. Higher expectations of product vendors around accessible solutions

As educational institutions become more proactive about accessibility, it brings a higher set of expectations for technology providers. At Blackboard, accessibility has been a part of our process for many years. But lately the questions we’ve been getting from clients are more sophisticated. Rather than just wanting to check a box, more and more institutions want to know the nuances of our programs and policies around accessibility. With higher expectations comes greater scrutiny.

Educational institutions rely on technology partners to deliver the engaging and modern experiences they want to provide their students. For some schools, like the California State University System, if a vendor cannot provide third party verified documentation of accessibility, the technology cannot be approved for use by the Chancellor’s office. This is something all edtech companies need to be paying close attention to.

Starting to build accessible technology for education can be challenging. But many educators care deeply about ensuring equal access to technology, and the majority of them are willing to work with their technology providers to ensure these goals can be met. Groups like the Moodle Accessibility Collaboration Group and the Blackboard Accessibility Community are being formed, and led, by clients to drive continuous improvements around accessibility in Blackboard products.

#4. A mindset that’s shifting away from integration and more towards inclusion

In addition to the shifting expectations around technology solutions, I’ve started to encounter more teachers who are thinking more inclusively about the way they design their classrooms—and especially their online content.

For many years, educators and education policy makers have worked to provide integrated classrooms. This means students with disabilities are physically located in the same space as their able-bodied peers, given the same work and the same assessments. On the surface this seems like a good thing. The challenge is that not every student learns and communicates in the same way. Expecting everyone to do the same work, in the same way, doesn’t breed consistent success. What’s emerging now is a more inclusive mindset.

When you start thinking more about inclusion and less about integration, you start creating experiences that empower students to meet the same goals, and achieve the same outcomes – in their preferred style. Inclusive thinking is just a small mental shift that happens when you understand more about how a student with Autism or Cerebral Palsy learns, or when you change your assessment practices to provide differentiation – allowing a blind student to select a non-visual approach to communicating their understanding of the subject matter.

Inclusion isn’t really a new concept, but it’s broader adoption is making a big difference to students with diverse abilities. At Blackboard we’ve been developing a strategy and framework to help educators embrace this new way of thinking.

#5. Lower numbers of learners with disabilities are disclosing to higher education institutions

I’ve noted before that researchers hypothesize between 60-80% of students with disabilities in Higher Education institutions choose not to disclose their disability to their college or university. There are many reason for this, from societal to financial, but I would argue that we’re going to see these numbers continue to rise – for a much better reason.

In today’s world, students with disabilities often feel ostracized or singled out. They believe that their peers don’t understand them. By the time they get to higher education, they no longer want to be associated with the stigma of disability, so they choose not to disclose.

But, as the mindset in education shifts away from integrated experiences to inclusive experiences, awareness and acceptance of the different ways people learn will increase. As this happens, the need for students to disclose a disability in order to meet their needs will decrease. Imagine a world where educational environments and curriculum organically allow for diversity in ability and approaches to learning. A world where society celebrates these differences and knows how to empower everyone to achieve the same goals.

This ideal world is possible. But getting there starts with fully understanding how people with different physical and cognitive needs learn. Upcoming posts will provide a broad understanding of the four major classifications of disability and how their unique challenges impact learning.

Playbook: Is your higher education institution accessible for all?


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