According to the World Health Organization approximately 1 billion people in the world have some form of disability. When we look specifically at education and disabled learners, an article published a few years ago by Eurostat highlights that 25% of those aged 18-24 that report a disability leave education at or before lower secondary education, compared to 12.4% of those without a disability. Moreover, the number of young people who are neither in employment nor in education is double among persons with disabilities. It is clear that a new approach to education could play a determining role in the lives of many learners across the continent.
For many years, the focus has been primarily on providing integrated classrooms, where students with disabilities are located in the same space as their peers, given the same work and the same assessments. On the surface this seems like a good thing and it works for many. However, the challenge is that not every student learns and communicates in the same way and expecting everyone to do the same work, in the same way, doesn’t breed consistent success.
Most disabilities, in fact, don’t impair a person’s academic capability but they change the way that person accomplishes learning. A student may not have an obvious disability and there are also disabilities, such as the majority of cognitive ones, which are invisible and often go unnoticed.
Thanks to technological progress, we are now seeing the rise of an inclusive approach that enables more flexible learning experiences and allows students to meet the same goals, achieving the same outcomes but in their preferred learning style.
For example, we know that students with disabilities often feel isolated from their peers and don’t know how to engage with them, especially when it comes to discussion in class. Some of them could find engaging in a conversation during a virtual classroom more comfortable than speaking up in a face-to-face situation and they can start feeling part of the group.
Or let’s think about PDFs. They account for 50% of all course material on Virtual Learning Environments but some students find them difficult to learn from because the documents are not always designed to be compatible with screen readers. Having a technology solution in place that automatically creates alternative formats of the same document can play a key role in increasing accessibility and boosting student productivity.
Moving from an integrated to an inclusive approach requires a small mental shift and a minimal adjustment of consolidated working routines, but its broader adoption will make a huge difference to students. Disabled students, in particular, are better off, but an inclusive learning approach can benefit learners of all abilities.