Approximately 1 billion people in the world have some form of disability, according to the World Health Organization. Here in North America, 13% of all students enrolled in higher education have a disability. When you consider the diversity in student populations, that number is pretty high. And those are just the students we know about. Researchers posit that 60-80% of students who have a disability choose not to disclose it once they get to college. Almost 20% of students with disabilities choose not to continue school after completing high school. As educators, it’s time to start asking ourselves why.

I’ve worked at Blackboard for almost 10 years now. For much of that time I worked in User Experience, and one of my areas of focus was the accessibility of our Learning Management System (LMS). I’ve seen many things shift and change in both the accessibility and education spaces in that time. As a society, we are becoming more aware of the barriers we are placing in front of diverse student groups. At the same time, educators are facing increasing pressure to ensure they provide equal and equivalent access to educational experiences.

The Americans with Disabilities Act as well as Section 504 and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act have been around for decades. But only within the last 5-8 years have the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights begun clarifying what this legislation really means for educational institutions. As a result of this, we are starting to see more students stepping up and advocating for their own right to equitable, high quality educational experiences.

While the government has been focused on clarifying and enforcing the legislation, Blackboard has been continuing to invest in the accessibility of all of our products. Our Blackboard Learn product was the first LMS to be awarded a Gold Level certification for non-visual access from the National Federation of the Blind. In 2010 we were awarded the Jacob Bolotin award for innovation in accessible technology. Since then we’ve continued to focus on accessibility in education and established a company-wide program and strategy to ensure consistent accessibility support across products.

When I stepped into the role of Accessibility Manager last year, one of the first things I wanted to do was dive in and better understand the perspectives of students with disabilities. I talked to many students with a variety of disabilities. I learned a great deal, and I developed some insights that have helped me to better understand the academic journey for students with physical or cognitive challenges.

Here are some of the key things I learned:

  1. Most disabilities don’t impair a person’s academic capability; they just change the way that person accomplishes learning.
  2. Students with disabilities want to continue their education. It’s just a lot harder for them to be successful in today’s models.
  3. Disabilities are not always easy to spot. The majority of cognitive disabilities are invisible and often go unnoticed by peers and teachers because students have learned how to cope.

There were many eye-opening moments for me during this research. Here are the top four insights I gained about students with diverse physical and cognitive needs:

  1. The fundamental goals of all students, regardless of ability, are the same: to learn in order to live meaningful, independent, and successful lives.
  2. Social perceptions and support have a big impact on the ability of any student to meet these goals.
  3. Our society is still reactive about disability support, especially in education.
  4. The problem is not just the lack of awareness – it’s a lack of imagination around how to make the education system work in favor of these students.

If you want to read more about my realizations about the academic experience for students with disabilities, you can find more on my blog.

One of the research findings that sticks with me the most is that these students believe society’s impression of them is that they lack the intelligence of their abled-bodied peers. They clearly articulated a desire to alter this perception. They want everyone to understand that, despite appearances, people with disabilities do in fact have a high degree of intelligence. It just doesn’t look the way most people expect it to. This resonates with me personally a great deal, as I watch my highly intelligent nephew struggle to learn from people who don’t have the time to understand him and his severe ADHD. His disability makes him extremely literal –  he cannot understand anything that’s not black and white. He needs to be physically moving, tapping, bouncing or walking to focus on what someone is saying to him. He appears distracted when in fact he’s working very hard to concentrate. He’s more successful with the teachers who give him clear and simple instructions and who just let him get up and move during lessons. Unfortunately, that’s not often what happens in his classrooms.

My research and the resulting understanding of the struggles these students undergo to get the education many of us take for granted, led me to start rethinking how we approach education in our increasingly digital society. We talk a lot about concepts like Universal Design for Learning, and competency based learning in education today. But if we understand the additional struggles faced by students with diverse physical and cognitive needs, we start to see how these concepts overlap, and we can begin heading in the direction of true inclusion.

Over the coming weeks, my colleague Scott Ready and I will be sharing more of our thoughts around the impact of disabilities on learning, as well as how inclusive thinking can bridge the gap for students who strive to overcome the remaining barriers to their education.

Click this image to learn more about how you can tap technology to improve education and make it available for all students.


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  • Anne Goodwin

    Interesting article Jo Anna.

    I agree with many of the points made especially ‘Most disabilities don’t impair a person’s academic capability; they just change the way that person accomplishes learning.’ I have a hereditary learning disability, only diagnosed after i had children and started to investigate their issues privately. I possess well above average intellectual capabilities and have successfully managed the problems associated with this disability through sheer hard work. However, the process of learning could have been made easier and more enjoyable with access to coursework using alternative media. Modifications that don’t make you feel different/stupid or isolated are crucial to inclusion. The education system has made some improvements in its management of disability, but due to limited resources remain unnecessarily clumsy. As a result children, mine included, prefer to reject the help available rather than draw attention to their disability.