Photo Scott Ready, Blackboard’s Principal Strategist for Accessibility; Diana Bailey, fifth grade teacher at Deerfield Elementary; Kyleigh Edwards, a special education teacher at Deerfield Elementary; Dr. James Cressey, Assistant Professor of Education at Framingham State University; Web Accessibility Evangelist at the University of California, Berkeley; Lucy Greco, Web Accessibility Evangelist at the University of California, Berkeley; Eloísa Alpízar, Curriculum Design Leader at UnADM; and Juan Simón, Technology and Educational Innovation Coordinator at UnADM.

The Challenge of Making Education Accessible to All



Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Oct 19, 2017 – Click here for the Spanish version

Although accessibility awareness is growing, putting theory into practice can be a tough endeavor for educational institutions around the globe. To better understand the challenges of making education accessible to all students, Blackboard interviewed speakers from Blackboard’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day webinar series.

Curb cuts – the small ramps built into the curb of a sidewalk to ease passage onto the street – started to appear in different cities around the globe in the early 1990s. That small change ended up making a big difference for people in wheelchairs, and ultimately brought benefits to a much larger community, from mothers with strollers to cyclists and skateboarders.

However, these changes in accessibility to the physical environment did not happen spontaneously. They were enforced by law. Canada, for example, was the first country to legislate standards of accessibility, through the Canadian Human Rights Act in 1985,1  while in 1990, the United States instituted the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for people with disabilities.2 The act has also established that new business constructions must be accessible and that existing businesses are required to increase the accessibility of their facilities when making renovations.

Since then, many countries have created similar legislation, such as Australia (1992), South Africa (2000), France (2005) and Norway (2008).1

“[In the U.S.] We passed laws and created standards to make the physical environment accessible. For example, buildings had to have elevators and ramps needed to be installed. The sidewalk curbs had to be cut out for individuals with wheelchairs to be able to easily cross the streets,” describes Scott Ready, Blackboard’s Principal Strategist for Accessibility.

“But it’s only now that the digital environment is being addressed for accessibility. I look forward to the day when our online learning programs have that same kind of approach, where accessibility has been addressed, and we have an inclusive digital environment so that we are no longer trying to make accommodations, but rather we design the environment and provide it to be inclusive for all students. Right now, the biggest challenge that we are facing is building the awareness of how to do that.”

A complex global problem

More than a billion people in the world live with some form of disability.3 However, disabilities disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, generating a cycle that is hard to break. People in poverty are more likely to become disabled, and people who are disabled are more likely to be poor.4

According to the World Health Organization, people with disabilities experience lower educational achievements and less economic participation.3 Children with disabilities are less likely to start school and have lower rates of staying and advancing in schools.1

Promoting accessibility in education is the best way to change those numbers. “Throughout the world, accessibility varies from country to country. There are different cultural values that come into play and different legal aspects that change from region to region that impact how well accessibility is provided,” said Ready.

According to Ready, one trend today is that students are becoming much more aware of their rights and more active in fighting for accessible education. “The other trend here in the United States is that there’s been a surge of litigation and investigations in higher education to identify barriers or those institutions that are violating accessibility principles. Often, the remediation of that is to force the institution to review and to make their learning environments accessible. That is changing the environment for students with disabilities, as institutions realize that it is very expensive to go through a litigation process.”

If we think about the curb cuts example, we will see that accessibility imposed by legislation eventually led people to understand the importance of such measures and as a result, awareness about physical accessibility followed. The same should happen now with digital accessibility.

Institutions and accessibility

“The cost of inaccessibility is that people are not receiving the education that they want, so basically the institutions are not able to achieve their mission,” says Lucy Greco, Web Accessibility Evangelist at the University of California, Berkeley. As an evangelist, Greco works with people who are new to accessibility to teach them how to incorporate accessibility into their work. Blind since birth, she has been working her entire life helping people with disabilities find unique ways to get tasks done, mostly with the support of assistive technologies.

“What is happening in education today is that educational institutions are all aware of what accessibility is, and all have a basic idea that they should be including people with disabilities, but very few institutions actually have the resources, or understanding, or knowledge of how to accomplish that,” says Greco. For her, that is why it is important that institutions create an accessibility policy, and specifically a policy document to help people understand which path they need to take.

“If you work on accessibility, your organization improves and the impact for everyone at your institution is greater and more effective than anything else you can do,” says Greco. “Improving accessibility is just making a better product, and including individuals of all different styles, abilities, understanding and comprehension is what education is all about. We don’t teach only  the privileged and the few, we must teach everyone, but if we don’t become accessible, we are not doing it.”

For Greco, the best way to work on accessibility is to include people with disabilities. “There is a common statement here in the United States, ‘Nothing for us without us.’ You can’t understand how to include a person with a disability until you include a person with a disability. You can’t create a tool that you think is accessible without having a person with a disability there with you, because you alone cannot determine it. And the only way for you to know and understand how a person with a disability works is by interacting with them, engaging with them, and realizing that, first, people with disabilities are people, and they can contribute.”

A way to teach all: Universal Design for Learning

James Cressey is an Assistant Professor of Education at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, United States. As a licensed special educator and nationally certified school psychologist, he teaches courses in special education at the undergraduate and graduate levels, with a focus on Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is a set of principles for curriculum development intended to give all individuals equal opportunities to learn.7

“In my classrooms, I see amazing future teachers who are ready to master the art and science of teaching, and I find that they are very interested in UDL and special education,” says Cressey. “They are going to be general education teachers, but UDL really helps them think about the complexities of a classroom of students with and without disabilities.”

According to Cressey, traditional, inflexible teaching can have harmful psychological and academic consequences for students, and the root causes of that are sociological and systemic. “In my teachings and presentations, I frame that through ableism, which is discrimination and stigmatization of disability and people with disabilities. Ableism can be seen as inherently linked with racism and sexism, heteronormativity, xenophobia and ideas like English-only teaching or the unfortunate ‘America first’ kind of thinking. Ableism supports this paradigm of the mythical ‘normal’ or ‘average’ student. If teachers are replicating that way of thinking in the classroom, they are really creating trauma for students rather than helping them learn.”

In the United States, says Cressey, enormous research goes into the testing, evaluation, and the eligibility determination process for disability. “If we could use UDL more, we could reallocate some of those resources, and special educators and school psychologists could build more UDL practices into classrooms and partner more with teachers to build in accessibility. And then we can spend less time sorting children into categories of disabled or not disabled and more time building high-quality learning experiences.”

In Kansas, an inspiring experience from Deerfield Elementary

Diana Bailey is a fifth-grade teacher at Deerfield Elementary, a public school in Lawrence, Kansas (United States). Four years ago, she implemented the blended learning model to personalize learning for every student in her classroom, along with Kyleigh Edwards, a special education teacher.

“Four years ago, there was really that old factory model, as I like to call it, a teacher in front of a classroom, rows of desks, and the teacher would be kind of shooting for the middle of all abilities. But then you have some students who are bored and unengaged, and some students who, on the contrary, are struggling to understand the context, feeling frustrated. It was just not working,” tells Bailey.

At that time, special education students had to leave the classroom at certain periods to study with Edwards. That separation was not working either. Together, the two teachers planned to implement a more personalized learning model to keep special education students in the classroom, learning at their own pace. The changes ended up benefiting all the students.

“I can see on the kids’ faces that they are excited to be in this room, they are excited to engage in the assignment,” says Edwards. “And particularly the special ed students, who are excited because we found a way to make them successful based on their strengths and interests.”

For her innovative work, Bailey has been recognized with multiple awards, such as the Unusually Excellent Educator Award and the Lawrence School District Teacher of the Year for 2014. “All students can learn, and they have a deep desire to do so,” says Bailey. “It is just a matter of giving them more choice and allowing them a myriad of ways to demonstrate their knowledge instead of making that so rigid like it has been in the past.”

Learn from Bailey and Edwards

1. Start small. Choose a single subject area, a single class, or even a single activity to allow your students to tailor that assignment or that objective to their personal needs.

2. Get to know your students. Talk to the parents, create surveys or activities that allow students to talk about themselves.

3. Be flexible and have an open mind. “I like to consider myself as an architect who designs learning paths for each student, instead of that ‘sage on the stage,’ standing in front of students and controlling everything about their day,” tells Bailey.

4. Celebrate diversity. “There is not a single right answer to how teachers teach and how students learn,” says Edwards. “Nobody is the same and we should not expect them to be the same, because our diversity is what makes us unique, and is what makes things interesting and fun in the classroom.”

Born to be accessible

Universidad Abierta y a Distancia de México (UnADM) is a unique institution. It was created in 2012 with the mission to guarantee access to education for the most vulnerable populations in the country, such as people with disabilities, people deprived of their liberty, ethnic groups, and indigenous communities. With 23 bachelor’s degree programs, 19 associate’s degree programs and two postgraduate programs, digital accessibility is essential for UnADM to fulfill their mission and vision.

“We want to be an institution that increases coverage and inclusion in higher education, that promotes education through an open and remote model as an alternative for people who do not have access to face-to-face higher education,” says Juan Simón Isidro, Technology and Educational Innovation Coordinator at UnADM.

The university currently has 929 students with some form of disability. According to Eloísa Alpízar Gómez, Curriculum Design Leader at UnADM, accessibility was always considered an important part of the model. “Our content production model was developed taking into account the accessibility standards of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C),” says Alpízar. “In this model, criteria for the production of each course were defined, as well as accessible versions of the courses.”

Learn from UnADM

1. Education for all. Instead of aiming for the middle, consider a wide range of learning needs and styles.

2. Consider accessibility from the beginning, in every course and all educational material, rather than thinking about it in terms of accommodations. “This practice allows us to include people with disabilities from the beginning and not wait for a demand to respond to or adapt to the situation presented to us,” says Alpízar.

3. Improve your practice on an ongoing basis. Count on the advice of specialized institutions. For example, collaboration with the Institute for Persons with Disabilities of Mexico City (INDEPEDI) led the university to detect the need to improve accessibility for the deaf community.


  • 16%of adults in the world have disabilities, according to the World Health Surveys (2002-2004). According to the Global Burden of Disease Study (2004), it is 19%1
  • 5% of children have disabilities,according to the Global Burden of Disease Study (2004) 1
  • 80%of disabled people live in the developing world7
  • 44%is the employment rate for people with disabilities, versus 75% for people without disabilities1



1. United Nations. (2015.). Global Status Report on Disability and Development.

2. Search (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2017, from

3. World Health Organization. (2011). World report on disability. Retrieved from

4. The cycle of poverty and disability. (2017, February 17). Retrieved June 14, 2017, from

5. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2017, from

6. What is Universal Design for Learning. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2017, from

7. The global disability crisis. (2017, April 04). Retrieved June 14, 2017, from


Photos by:

AFP: John Carrington, Jana Asenbrennerova, Casey Atkins, Dave Kaup, Dave Kaup, Bernardo Montoya, Bernardo Montoya