Lindsey Wright writes for the education resource OnlineSchools.org She has written a piece for Leading from the Heart on how web-based assistive technologies can bring us closer to equal access to education.
Thanks, Lindsey :)
**please note, the points in this article are based on US law concerning peoples with disabilities.**
Web-Based Assistive Technologies are Expanding the World for All Users
Although the law requires it, few educational programs provide truly equal access to resources. This means that individuals with a variety of disabilities are missing out on programs from which they might derive a great deal of benefit. I have found this to be especially true in regard to web-based programs.
In many ways the Internet has revolutionized the educational process. Nowadays it is possible for students to attend an online school across town or even on the other side of the planet. This allows all sorts of educational institutions to keep enrolment numbers up and even provides these schools with more revenue. The downside is that few of these web-based distance learning programs offer any kind of reasonable accessibility for learners with disabilities ranging from blindness to mobility issues.
Although most online classes are offered at a college level, I can make the argument that children who require assistive technology to keep up in elementary and secondary school also tend to get short shrift when it comes to web-based courses that could, with just a few minor adjustments, become the sorts of programs that encourage inclusiveness for all students.
The reason that many students with disabilities have difficulty using web-based learning resources is that these tools are often not designed with these students in mind. This lack of planning leads to what are better know as gratuitous barriers. These barriers are a feature of programs that serve no particular purpose, yet effectively bar students with disabilities from using them.
However, if a few small adjustments are made it can become easy for students with various impairments to engage in online learning. For instance, including an equivalent audio program for students with reduced sight capabilities might quickly and easily transform a relatively inaccessible program into a viable alternative. Additionally, designing online courses that feature text sizes that can easily be manipulated can benefit not only those students who are sight-challenged, but students who have issues with motor skills as well. Larger text makes it easier to make certain selections. Sometimes the only barrier to a student being able to use a particular program is as simple, basic, and easy to solve as that.
Online education can be hugely beneficial to all students, increasing each learner’s knowledge base tenfold. Yet for these programs to benefit the largest number of students accommodations must be built in at the beginning stages of development. I firmly believe that this is one of the best ways to ensure accessibility for all learners smoothly and without a great deal of extra expense. For learners who have severe mobility issues, the Internet can provide an especially valuable window on the world. Not only can learners who cannot otherwise attend school have the opportunity to study but they can also make interpersonal connections with other students around the world who may be dealing with similar issues and can share their experiences and knowledge freely.
More students with motor disabilities are gaining access to specialized keyboards. Many of these keyboards feature larger keys or place them in a variety of configurations to make them eminently usable for a wide range of users. I have also discovered that some users benefit from the use of an onscreen keyboard that they manipulate through the use of a pointer or joystick. Furthermore, other students with sight impairments are being supplied with screen readers that can send internet content to a word synthesizer or a display of Braille. Even students with mild learning disabilities are discovering word completion software and other tools that can help them use the Internet as a powerful learning tool.
Each of these new technologies breaks down barriers and makes the world accessible through the portal of the Internet. Although some may require extra expense, I have discovered that many of these innovations are already built in to the keyboards most people own or can be downloaded at little or no cost. For instance, users who have relatively new keyboards can turn on certain functionalities like sticky keys, filter keys, and mouse keys that make it easier for users with disabilities to use a regular keyboard. This may not be a reasonable accommodation for all users, but it can certainly benefit a large portion of the population.
Technologies meant to improve internet access for people with disabilities are developing rapidly and I believe they will continue to do so for many years to come. As the Internet continues to expand its breadth and depth, so too will the accommodations for users with disabilities continue to expand and grow more sophisticated. I believe very firmly that users with all sorts of different capabilities can utilize web-based programs to increase their knowledge and make connections with other learners around the world. It is, I think, the next step to creating a barrier-free planet, where everyone is free to roam wherever their imaginations allow.