The Need to Support Accessibility in Higher Education

An increasing number of students entering higher education in the UK are doing so with one or more disabilities. According to the HEFCE, 56% more students with a known disability entered a full-time first-degree course in 2016/2017 than in 2010/2011. These impairments can range from dyslexia and AD(H)D to blindness or impairments to hearing or motor function. And the number might be even higher, as upwards of 80% of students with disabilities in higher education might not have disclosed the information when enrolling at their educational institution.

Supplying accessibility features has for several years been a legal obligation in some form or another. Since 2006, it has been officialised by the UN in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with Article 9 outlining the necessary accessibility precautions of institutions within State Parties. Yet, as the number of students whose disabilities affect their learning process rises, the need to provide better accessibility features in higher education becomes more apparent. By creating and supporting an accessible learning environment, institutions of higher education can bring down many of the barriers within higher education for disabled students and provide them with the same opportunities as students without disabilities.

Many educational institutions have several precautions at the ready to help these students. The earliest accessibility features were physical, such as wheelchair ramps, elevator access to upper floors, wheelchair accessible restrooms and tactile directions, such as raised lettering and/or Braille. Lately, though, technology is playing an increasingly large part in making higher education more accessible to students with different disabilities. For example, textbooks are increasingly available as e-books, where the text is a changeable object, customisable according to the readers’ needs. This way, visually impaired students can change the contrasts and scale the font up to the point where they can read the text without difficulties. For the hearing-impaired, videos can be captioned automatically by speech reading software. Dyslexic students, whose dyslexia can express itself in many ways, can, for example, use spellcheckers if they have difficulty writing, have text-to-speech software read text aloud to them and even use speech-recognition software to speak their ideas aloud and have the computer dictate them.


The Limits of Accessibility in Traditional Exams

While digital accessibility aids are used more and more in teaching, technological advances in exams are less prevalent when it comes to accessibility features. Often these boundaries are set naturally because an educational institution has its exam format bound to paper. This inherently makes the use of disabled students’ usual digital aids impracticable in their exam situations.

Educational institutions can have guidelines for the entire institution regarding how to format physical exam papers, so that print-impaired students are not getting exams with a small font, cursive formatting, coloured text conveying vital information or specific fonts, that make it harder for them to process the information on the page. While this is a sensible practice that pays attention to these students’ specific needs, it is limited in its reach and can be a resource-intensive task to enforce consistently. 

Another typical consideration is to provide extra time for print-impaired students to complete their exams, but often, that is the extent of it. While other possibilities do exist to increase accessibility within the traditional exam format, these are often discouragingly expensive, as they frequently require reproducing exam materials in limited numbers and in different formats.

With the increasingly large part of the student body having one or more disabilities affecting their learning, there is an equally increasing need to broaden the possibilities within accessibility in higher education. It seems that the traditional exam format requires rethinking to accommodate these needs.


An Exam Platform with Digital Accessibility Features

One way to make digital accessibility features easier to incorporate in exams is digitising the entire exam procedure. By making the basis for exams and assessments in a higher education setting digital, you are creating a platform for a wide array of digital initiatives, tools and methods to improve the accessibility for disabled students in exam situations.

Students with dyslexia or strong visual impairments can – just as with e-books in their studies – customise fonts and font sizes etc. to personalise their exam experience. In case of a severe impairment, text-to-speech software can read the questions aloud to the students, giving these students independent access to the exam material without the need to ask for help. So, in essence, providing digital exams and assessments for disabled students means giving them access to the accessibility features and tools they use every day during their learning experiences.

One of the benefits of digital exams is also the simple fact that students do not have to write by hand. Often dyslexia occurs together with dysgraphia, meaning that students – among other things – have a hard time writing by hand. It takes them longer and it is hard to decipher, which can have a negative impact on the student’s chances of exam success. Several studies show a tendency that “in the presence of variation in the quality and neatness of students’ handwriting, teachers are allowing factors other than the content of the writing to affect their ability to impartially grade assignments“. By allowing the students to use a computer, they can write much faster and do not have to write a draft first, allowing students with dysgraphia to spend more time on the content of their exams, rather than the form.

While changing the entire exam procedure to accommodate a minority of the student body might sound rash in some ears, disabled students are not the only ones who can benefit from such a change. A digital exam platform can have a wide array of general benefits to all students – and staff and faculty too.


Where to Start with Digital Accessibility: WCAG 2.0

While this is all well and good, digital accessibility can be a difficult subject to get started on if it is largely a new area to delve into. One place to begin, if you are looking for suppliers of assistive technology for the educational sector, is to look into the WCAG 2.0 standard and companies that comply with it.

The WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) is a technical standard for how to enable and provide accessibility-friendly content and features in a digital environment with testable criteria. It is issued and maintained by W3C “with a goal of providing a single shared standard for web content accessibility that meets the needs of individuals, organizations, and governments internationally.”

For general advice on how to provide better accessibility features at your educational institution, Home Office Digital has made posters with easy-to-follow guidelines for specific disorders. You can find them here, and they are released under a Creative Commons licence, meaning you are free to use, share and build upon them, as long as you keep the attributions and do not use them commercially.

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