Using technology to remove barriers to learning for people living with disabilities

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett July 8, 2019
Adults with a disability are three times more likely than their peers to have no formal qualifications. We explore how two further education establishments are using technology to try and help

Image of a student learning from an iPad

A huge 20% of the UK population, the equivalent of around 13.3 million people, has some form of disability, according to The Shaw Trust’s Disabled Living Foundation.

Furthermore, while around 18% of working age adults are officially registered disabled, only about 46.5% (4.1 million) of them are employed compared with 84% of their non-disabled peers. Adults with a disability are likewise nearly three times more likely to have no formal qualifications (30% and 11% respectively).

But while such statistics may appear gloomy, the upside is that technology can play a valuable role in an educational context by helping to remove some of the common barriers to learning. That is certainly the view of Esam Baboukhan, e-learning manager and teacher at City of Westminster College in London, which offers 7,000 students around 250 part-time and full-time academic and vocational courses. He explains:

Over the last 10 years, more students with special needs have been coming into mainstream education, so it’s important to accommodate those needs in the classroom. While it puts more pressure on teachers, teaching for diverse needs actually makes teaching and learning better, and technology really helps. The fact that I’ve seen the transformative power of technology in my classroom means I’m a bit passionate about it as I’ve seen what it can do to change people’s lives.

He cites the example of Kabir, a boy with a hearing impairment, who relied on a signer to communicate in class. After Baboukhan introduced Microsoft’s Teams communication and collaboration platform, which he describes as “similar to WhatsApp” except it sits on the College’s network and is accessed by means of users’ Office365 credentials, he was able to communicate directly with Kabir for the first time:

From then on I’ve communicated with him more than the rest of the students put together – we’ve never stopped communicating and it’s transformed his life. It was one of the most profound moments of my teaching career and has made me more motivated to keep on pushing the boundaries.

Video is another means by which both teaching and learning have been changed for the better. Baboukhan explains that he usually teaches one unit of a BTech Level 3 in ICT course five times over the course of two days, but has now started videoing his presentations using the College’s corporate YouTube platform. The video is then loaded into Teams, which automatically generates a transcript and creates captions for those with hearing difficulties.

The value of technology

Baboukhan says:

It got very tedious as I was repeating myself and if students missed a class or were late, I had to support them to catch-up. But now, they simply do a starter activity and watch a video they can rewind using keywords. Their engagement levels, along with outcomes, have gone through the roof as they can work independently, and the work is also differentiated.

Nonetheless, Baboukhan is clear that making a difference is not necessarily just a matter of introducing new technology, even if better equipment and higher bandwidth levels are always helpful. Instead he believes it is about learning to use what is already there more effectively. He also points out that technology alone is never enough to affect real change, although it can undoubtedly help:

Tools can’t do the job by themselves - they’re just a means of achieving an end. To come up with the ideas and use them effectively, you still need hard-working, passionate and caring teachers.

With this in mind, Baboukhan has also set up both a Digital Leaders and a Digital Ambassadors initiative. With the former, teachers are invited to undertake a series of courses on Microsoft’s Educator Community website to learn how to integrate tech into the classroom. Face-to-face meetings are then held once a week to discuss progress and learn from the experiences of peers. Teachers are also expected to disseminate their new-found digital skills among other teachers in their department.

Digital Ambassadors, on the other hand, are students who have been not only been trained to support classroom teachers in their use of tech, but who also man a so-called ‘Tech Hub’ helpdesk for both teachers and learners, which is based outside the library and is available throughout the academic week.

Deborah Kellsey Millar, group director of digital learning at the Grimsby Institute of Further (FE) and Higher Education, meanwhile, is a firm believer that the focus should be on creating an inclusive classroom in the broadest sense rather than purely catering to the needs of people with disclosed disabilities. She explains the rationale:

We don’t talk about using technology for accessibility because everyone has difficulties and challenges with learning. The focus instead is on universal design so that tools can help everyone access, acquire and retain information more easily. Someone said at a conference recently that ‘I did just fine with old-fashioned books’, but my question was ‘and how many learners in your group subsequently dropped out as they couldn’t access the information?’

Access for All

With such thoughts in mind, Millar was keen to encourage the Institute’s teachers, and other staff members, to become more digitally proficient. As a result, in spring last year, she introduced a so-called ‘Level Up’ learning initiative. She explains the rationale:

FE staff are very stressed and time-pressured and on top of everything else, they’re also expected to be tech-savvy. About 20% are interested, 20% bury their heads in the sand and the rest you can work with. So we developed the Level Up challenge to show how technology could help them.

The idea is that educators sit down with Millar for 15 minutes to discuss a specific job-related issue they face. She then either finds a suitable digital tool to help or develops a new one, which they subsequently use for a trial period. The experience, its impact and any benefits are then recorded as evidence and the teacher is awarded different categories of Level Up badge for their input.

At the start of this year, Millar also introduced an ‘Access for All’ stream, based on four levels: silver, gold, honours and specialist. Here participants are required to work through the various free-of-charge courses on Microsoft’s Educator Community website in a structured way to obtain an understanding of its accessibility tools and how they might be used to optimise learning. Such tools include Immersive Reader, which supports people with dyslexia in reading text, and Seeing AI, which describes text, objects and people to individuals with visual impairments. Millar explains what a huge difference they made to one learner:

Gracie was registered blind and had a guide dog, but had enough sight to use large devices. We taught the librarian how to use Immersive Reader and Seeing AI, and Gracie came in and said: ‘That’s amazing.’ With Seeing AI, she didn’t have to get anyone to read things out to her any more - it made her an independent learner for the first time.

But Millar, like Baboukhan, believes that technology alone can never be enough to affect long-term, sustainable change:

These tools are cool and they don’t just help people with disclosed disabilities – they help everyone. But it’s not just about the technology. It’s about the organisational culture, how technology is used, and the staff and their people skills. You need a balanced diet, with lots of different things coming together. Simply raising awareness is an epic job in itself, but it’s everyone’s responsibility and it’s about time people with disabilities had equal opportunities. They don’t want more, just the same as everyone else. So we all have to make tiny steps in that direction – just two or three a week even will take us further than we were last week.

My take

The message from both of these organisations is clear: if use cases are well thought-out, accessibility technology can have a transformative effect on the lives of people with disabilities by helping to remove barriers to learning. Such software also has the potential to benefit people who are not officially registered disabled too. But technology alone will never be enough – creating an inclusive culture depends very much on an organisation’s people, their creativity and their willingness to learn and help others. 

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