Ever seen features such as “built-in-text speech,” “text enlargement” and “voice typing”? Well, these features and more are helping to revolutionize Edtech, bridging the gap with persons with disabilities by providing a more equitable and inclusive environment for them. Hopefully, by the time you finish reading this article, you will have a newfound appreciation for these features the next time you see them.
We must bear in mind that disability has no single definition. It is part of being human, meaning the probability that most people will experience it, whether permanently or temporarily, is pretty high. The UN CRPD (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) describes persons with disabilities as having “long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others” (UN, 2006).
Categories of disabilities include vision impairment, deaf/hard of hearing, mental health conditions, intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder, acquired brain injury, and physical disability. Here, we will analyze how EdTech can accommodate disabilities holistically, rather than zooming into particular disabilities. Edtech solutions are all solving different problems and will come up with different solutions to ensure inclusivity. What matters is the process: how Edtech providers take disabilities into consideration when developing and implementing their services.
For example, let us have a look at some problems teachers have to deal with, in the classroom, when teaching students with special needs:
- Harmful stereotypes regarding these students;
- Trying to accommodate a wide variety of students’ needs;
- Limited or no physical access for persons with disabilities;
- Limited or no support from the school community or parents;
- Inadequate or no resources allocated to helping students with special needs..
As a result of these and more, students with special needs can have low confidence levels, and combined with their current needs, it can lead to de-motivation and poor performance in school (Lynch, Singal, & Francis, 2021).
So what is the way forward? Addressing this issue means addressing a multiplicity of factors that intertwine: there is no clear-cut solution, but rather a series of recommendations that must be adjusted to suit the context and your objectives.
We need to identify which technology is most adept at addressing access, inclusivity, and equitable learning experiences for persons with disabilities.
Using EdTech to combat the problems mentioned earlier helps persons with disabilities to have more equitable and optimized access to the school curriculum, and improves their autonomy and social inclusion. When introducing EdTech as a solution, two complementary forms must be addressed:
- Access to learning: The learning environment ensures that persons with disabilities have a shared curriculum with their peers without disabilities.
- Learning to access: The need for a unique or additional curriculum to achieve the self-agency of the learner.
We could quote plenty of examples of Edtech initiatives tackling disability challenges, such as apps in Thailand that allow deaf children to learn sign language with videos showing fingerspelling, pictures, and text captions. There are also zoom magnification and photographic apps in India to help learners with low vision access the teaching content concurrently with their peers. Not far, in Bangladesh, an app called mBraille helps learners write in Braille (Lynch, Singal, & Francis, 2021).
Moving forward, these EdTech solutions should be centered on the 4th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG): “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” We need to identify which technology is most adept at addressing access, inclusivity, and equitable learning experiences for persons with disabilities.
Moreover, research, implementation and design should be user-focused so that the solutions address the needs of the persons, and also helps them to develop greater self-worth and self-agency. Such effort will make learners the first advocates for these solutions.
Other key stakeholders to include are parents, teachers and governmental bodies. Parents and teachers would also need high-quality training to ensure that they are familiar with the technology and offer support when needed. Governmental institutions can step in to reduce the costs of these solutions, making them affordable and accessible to those that need them most. And naturally, we must increase investments in education infrastructure and technology, particularly in lower and middle-income countries.
Lastly, we must ensure that these EdTech solutions we come up with are portable, using mobile devices to achieve this. This gives learners increased flexibility to move with the technology, making learning an integrated experience instead of limited to a particular location.
As we strive to inculcate these recommendations, we must be aware of some of the limitations that we must brainstorm ways of overcoming:
- The infrastructure dedicated to EdTech and disabilities is not fully developed. It is still in the early stage, and scaling it up in developing regions requires funding that is currently not there.
- Studies conducted in this area have been for short periods with small sample sizes, and focused on select impairments like deafness/hardness of hearing and blindness ; with research lacking in others like autism spectrum or learning disabilities. Like for every thing Edtech, research is lacking, while data is essential to attract funding.
- Moreover, current alternative communications do not fulfill the diverse languages and cultures of persons with disabilities, which makes it limiting.
- Many teachers have currently not been trained on how to use EdTech. They don’t have the confidence and necessary skills to use them in diverse learner groups (Lynch, Singal, & Francis, 2021).
In short, EdTech is rapidly expanding and using the 4th SDG as an anchor; but we need to produce EdTech solutions that grant access and are inclusive and equitable, especially for persons of disabilities. The goal of these is two-fold: providing access to learning and learning to access — with an emphasis on the learner’s autonomy. Our technology should be user-centric and mobile to meet the needs of persons with disabilities and achieve the earlier mentioned goals.
It is also crucial to involve major stakeholders like governments, parents, and teachers. We need to train parents and teachers, and ensure governments make the best solutions accessible to all. Also, we must jump the hurdles of this research being in its early stages, with limited research and not fully accommodating the nuances of different languages and cultures.
With all of that in mind, we hope accessibility features will take a new meaning for those of you who do not use them! Let us appreciate their presence and vow to include more of them in our software.
About Chalkboard Education
Chalkboard Education provides a mobile-based, offline-first Learning Management System tailored for underserved communities training. Lightweight, inclusive, and complete with full analytics capabilities, Chalkboard Education helps you reach your beneficiaries everywhere in the World, seamlessly. Currently used in 12+ countries in Africa, South and North America, Chalkboard Education is available worldwide.