“Accessible” is not the same as Inclusion

Do we consider all learners when embedding digital into teaching, learning and assessment? If they don’t have the newest device, good connectivity, unlimited data, can they still participate, engage and learn, what if they have a disability? When practitioners start to use innovative practices and technologies is everyone included?

It’s not often that I talk about accessibility, inclusion and technology; and its even less frequent over the last 10 years that I have written about it. But between 2001 and 2006 I wrote over 20 papers, chapters and other miscellaneous publications covering a broad range of issues around inclusion and technology. It was a formative time for me, I had been tasked with building a new service that would have a positive impact on disabled student’s educational experience. So TechDis was born (with huge thanks and support to Rich Townend and Mike Adams).

Every so often I find myself looking back and wondering how much of impact did we have. Initially I think we did, I think we worked hard at moving the agenda forward using a social model of disability, and we also worked hard to disabuse the sector of the notion that “accessibility standards” could create an inclusive environment – when you set a minimum standard, that is what people achieve.

A lot of what I brought to that role was based on my own experiences. At the time of dropping out of school I had no qualifications. My school years were unpleasant, I was constantly terrified of looking stupid in front of the other kids. I was an “undiagnosed” dyslexic and anyone with dyslexia will know those feelings well. I was in my late 20’s when I entered education again, I had lots of support, from family and friends, although even at graduation I still had not been identified as dyslexic (I didn’t even understand what it was).

Most recently I have been involved in the Next Generation Digital Learning Environments work at Jisc, some of the emerging trends have been especially interesting, where we are seeing lecturers have access to a range of tools outside of the institutional control, tools that allow them to build their own apps for example; and alongside these new tools and apps they have been adapting their practices.

This is what brings me back to my own experience, and my experience at TechDis. Most tools and commercial apps will have inbuilt features that support disabled students; legislation across Europe, and the Global North Countries embed the principles of ensuring accessibility, and by and large this has been of benefit. But recently I have come into contact with lecturers who have been doing great things with the plethora of apps and tools, shaking up their teaching and engaging students.

It all feels great.

But I started thinking about some of the answers to questions I have been asking.

“How many of your students engage with the tools?”

    “About 90%”

“Are the tools accessible?”

    “Yeah, the students love them, they access on their smartphones”

The questions go on?

One lecturer has an app that is a quiz tool. The app times the students, and the students that finish fastest, and with right answers, win prizes.

Is it Inclusive?

To read textbooks, with complex equations and diagrams, is hard for me, it takes a little longer than some people. I am not going to win a prize. And I just have mild dyslexia.

The apps, the tools, the websites, the e-books, are all getting more accessible. They are flexible and adaptable. Technology is helping me, I can easily change fonts, backgrounds, as I get older I find myself increasing the size of the text! Technology can help disabled students; but it doesn’t mean your teaching practice is inclusive.

I felt stupid at school, while the smart kids were lauded, handed prizes. I thought we’d left those days behind. But the technology, the access to technology, and the way the technology may be being used is again raising those issues.

“How many of your students engage with the tool?”

“About 90%”

If you don’t have the best device, the fastest data; if the way the tools are used to reward the smartest and most engaged students at the expense of the that 10% that are not engaged, then what are we doing as educators?

I am hoping that some of the practices that are stratifying students, creating a divide, are exceptions, transitional approaches. But in a race for recognition for innovation, where new and shiney is rewarded, I think we may be failing many students. Hearing about these practices, so many years after I graduated, has shaken me; a practice being used that would have rocked my confidence, would have hurt me academically, at university has really brought home to me the importance of inclusion, not just accessibility.


  1. We come across this sort of thing so often – all manner of ‘innovative practices’ that add value for “everyone” except the neuro-diverse, the less than 20:20 vision, the English as a second language, the non-mouse user etc… It’s one of the reasons I’ve got misgivings about techno solutions that ‘automagically’ fix inaccessible content. I fear it will be used as a ‘get out of jail free’ card for staff who would prefer to outsource inclusive practice to algorithms rather than actually engage with real but different humans.

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