Technology in education should comply with global accessibility standards

We always hope technology will solve all of our problems, Sue Swenson, President of Inclusion International said at the start of our joint event on technology and disability today, but the ensuing conversation left no doubts that there remain challenges to making sure that it is available, accessible, adaptable and acceptable for learners.

Children with at least one sensory, physical, or intellectual difficulty are 7 percentage points less likely than the average child to complete primary school our latest 2023 GEM Report showed.

Technology can help overcome some of these barriers by providing multiple ways of representing information, expressing knowledge, and engaging in learning. In fact, it could be said that if there is one area where technology has really transformed education, this is the education of learners with disabilities.

Digitized textbooks, for instance, are more accessible, as promoted by the 2013 Marrakech Treaty, which calls for all published works to be in accessible formats for people who are print-disabled. The GEM Report has been produced in an accessible version for a number of years now, along with a Braille version as well.

Access is now steadily improving for those with visual impairments thanks to screen readers on tablets or mobile phones. According to a study of visually impaired adults, 87% indicated that accessible technology devices, including smartphones and tablets, were replacing traditional assistive tools most or all of the time.

Even just the fact of providing education online can meet the needs of people otherwise excluded from education. In the United Kingdom, the Open University, which delivers education mainly through print, audiovisual and online formats, and is the largest provider of higher education for people with disabilities in Europe. The percentage of students with a disability increased from 3% in 2011 to 18% in 2020.

The ability to personalize learning with technology makes it more relevant for students with different learning needs, and helps lessen learner dependence on teachers. Deaf students can be supported in gaining early reading skills with the help of sign language videos, for instance, while students with Down Syndrome have been found to use assistive technology to develop their speech, language, memory and social skills.

Technology can support learners’ social participation and well being. A systematic review of assistive technologies and devices used by students with disabilities in higher education in 10 countries, including Israel, Kenya and Türkiye, reported significant positive impacts in academic engagement, well-being and social participation. Using accessible tools also has the benefit of allowing learners with disabilities to better integrate within ‘mainstream’ education settings, as has been seen in Singapore.

As this table shows, technologies cater for students’ specific learning needs.


There are four key challenges in making technology a lifeline for learners with disabilities:

1. Availability and accessibility: The availability of assistive technology varies greatly both between and within countries. In Australia, assistive technologies are available for English speakers but not in Aboriginal languages, for instance. In Malawi, only 6% of the 57% of persons with disabilities who needed assistive technology were able to receive it. Availability is also a challenge for teachers with disabilities. Low-resource settings also face significant challenges in providing assistive technology and may find accessible technology, such as smartphones and tablets, more easily available.

2. Adaptability: The pandemic disproportionately excluded learners with disabilities because remote learning modalities were not adequately prepared for sign language interpretation, closed captioning, or Braille, among other issues. A global online survey of parents and caregivers found that only 12% of students with visual impairments had access to Braille materials and only 10% of deaf learners had access to transcripts of audio services. A global online survey showed that only 19% of teachers who had learners with a disability reported that their students continued learning during school closures, and only 16% said they had the support needed to continue helping these students.

3. Acceptability: Although devices are designed to increase human function and learning, they can make disabilities more visible and reinforce negative attitudes. Stigma can be reduced by using designs that are small, attractive and similar to general-purpose devices, which do not match the stereotypes of the appearance of assistive technology. Aesthetics improved the use of assistive devices among students in Europe.

4. Quality: The more specialized the device, the greater the need for specialized training for teachers to use it effectively in the learning environment. But teachers often lack specialized training. In Saudi Arabia, 54% of special education needs teachers had only basic knowledge of using assistive technologies, while 28% received no training in implementing such technologies, and 10% had no knowledge at all on using them.

Challenges were exacerbated during the pandemic but some solutions were found

The pandemic disproportionately excluded learners with disabilities. However, the following three country examples show what success looks like on this front:

France provided special needs coordinators, medical professionals and social care staff, as well as the provision of adaptive and accessible learning resources to meet the needs of students with disabilities and factored them into the design of the national online learning platform, Ma classe à la maison (My class at home).

In the Republic of Korea, all students with disabilities were individually assessed before school closures. Customized learning was provided accordingly, and home visits carried out. Almost all students with special needs and disabilities participated in the distance learning programme during school closures, with a 81% student satisfaction rate.

During school closures in South Sudan, multigrade radio programmes were designed to include refugee learners, teachers provided targeted support to learners with disabilities through home visits. Learners without access to radios were supported through the distribution of 5,000 solar-powered radios. More than 10,000 out-of-school children re-entered school through the provision of radios and the radio programme.

All technologies should follow universal design

The 2023 Global Education Monitoring Report offers a reminder that, as much technology was not designed for education, its suitability and value need to be proven in relation to a human-centred vision of education. Societies should aim to ensure that products, environments, programmes and services follow universal design principles ‘to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design’ as outlined in the 2006 UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This concept was extended to curriculum design: the Universal Design for Learning is ‘a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn’.

A mix of accessible technology and assistive devices in a classroom founded on the principles of Universal Design for Learning enhances all students’ potential.


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