In my spare time, I was reading an article written by Sheryl Burgstahler, a university professor at the University of Washington. He mentioned his first time teaching an online course was in 1995, with blind co-instructor Dr. Norm Coombs by his side. Unlike those around them, they designed the course to be accessible to anyone and every student - those who were blind, deaf, or had any disability, you name it. When asked by those around them which students had disabilities, these two bright-minded professors proudly claimed that they did not know who had a disability, nor believed it was necessary to point fingers, because their course and all teaching materials were accessible to everyone.
No student is an outlier to proper education, and no student is left behind - all because these professors made things accessible.
That is what every education platform needs, and that is what our team at BIBC is striving for.
So HOW is our team hoping to lead BIBC along the path of accessibility and inclusion?
Although many businesses similar to BIBC hope to become more accessible, it is not as easy as it sounds. With each student comes a different type of disability and barrier that needs accommodating.
In order to determine how BIBC would become more accessible, our team took a look at multiple personas that BIBC will most likely target.
Evan was diagnosed with ADHD, also known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, at a fairly young age. Although it is not considered to be severe, it still affects his ability to pay attention and focus on teaching material. Long, small font based texts are especially difficult to read.
Emily was diagnosed as blind due to a genetic condition that only arose during her late adolescent years. She has already learned to read braille, and has become accustomed to this different lifestyle. Nevertheless, she still has immense difficulty getting around the internet and relies on audio plus screen readers.
Skyler is an international student who recently came to Canada. Although they learned a bit of English back in their home country, they still have an immense amount of difficulty reading and understanding. With many resources here being in English, they have a hard time navigating and learning new educational material both in school and online.
Jamal is deaf due to head trauma in his childhood years, and although he has a hearing aid, he still has much trouble hearing. He can however, read and speak sign language, especially ASL (American Sign Language) quite fluently.
Evan, Emily, Skyler, and Jamal all have unique and extremely different barriers to learning, with each one causing them to struggle to learn both in-person and online. In order to ensure that they do not continue to experience said struggle with educational material, BIBC has a wide variety of strategies which we hope to implement.
Firstly, to increase accessibility to students like Evan who have difficulty focusing on a single task and sitting in one place, all text and course materials will be concise, simple, put in bullet point format when necessary, and larger in order to grasp students' attention. Any assignments and tests will continue to have due dates, however, students can request to have extensions in order to create a comfortable, relaxing, and less stressful atmosphere.
Additionally, for students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, audio lectures and podcasts will cover all written content.
For students such as Emily who are visually impaired or blind, audio lectures will be provided for all course material. Additionally, downloadable screen readers plus speech synthesizers will be available for students to download if required. In regards to assignments, if students do not wish to do them online, assignments in braille will be mailed to students homes.
In regards to students such as Skyler, where English is not their first language, there will be translated versions of the content and material available. Languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, French, Spanish, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Japanese, and Hindi will be available to students. Surveys with questions regarding which languages they would like to have as an option will also be posted for students and parents to fill out. This information will then be gathered by the BIBC team to determine what the majority of students speak, and which languages to implement as an option for translation.
Furthermore, for students such as Jamal with impaired hearing or are deaf, all videos will have captions to ensure they have access and can understand the material the same as others. As well, sign language translators will be available and accompany lectures plus any audio. This will provide those who have impaired hearing multiple options on how to learn.
Alongside making things more accessible for students with disabilities and barriers, one other extremely important area that BIBC and any educational platform should accommodate for is mental health. No matter what disability or barrier a student may have, everyone is prone to stress and feeling mentally drained. In order to ensure that students feel comfortable while learning, BIBC can partner with counseling groups and therapists who can interact with students in real-time video calls (i.e. BIBC can partner with Zoom or Cisco Webex Meetings, etc) that are strictly confidential between the student and the therapist. Additionally, BIBC can recommend and post stress-relieving methods daily for students to follow in order to reduce stress and other mental health disorders from getting in between their learning. Whether this be featuring motivational/uplifting quote to make students to positively believe in themselves and to handle adversity well, posting different tips and techniques, or more, acknowledging and taking steps to create a healthy, stress-free environment for students will help their learning immensely.
Here are a few testimonials from our personas which demonstrate that the strategies listed are effective and successful:
"I've always had a lot of trouble when it came to learning new school material, especially when COVID-19 caused schools to go online - but when I came across BIBC, everything changed! They have so many accessible features to help me even though I'm blind. From audio, sending me braille assignments, and even having screen reader apps for me to download, I really could not ask for more! I'm so glad that I joined BIBC, as it has made my learning experience so much easier than before!" - Emily
"I was a little reluctant to sign up for BIBC's program at first. Having had ADHD and dyslexia all my life has made learning really difficult. However, I was greatly surprised by how easy it was to read and learn all the course material! Everything is short, sweet, and extremely concise. As well, the font is very large and there are lots of videos to keep things interesting! I'm definitely going to suggest to my friends to take courses at BIBC." - Evan
As I worked on expanding BIBC’s online platform and thinking of new solutions to create accessibility plus inclusion, I came to realize a lot of things. As someone with loving parents who immigrated to a whole new country just to ensure I grew up safe, provided me with any opportunities that came their way, and ensured that I had the proper resources and technology to thrive, I have never truly experienced the struggle that many people with disabilities or barriers face today. Since kindergarten, my education and learning has always been smooth sailing. I had nothing that made learning difficult, and so the years worth of education flew by in a breeze.
However, within the recent years, I became friends with someone who has ADHD. As I got closer and closer to them, I started to notice their struggle while learning. Wherever they went, whether it be in school or out, people would look at them differently, exclude them from participating in activities, and did not know how to communicate with my friend. COVID-19 and the pandemic hit my friend especially hard. As courses started transitioning online, there was an extreme lack of accessibility for those with disabilities. Long PDFs were sent to students like him and teachers would post lengthy paragraphs, all of which only heightened their ADHD and caused him to have difficulty following what was being taught. As I saw my friend struggle, I came to realize the privilege that I have, thus flaming the fire and passion in me in wanting to ensure that the future works towards making things more accessible and inclusive for those who need it.
According to WHO, over 2 billion people have some form of disability or barrier to learning - and yet, even though over 37% of the world contributes to such a percentage, accessibility and inclusion for the disabled are still scarce.
This needs to change.
So how can YOU continue to demonstrate inclusion and embrace accessibility for students with disabilities in the upcoming new school year?
1. Listen, Ask, & Reflect
First of all, listen. It is important to listen to other people's stories, and hear what they have to say. By listening to others, you can then learn about their disabilities and how they wish to be treated. As well, when you have questions or are unsure of specific information regarding those with disabilities, do not be afraid to ask. It is good to educate yourself so in the future you know what is right and wrong.
2. Rid Yourself of Unconscious Bias
More often than not, people tend to have some form of unconscious bias towards specific people. Whether someone has an unconsciously negative perspective of a certain race, gender, or even disability, these biases causes oneself to treat others differently. When you're talking to someone, take a moment to think - are you unconsciously treating them in a different light? If so, try to change these bad habits and bad mindsets.
3. Use Inclusive Language
It is important to be aware of the language you use around others. Sometimes, even if your intentions are good, the words you use to communicate may come off differently and can be easily misconstrued. Whether this be changing "Hi guys" to "Hi everyone," or using the appropriate pronouns, by using more inclusive language, it makes everyone feel a little more comfortable and welcomed.
4. Challenge Stereotypes
There are many people who may quickly categorize people in a certain box. Whether this be stereotyping those with ADHD, those with a physical disability, and much more, many people tend to stereotype without realizing the harm that it is doing. When you see or hear someone stereotyping and spreading false information, call them out. Do not be afraid to challenge these stereotypes and correct others when necessary.