Accessible and Inclusive Remote Education During and Post COVID-19

By Carrie Motamedi, posted on

Brad Turner, Benetech VP and GM, Global Literacy, recently presented at Access Israel’s 4th Annual International Webinar, which attracted over 600 participants from 72 countries, to discuss challenges, policies and best practices regarding accessibility. Brad explained how Benetech’s Bookshare platform is utilizing AI techniques, including machine learning, computer vision, and neural networks, to transform science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) content into accessible formats and improve education for the millions of people with reading barriers around the world.

Below is a recap of the event by Debra Ruh, CEO and Founder of Ruh Global IMPACT, who chaired and moderated the Global Technologies session, and Nabil Eid, CIO, Ruh Global IMPACT. Thank you to Yuval Wagner, Founder and Chairman of Access Israel and Debra Ruh for hosting Benetech as part of this important conversation.

What if the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity to rethink how emergency education planning can be inclusive of learners with disabilities? Doesn’t this global crisis present a unique opportunity to rethink the need for accessible and inclusive education? What are the ways we can move the post-COVID-19 agenda forward to make education truly disability-inclusive?

These questions and more were answered during Access Israel’s 4th Annual International Webinar on September 8. The webinar featured 23 presenters who highlighted the new accessibility challenges countries are facing following the COVID-19 crisis along with best practices, models, programs, and technologies from around the world.

The panelists highlighted the trends, challenges, and solutions to ensure that all learners– especially students with learning differences or disabilities who are disproportionately impacted — have equal access to education.

Ministries of Education Discuss Challenges and Solutions

Special education experts from various ministries of education agreed that there are many challenges. For example, school systems experience a significant financial burden when switching to a remote learning model and must provide devices, support student access to broadband, devise online curricula, train teachers on new technologies, and cut budgets.

Recognizing that many remote learning solutions that schools have implemented have been conducted on private platforms, the experts posed the question of how schools can build systems that will allow education to exist in a public, democratically controlled sphere. They pointed out that education has been undervalued and must be prioritized and supported with changed policies and budgets.

Global Tech Companies Weigh In

Experts from technology companies discussed the opportunities to address some of the largest inequalities and challenges by using innovation, creativity, and a focus on what works. They also discussed how these technologies enable accessibility, what the companies learned, and what they have planned for the upcoming year. Open source solutions and industry efforts that are “born accessible” put inclusion first, start with the hardest-to-reach learners, and can scale with impact to meet the needs of all.

The lack of accessibility features in many technologies has excluded learners with disabilities from contingency programs such as those implemented during the COVID-19 crisis. Innovative accessibility and assistive technology solutions use computers, tablets, and mobile phones to provide online learning portals and virtual lessons. Enhancing these platforms with accessibility features is critical to ensuring the continuity of instruction for all learners, particularly those with disabilities.

Experts Share Best Practices

Discussions from teachers, organizations, and experts from around the world focused on ways to support accessible and inclusive education, and the panel of experts provided a brief overview of the laws protecting students with disabilities during the crisis. They then discussed the challenges and barriers homeschooling and other educational models raise for learners with disabilities and educators and recommended strategies for moving forward.

Build digital inclusion from the beginning, they encouraged, instead of tacking it on at a later point; consider universal design principles and use human supports and training for inclusive digital instruction. They also discussed the need to prioritize education and education funding at local and national levels and the importance of accessibility and accommodations in distance education.

Refugee Learners Under the Microscope

Under the title of “Education for all and closing the education gap,” Debra Ruh highlighted the educational needs of refugees with disabilities through the status of refugees and migrants with disabilities, and she emphasized that education is the key to the future. She noted international conventions acknowledge the rights of refugees and people with disabilities to access quality education.

COVID-19 impact on education is harshest for groups that are already in vulnerable situations such as refugees, and she urged governments to fast-track the inclusion of refugees in their COVID-19 responses. The presentation ended with a call to action to identify opportunities and coordinate action for the inclusion of refugees with disabilities in education systems.

Final Thoughts

COVID-19 is forcing us to rethink remote learning with an inclusive lens, where every student, whether they have a disability or not, can access and participate in learning that takes place away from the classroom. With COVID-related school closures, many countries have turned to online instruction to ensure continuity of learning. However, the focus on online learning means that many learners with disabilities are left behind.

Ensuring that all learners with disabilities continue to receive quality education requires urgent actions that consider their specific needs for accessible, adapted, and individualized learning plans. Blended approaches that combine lower tech or no tech solutions, captioning, and sign language options and integrated remedial classes can better support those who have been excluded from home-based learning and ensure that social and emotional needs are met.

Learn more about Benetech’s commitment to inclusive STEM education.

Thank you to Google, AbleDocs, the U.S Embassy in Israel, A-Z, and the Hadesk who sponsored the event. Thank you to Language People for the sign language interpretation and to Verbit for providing the captioning.