Inclusive and assistive technologies: a life-changer for learners with disabilities

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This blog was originally posted on World Education Blog, by GEM Report, on March, 25, 2024

Thirty years ago, the Statement at the World Conference on Special Needs in Education in Salamanca, made a strong and clear case for inclusive education by arguing that: ‘[Those] with special educational needs must have access to regular schools’, albeit with the proviso ‘unless there are compelling reasons for doing otherwise’. UNESCO is celebrating the anniversary of the Salamanca Statement this month with a high-level event where policy-makers and experts were invited to reflect on the progress that has been achieved in making education truly inclusive in the last decades and the challenges that remain ahead. This blog looks at the undeniable step forward thanks to technology, an issue that was widely covered in the 2023 GEM Report and in a new advocacy brief out today.


People with disabilities face some of the most significant barriers in accessing quality education

While data on this issue is rare, working from the latest MICS survey by UNICEF, and displayed on the WIDE database we can see that children with at least one sensory, physical, or intellectual difficulty are 7 percentage points less likely than the average child to complete primary school: with a gap of 10 percentage points in Zimbabwe and 14 percentage points in Iraq. These gaps may be underestimated, as poorer families are less likely to report that they have a child with disability.

Technology is not a magic bullet for overcoming the challenges faced by children with disabilities.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated exclusion for many marginalized learners, for instance, in the shift to online-learning. Learners with disabilities found that remote learning modalities were not adequately prepared for sign language interpretation, closed captioning, or Braille, among other issues. Technology provision without appropriate teacher training can also result in ineffective use or inappropriate selection of technologies for specific children.

In addition, while assistive devices have offered a lifeline to many learners with a disability, many challenges remain, mainly around their availability, their adaptability, the lack of specialized teacher training and the stigma that remains attached to using assistive technologies.

Not all technologies are applicable for students with the same type of disability

One of the reasons that children with disabilities may not stay in school is that their learning needs are not met. This is where technology can help. With the support of digital devices, information can be represented in multiple different ways, facilitating personalized learning, developing leaners’ independence, agency, and promoting social inclusion. Assistive and accessible technologies can be individualized to students’ specific learning needs and can cater for students with different types of disabilities.

Accessible technologies have advantages over assistive technology, including easier availability, reduced costs, device familiarity and reduced stigma. They allow learners with disabilities to use the same technologies as other students, allowing assistive technology to play a complementary role. 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, stating that it was important for them to use devices that are widely adopted by the general public and address a range of user abilities and needs.


Inclusive technologies support accessibility for students with disabilities

Six key advantages should be built upon as we look to improve inclusion through technology. It:

  • Improves literacy and numeracy skills for learners with different types of disabilities. A global, systematic review for children with Down syndrome found that assistive technology can help the development of numeracy, speech, language, memory, and social skills. In the United States, deaf preschoolers who use sign language were also found to develop significant early reading skills when using shared interactive storybooks with sign language videos. Here again, however, the importance of a human face to the support is important: while subtitles and closed captions for videos can greatly help these students access auditory content, they do not replace the need to learn and communicate directly using sign languages with peers and trained professionals who are fluent in sign language.
  • Adapts and makes content more accessible, including textbooks and learning materials. Digitizing textbooks can make them more accessible. Over 92 countries have ratified the 2013 Marrakech Treaty, which requires parties to set exceptions to copyright rules allowing the reproduction and distribution of published works in accessible formats for people who are blind, visually impaired, or otherwise print-disabled.
  • Improves access to education. Accessible technology, such as smartphones and tablets, tends to be more easily available to countries compared to assistive devices, and can be particularly important in low-resource settings. A study on the impact of tablets found that they not only provided access to higher education for students with visual impairment comparable to that of their fully sighted peers, they also provided students with the opportunity to create a community of practice and participate in everyday life. An example of a university building on this advantage is the Open University in the United Kingdom, which delivers education mainly through print, audiovisual and online formats. Almost a fifth of its students are people with disabilities – the largest provider of higher education for people with disabilities in Europe.
  • Lessens learner dependence on teachers. In a study in the United Republic of Tanzania, technology mostly increased students’ self-confidence and independence (52%). In Kenya, tablets with screen reader and keyboards enabled blind students to autonomously access university material.
  • Improves academic engagement, 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, psychological well-being and social participation.
  • Facilitates universal design for the assessment of learners with disabilities or learning difficulties. In France, a computer-based reading assessment tool helped group grade 2 to 9 readers by type of reading difficulty. The tool distinguished children with hyperlexia and children with low decoding skills, for which different remediation strategies are needed.

New advocacy brief calls for all technologies to follow universal design principles.

new advocacy brief on learners with disability and technology based on the findings of the 2023 GEM Report Technology in education: A tool on whose terms? has been prepared calling for policy-makers to ensure that products, environments, programmes and services follow Universal Design principles. A mix of accessible technology and assistive devices founded on the principles of Universal Design can help learners with disabilities better integrate within ‘mainstream’ education settings.

It been endorsed by Light for the World, Inclusion International, CBM, Humanity & Inclusion and Asociación Azul.

Building on the recommendations of the 2023 GEM Report, the advocacy brief calls for policy-makers to look:

  1. Down at where we are. Is technology appropriate for our context, and learning needs?
  2. Back at those left behind: Are we focused on the marginalized?
  3. Up: Are our choices scalable; do we have the evidence and transparency of full costs to make informed decisions?
  4. Forwards: Do our plans fit our vision for sustainable development?

Download the paper.

Key Area
assistive technologies


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