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The Higher Education Academy

Technology as a primary tool for disabled university students

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There are over 11 million people with a limiting long-term illness, impairment or disability in the UK. Many of them are using educational resources and completing university courses.

It is here, in the place where educational resources and students with disabilities intersect, that technology has a vital role to play. Technology could operate as the great equaliser. It could – and indeed, it should – help move all students towards a level playing field. This is particularly true in when it comes to learning resources, and specifically textbooks.

Textbooks are core to the university learning experience, yet for students with disabilities, particularly those with visual impairments, they can be a challenge. Static print sizes, outdated tools to translate print to speech, and complicated page layout and design can make it harder for those with a disability.

A total of 19.2% of working-age disabled people do not hold any formal qualification.Technology can change things. One area in which this is true is e-textbooks, the digital representation of a print text. In the shift from print textbooks to e-textbooks, accessibility can be moved to another level. Suddenly text isn´t an unchangeable object; it can be scaled up or down depending on the student´s needs. Images can be read aloud through tagging tools.

Through technology, learning is becoming increasingly flexible. It can move outside the lecture hall, on to podcasts, and across devices, becoming available anywhere and at any time. The Higher Education Academy noted that students with disabilities have a need for flexibility. Technology can help provide this. Students no longer have to carry around heavy textbooks. Nor do they have to go physically to the library or bookshop to access learning materials.

Today´s students are paying more than ever for a university education. It is also turning students into "university consumers", who expect more resources for their increased fees.

While technological advances have been happening, there is still more to be done. Universities, companies, and e-textbook providers need to emphasise low-barrier, commercial alternatives for all higher education accessibility needs. They need to aim to provide industry-leading access to all subject areas, including Stem subjects.

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