How assistive tech can boost accessibility and inclusivity in higher education

Assistive technology can enhance the student experience and help those working with new languages as well as levelling the playing field for those with disability or lack of access, says doctor and entrepreneur, Richard Purcell

‘Assistive technology’ is the term used to describe devices and tools used to increase, maintain, or improve the capabilities of people with disability. This covers everything from low-tech tools, like pencil grips, to more high-tech tools, like speech-to-text.  

That being said, assistive technology is not only useful for those with a disability. Assistive tech can also be an essential aid for people with neurodiverse traits that may affect working memory, concentration, and writing speed.

It can even be used by those who are learning an additional language, or as a productivity tool to enhance a student’s learning experience and educational performance. For example, there are more than 100 studies which say that adding captions (i.e., same-language written translations) to video improves viewers’ understanding of what they see. 

Why do we need assistive tech? 

Around one billion people currently need assistive products, and more than two billion people around the world are expected to need at least one assistive product by 2030, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Up until now, the disabled population has been absent from discussions on education and the practices used to deliver education, resulting in a huge gap. Assistive technology helps to bridge that gap. It reduces the need for formal health and support services, long-term care and the work of caregivers, according to the WHO. Without assistive technology, people are often excluded, isolated, and locked into poverty, thereby increasing the impact of disease and disability on a person, their family, and society. 

For people without disability, technology makes things easier. For people with disabilities, technology makes things possible.’ (From a 1991 IBM training programme.) 

Diversity and inclusion 

Ultimately, assistive technology can be used to level the playing field in higher education, allowing all students, no matter their ability, background, or learning style to thrive and get the most from their educational experience.

It can enable students to take control of their own learning and gain independence in their education. While students with additional needs are often perceived to be at a disadvantage, assistive technology enables them to reach their full potential, thus aiding diversity and inclusion in university settings. 

The more diverse and inclusive environments such as universities, workplaces and governments are, the more society can be pushed towards thinking about issues that might otherwise be overlooked, such as accessibility. Diversity and inclusion drive innovation and create a better world for us all.

What kinds of assistive tech can be used? 

Innovation and progress within assistive tech is happening every day. Just this March, for the first time ever, a project led by the University of Tübingen in Germany has helped a person with motor neurone disease to express himself in full sentences using a new technology that can read his thoughts.

Assistive technologies currently include, but are not limited to, the following. However, please note that new assistive tech is being produced and improved all the time: 

  • Text-to-speech / Speech-to-text 
  • Adjustable monitor arms 
  • Reading pens 
  • Alternative keyboards 
  • Voice recognition 
  • Digital recorders 
  • iPads and tablets 
  • Visual aids, graphic and drawing tools 
  • Electronic spellcheckers 
  • Word prediction software 
  • Visual search engines 
  • Literacy specific software 
  • Educational software 
  • Electronic resources and books 

What are the barriers to assistive tech?  

Almost one billion children and adults with disabilities, and older people, are unable to access the assistive technology they need, according to a 2022 report from the WHO and UNICEF. 

There are a range of barriers to assistive tech in higher education including: 

  • Lack of appropriate staff training and support 
  • Negative staff attitudes 
  • Inadequate assessment and planning processes 
  • Insufficient funding 
  • Difficulties procuring and managing equipment 
  • Time constraints  

These barriers can’t all be overcome at once but acknowledging that they exist and making sure that conversations are being had and action is being taken will ensure we are making the correct steps towards providing assistive technology to those who need it most.  

In the UK, the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) can sometimes be used to cover the study-related costs, such as the cost of assistive tech, you have because of a mental health problem, long-term illness or other disability.

Assistive technology can help to remove the barrier people face in their day-to-day lives. It levels the playing field and allows all students to have access to the same experiences and learning environments. It’s important to remember that all students benefit from a more inclusive environment, and we, as a wider society, all benefit from a more inclusive educational system.  

Richard Purcell is an NHS doctor and entrepreneur, working to develop innovative assistive technologies designed to promote and enable diversity and inclusion in education and the workplace. Richard has established and grown two successful technology companies, Medincle and CareScribe. 

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