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What do we mean by ‘accessibility’?

'What is accessibility?' This article explains what we mean by 'accessibility' and why it should be an important consideration for everyone.
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© University of York

Defining ‘accessibility’

This activity explores the topic of ‘accessibility’ within a wider context of inclusion in higher education. We will discuss topics including the links between accessibility and inclusivity, the concept of universal design and offer some tips on how you, as a student, can create accessible documents during and beyond your time in higher education.

Please note that throughout this article, and in other steps, we will be using the term ‘disabled students’. However, we recognise that for some, person-first language (i.e., students with disabilities) is preferred.

To start off with, what do we mean by ‘accessibility’? According to the University of York EDI Glossary, accessibility ‘refers to the extent to which a service or facility is readily approachable and usable by disabled individuals, such as self-opening doors, elevators for upper levels, or raised lettering on signs’. This can also apply to learning and teaching materials within higher education.

It is also important to note, however, that whilst the above definition refers directly to ‘disabled individuals’, the concept of accessibility can also be used in a wider context outside of disability in the sense that accessibility means ‘the extent to which a service, facility or resource is approachable and usable to all users’, and this can also be referring, for example, to users of different comprehension and skill levels. Inclusive practice means that the whole learning experience is accessible. It removes barriers and anticipates and considers a variety of learning needs and preferences, benefitting all students.

Within higher education, and indeed learning environments more generally, if a student or group of students cannot access learning spaces, support or resources to the same extent as those around them, how can they be expected to achieve the same academic and learning outcomes? The basis of education lies in the dissemination and comprehension of knowledge, however if the tools or means for disseminating that knowledge are not accessible for all students then the same level of education, and thus educational experience and outcomes, is simply unachievable and this cannot be considered truly inclusive.

Here, we can see why accessibility is so important, particularly when thinking about wider inclusion at a higher educational level: whilst inclusive learning does go beyond providing means of accessibility, accessibility is the first step.

Who is accessibility for?

Accessibility of teaching, learning and resources, can benefit everyone and offers all students the opportunity to succeed, and should reduce the need for reasonable adjustments for individual students. For example, building in choice and flexibility allows people to customise their experience to allow them to maximise their engagement. Meeting an individual’s access requirements does more than just allow them to participate equitably, it demonstrates that they are wanted and valued.

Many people face obstacles and barriers to genuine inclusion. The requirement for individuals to self-advocate for access is exhausting, exclusionary, and potentially risky. Ensuring environments are accessible is a necessary and important step in addressing historic and systemic exclusion and inequalities.

What do we mean by accessible environments? We need to be reflecting on the accessibility of physical, online and hybrid spaces. We also need to go further than environments and consider whether the pedagogies, communication styles, resources and curricula we choose and develop are accessible and inclusive.

When considering online accessibility, this should also concern the physical environment and circumstances of the individuals accessing that online space. Does everyone have the required digital skills, connectivity and hardware required for learning and collaborating using your online environment? Equally, when we are considering the accessibility of physical spaces it is also important to include the attitudes and behaviours of those present. Are individual access needs met as a priority, enthusiastically and promptly?

Accessibility goes further than enriching user experiences, it can mean the difference between whether or not many people can access the space/resource or not. Approximately 30% of the UK report a long term condition and the majority are invisible (The Kings Fund Report, 2012). We can not tell by looking at people whether or not they will have individual access needs.

In summary, accessibility is important for everyone and is a huge part of achieving an inclusive learning environment and experience – it is crucial in ensuring all students can achieve the same outcomes during their time in higher education. The main two aspects of accessibility that we will explore during this course are those of ‘physical accessibility’ and ‘digital accessibility’. In later steps we will provide you with some practical guidance on how to ensure the spaces you are using and promoting during your time in higher education are accessible. This activity delves into the importance and complexities of ‘digital accessibility’.

Digital accessibility: The extent to which online or digital resources (e.g., webpages, documents, apps) are usable and practical for all users.

© University of York
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