An increasingly popular method of teaching within Australian universities is causing barriers for students with vision impairments, according to new research.
The report, Online but off-track conducted by Vision Australia and endorsed by Disability Discrimination Commissioner Alastair McEwin has identified online learning environments as a growing concern to people who are blind or have low vision.
The respondents who had studied at 24 of the 39 Australian public universities, also identified issues with lack of understanding and timely support from disability services staff, unwillingness of staff to make changes to course delivery formats and inconsistency in the provision of reasonable adjustments.
General Manager of Government Relations and Advocacy at Vision Australia, Karen Knight is also a postgraduate student who has experienced the accessibility barriers firsthand.
“Recently, I completed a MBA and even though my lecturers were very helpful and happy to support my needs they just didn’t understand accessibility,” she says.
“I had many situations where presentations were provided in PowerPoint which is not accessible and often I would go to class and they would hand out an exercise on a piece of paper expecting I would be able to do it.”
“I also struggled with insufficient lead times to get information in a format workable for me. The production of alternative formats like braille takes time so I always ended up behind right from the outset.”
People who are blind or have low vision are 4.4 times more likely to be unemployed, however, completing tertiary studies has shown positive outcomes to employment.
“In some cases, the barriers faced by students in this study resulted in participants abandoning their studies altogether which is concerning because we know there is a clear connection between tertiary education and employment outcomes.”
Ms Knight says she is not naming or shaming particular universities, rather highlighting the prevalence of these barriers within the university sector in adequately addressing the needs of all students.
“We’re calling on Universities Australia, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency and the Australian Government to remove current accessibility barriers and ensure that future online learning environments do not replicate the mistakes and deficiencies of the past.”
Disability Discrimination Commissioner Alastair McEwin says access to education is a right to every individual and Australian universities have a responsibility to ground their principles on equal access and universal inclusion.
“They [Australian universities] must ensure that everyone has the opportunity to pursue their studies and education goals free from preventable accessibility barriers arising from rapid technological change.”
"While any one university in Australia may have limited ability to achieve improvements to the accessibility of a particular online learning system, the sector, acting as a whole, has a much greater ability to influence change.”
Chief Executive of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, says the peak body will encourage all 39 Australian universities to consider recommendations made within the report, to ensure a more inclusive and accessible learning environments.
“Australian universities will give careful consideration to this report by Vision Australia and the recommendations it makes,” she says.
“In particular, this report will be of interest to Deputy Vice-Chancellors responsible for academic and participation policies in universities, as well as IT directors.”
“All Australian universities offer support services to assist students with specific challenges to access learning and teaching resources and these continue to evolve,” Ms Jackson says.
You can read the full report on Vision Australia’s website, here