3 September 2012

#H810 Thinking about Accessibility in Education

Some reflections on the first two chapters of Seale (2006) and the questions in the course text.

Reliable data on the number of learners with disabilities is important to raise awareness with institutions and policy makers on the importance of increasing accessibility of education.  Accurate data make it more difficult to ignore or minimize the challenge.  Officially, 4.5% of the Cambodian population has a disability (UN-SDD, 2010), but given its turbulent past, murderous traffic and high diabetes rate the figure seems an underestimation. Comparing and interpreting disability data is notoriously tricky with various definitions being used. Official percentages vary widely, for example between 1% and 20% in Asia-Pacific.

Again these [percentages of disabled students] figures should be treated with caution. They may reflect an increase in students’ willingness to disclose a disability, changes in the figures in the  general population, changes in support for children in the school system or some other factors. (Seale, 2006, p.10)

from: Disability at a Glance, 2010

Traditional definitions of disability and accessibility focused on the medical diagnosis.  Legal and administrative interpretations are still infused with this approach.  The ICF classification from the WHO, however, integrates more contextual and social elements in its approach to disability.

The WHO argue that their new classification now operates a universal rather than a minority model of disability where everyone may have disability; disability is seen as a continuum rather than dichotomous and is understood as multi-dimensional. This universal model is based on the value of inclusion and rejects the view that disability is a defining feature of a separate minority group of people. (Seale, 2006, p12)

In this approach every learner may have some kind of disability, understood as some limitation of the learner experience. In the Cambodian situation, these may include traumatic experiences, as many families are broken or still face the traumas experienced during the Khmer Rouge regime and its aftermath.  Visual or hearing impairments are often compounded by a lack of affordable glasses or hearing devices.  The social view considers the definition and extent of a disability socially constructed.

Despite legal, pedagogic - a course designed for accessibility benefits all learners - and moral reasons to develop truly inclusive education, disabled learners may often decide not to disclose their disability.  In online learning, the absence of face-to-face contact may increase the barrier.  In Cambodia, culture, religion and poverty all may play a strong role in attitudes toward disability and education, which I want to explore further in this course.

Participants gave a number of practical reasons for why they concealed their impairments:
  • those with invisible disabilities expressed concern that others would not believe that they had a real disability;
  • participants felt that others would see them as less competent;
  • they wished to be viewed as consistent and trustworthy;
  • they worried that others would see them only as needing help rather than as a peer who can give and take in a relationship.  (Seale, 2006, p.16)
Seale argues that disability and accessibility should be treated as social rather than individual problems.  An education system should be flexible enough to cater for a variety of learning needs, rather than redirect learners with disabilities to specialized or medical services.

Accessibility, given this redefinition, is the ability of the learning environment to adjust to the needs of all learners. Accessibility is determined by the flexibility of the education environment (with respect to presentation, control methods, access modality, and learner supports) and the availability of adequate alternative-but-equivalent content and activities. (Seale, 2006, p.19)

This vision may of course clash with economical considerations.  In Cambodia, large parts of the education system are (being) privatized.  Ensuring accessible education requires investments in infrastructure, staff training and school management.  Without sufficient and enforceable legal provisions, they are unlikely to invest in an accessible learning environment.  A magic fairy is an apt imagery here, as paying lip service to an accessible education system is easier than realizing it.

In seeking to develop accessible e-learning practice, we cannot rely on finding ‘magic fairies’ with magic solutions. (Seale, 2006, p.5)

Larry Cuban uses the metaphor of hurricanes on sea to describe educational reform.  Grant policy statements are like giant surface waves.  Education practitioners and scholars point out research findings and bring nuance, like the disturbed waves below the surface.  At the bottom of the sea however, the hurricane above is hardly felt.  This is where teachers daily struggle to cope with the challenges thrown at them and make the best out of it.


Seale, J. (2006) E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice, Abingdon, Routledge, [online] Available from: http://learn2.open.ac.uk/ mod/ subpage/ view.php?id=153062.

United Nations - Social Development Division (SDD) (2010) Disability at a Glance 2010: A Profile of 36 Countries and Areas in Asia and the Pacific, [online] Available from: http://www.unescap.org/publications/detail.asp?id=1407.
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