Digital Access and Equality

Jumpstarting the accessibility conversation between educator and designer.

GUEST COLUMN | by Jennifer Dalsen

CREDIT U Madison School of EducationWe as technological consumers expect access wherever we go. For us, the elusive Wi-Fi signal represents lost productivity and time. This is precisely why technology is so beautiful. We can quickly and efficiently find a solution to the digital hurdles impeding our day. A few clicks. A couple steps to the left. And suddenly, we’re back online. Given this, who would willingly invest in equipment that provides access only some of the time?

This is the very challenge facing nearly 6 million students with disabilities in the United States: children cannot learn when they cannot access material. The ability to operate a computer, browse the internet or press ‘start’ is only half the battle. Equal access to equipment is not the same as equal access to opportunity. Not anymore.

The digital world is big, beautiful and complex space to leverage deep, meaningful opportunities for students. Now, it’s time to make it accessible to all.

Digital access can no longer be a world of haves and have nots. Rather, digital access must consider how technology is designed to help students understand content.

Unfortunately, technology continues to build an invisible wall, reinforcing the age-old barriers of illiteracy, disability, socioeconomic status and resource availability. Brick by brick, pixel by pixel, our approach to addressing this issue is a triaged fix to a long-term problem. More often than not, developed software addresses some of the more prevalent issues to access without realizing that deeper roots of inequity lurk around the corner.

As a result, students with and without disabilities must withstand a vortex of Cr(apps), or mobile applications churned out to appease fleeting consumer demands over practical needs. This has resulted in stagnancy for both application design and support. Further, it widens the ever growing divide between technology and student.

In a recent workshop, I watched as mothers, fathers, grandparents and teachers identified immediate barriers to application access. This ranged anywhere from educational material being incompatible with assistive technologies to unadjustable reading levels and minimal visual depictions. The struggle for access has become second nature to these caregivers and educators because, time and again, they’ve endured this battle alongside their children. Even so, their voices are largely unheard and their technological decisions loaded with a one-sided compromise. Technology evolves, children are pushed from one grade to the next, and accommodations remain the same.

True, more and more devices have accessibility features built into their systems. Every student with an iPad can adjust text size with a simple swipe of the fingertip. However, this assumes the student’s school has iPads, the student has the dexterity to manipulate the screen and that – once having mere access to the content – they can read and understand the material. The sheer definition of what access means in a student’s world is overwhelmingly complex.

The client-centric approach in business and education has brushed over digital access in recent years. Let’s be clear: access is low hanging fruit. The number of students who could benefit from design adjustments at the forefront is innumerable. I therefore present the following recommendations as a starting point to what will and needs to be a long, ongoing discussion among both educator and designer.

  1. Know the disability landscape. This does not only mean the diagnosis, but the students, the teachers and the parents involved.
  2. Understand the law. There are specific legal differences between the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Digital access is explained differently in each of these legal frameworks.
  3. Create networks and partnerships. This is the only way to connect and hear how school districts are tackling access in successful ways.
  4. Make access a priority in design. It’s more likeable, more attractive, and impacts a far wider audience compared to other applications on the market.
  5. it’s time to take a step back and build educational software and devices from the ground up. We can no longer assume what is and what is not accessible for students.
  6. Most importantly, we cannot assume an instant connection between access to equipment and material learned. This is by far the most dangerous expectation to break down.

Technology has transformed the lives of individuals across the globe and is now a common fixture in many classrooms around the country. Moving forward, the expectation of using technology as a tool for learning will only grow. The digital world is big, beautiful and complex space to leverage deep, meaningful opportunities for students. Now, it’s time to make it accessible to all.

Jennifer Dalsen is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education. Her school is host to the annual Games+Learning+Society Conference (GLS) at which Jennifer will be a speaker and panelist. Write to:


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