The right to education is something we are all familiar with however, for children and young people who are blind or vision impaired, the current education system can present some challenges. These challenges have been detailed by NCBI in a recent report entitled Equitable Education which was launched by Mr John Kearney, CEO of the National Council for Special Education.
The spectrum of vision impairment ranges from total blindness to low vision and the needs of the individuals are within an equally broad spectrum, e.g. nonvisual learning methods to enhancements of vision. The one feature that all students with vision impairment share is the reduced or limited ability to learn incidentally from their environment i.e. learn by watching others do it.
Inclusive education system
This Report, based on the experiences of students who are blind or vision impaired across all levels of the education system and their parents/guardians, outlines a series of key recommendations that would embed a quality, inclusive and equitable education system in line with the States’ own objectives.
Timely and individual based interventions and supports for students with vision impairment can, and often are, one of the most important factors affecting their ability to be independent and active agents in their own learning. Ensuring they are supported to develop the skills they will need into the future to ensure they can achieve their full potential.
Many of the challenges highlighted within the Equitable Education report have been known for quite some time. For example, NCBI have been calling on the Department for Education to ensure students have access to accessible books from the start of term for over a decade. Yet, in 2022, we are still aware of students being without books in January when they should have had them from September.
Additionally, students have been provided with assistive technology that does not suit them or that they don’t know how to use due to lack of training.
When students transition from primary to post-primary, they are often faced with additional challenges because they have not developed the skills they need to support them to learn independently such as touch typing skills.
Goodwill of staff
Those working within the education sector were often named by the students and their parents as going above and beyond to support children and young people to achieve their potential however, the goodwill of those staff should not be the basis of a system to support students with sight loss to succeed in their in own learning.
The Visiting Teachers are a vital support for students, families and teachers but their time is limited and they are required to provide such a wide range of support when there are organisations such as NCBI who can and do provide many of the non-academic supports but are not recognised as a service provider by the State.
In today’s society, technology plays a central role in the delivery of and access to education. This is particularly true for students living with sight loss as they use assistive technology to engage with information and interact with websites and apps independently.
However, for that student to engage with digital platforms, they must be fully accessible.
Vital role of technology
NCBI recognises the vital role that technology plays in supporting people with sight loss in all walks of life. As a result, NCBI founded IA Labs which offers support and services to organisations to ensure that they are compliant with the WCAG 2.1 standards, which is mandatory for Mobile Applications and Websites under EU and Irish legislation since 2020.
Despite the robust legislation nationally and across the EU to ensure digital accessibility for people with disabilities, when IA Labs launched the Digital Accessibility Index in 2022, none of the education sector websites audited by IA Labs were compliant with the legislation. The Department of Education and the Department of Further and Higher Education are placing the responsibility on the schools and education providers without offering appropriate training or resources.
The IA Labs Digital Accessibility Index audited 28 websites from Ireland’s leading universities, private and public secondary schools and each failed the IA Labs digital accessibility tests. On average there were 32.8 issues on each website including:
• Videos without captions, and no text alternative
• Navigation menu inaccessible using keyboard
• No ‘skip to content’ links
• Low colour-contrast ratio
• Issues when the zoom is at 200%
• Carousels that move automatically or are skipped in reading order
• Images without descriptive alt text, or with no alt text.
While technology is recognised as a key enabler for people with sight loss to access information, if the websites or applications are not accessible, access and engagement is limited.
Inaccessible websites and applications result in students who are blind and vision impaired being excluded from accessing key information about education. This can impact their ability to make informed decisions and can also result in challenges to their learning and development which can impact future opportunities.
It is clear that there have been legislative changes aimed at improving the overall educational experience of children and young people who are blind or vision impaired but there is yet more work required to ensure the aspirations of these policies become the real life experience of students with sight loss in Ireland.
For more information about NCBI and our services, please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1800 911 250. If you wish to learn how to make your websites accessible please contact http://www.ialabs.ie.