The Importance of Accessible Learning Materials
Twenty-one percent of young people worldwide are not in school, training programs, or employed, according to the U.S. Government Strategy for International Basic Education. Today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders, and they must have access to education. Educational institutions need to meet students’ varied needs by providing a lot of ways to access information.
Teachers need to have information available in alternative formats, include diverse classroom exercises, and let students show their knowledge in different ways. All literacy should be age-appropriate, interesting, of high quality, and meet students’ individual needs.
People with disabilities are routinely marginalized in society due to negative perceptions and attitudes. This begins at an early age. The way education systems are designed and operated creates learning barriers for an estimated 93 to 150 million children with disabilities around the world. When denied an education at a young age, they are not given the same opportunities to acquire basic reading, writing, and math skills, which are critical for future success. This delays the development of marketable skills or an opportunity to pursue further education.
When people with disabilities are given a robust education from an early age and included in workforce systems, countries have the potential to earn billions of dollars more each year. One of the four key principles for inclusive education is offering equitable access to learning opportunities. To help meet this challenge, the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a useful educational framework that helps develop flexible learning environments. The UDL approach can create a learning environment meeting all students’ needs. This includes students with and without disabilities in a variety of contexts, such as those living in fragile and crisis-affected areas.
USAID and its partners used this framework to inform the Universal Design for Learning to Help All Children Read toolkit, which specifically addresses developing literacy skills. Aligned with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, this toolkit offers guidance on accessibility of learning materials.
Adapting eBooks for Accessibility Across Open Publishing Platforms in Africa
Part of a Holistic Education
While access to appropriate materials is extremely important for all students, it is particularly important for students with disabilities. However, this is only one part of a larger, holistic model essential for an inclusive education system. Other essential components include trained teachers and staff, targeted instructional support, strategic plans for inclusion, safe learning spaces, and other support systems.
Types of Materials
All children require different types of materials. Children with disabilities may have more specific needs. The types of materials needed to create an inclusive atmosphere include:
Textbooks need to be available in many formats, like braille, large print, sign language, and audiobooks. UDL principles encourage teachers to convey information in a variety of ways for different types of students, like with a mix of text, supporting graphics, and pictures. The material should support learning and not close certain students off from necessary information. For example, book illustrations can reinforce content explained in text but shouldn’t introduce new concepts because they aren’t accessible in all formats, such as audiobooks or in braille.
Technology is an integral part of supporting classroom learning. It incorporates interactive learning and motivates people to participate in lessons. For students with disabilities, it provides information in a variety of different formats, like through audio and video. They need access to a variety of assistive technology to build their literacy skills. Additionally, students should have routine and consistent access to assistive technology at home. This reinforces learning and helps them complete homework. Assistive technology must be coupled with trained teachers to be effective.
- Other Materials
Because students learn in a variety of ways, they may need additional materials. For example, alphabet blocks, manipulatives, and reading-related games may enhance student learning.
Specific Material Needs
The UDL framework helps ensure all students have the opportunity to learn. Yet, the UDL framework requires time to build up in the countries where we work. In the meantime, here are some accessible materials that a certain group of disability benefits from the most. Note that accessible materials can be used creatively with all other students as well:
- Blind / low vision: For reading, these students need text in braille, large print, or both to understand spelling, grammar, and how text is formatted. Most students will learn to write in braille too. They need an assistive device like a slate and stylus, brailler, or other technology to do this. Audiobooks, tactile pictures, and manipulatives help reinforce literacy skills.
- Communication challenges: Materials should be available for students to use depending on their preferences and capabilities. This includes high-tech augmentative and alternative communication tools like tablet-based apps or low-tech formats like image printouts.
- Deaf / hard of hearing: Students should learn the local sign language and have access to read and write written text.
- Intellectual disabilities: Provide access to a wide range of writing tools and adapted books. Adapted reading materials with a decreased reading level and simplified grammar let students learn with their peers. Digital texts let students add extra spaces, enlarge text, or have it read aloud as needed. Graphics, pictures, and video enhance comprehension. Students might also need physical manipulation to understand vocabulary and content.
- Learning, emotional, and attention disabilities: Students need many ways to communicate what they learn. This includes manipulatives, like letter blocks or cards and interactive games. They should have access to a wide range of texts chosen by both the teacher and student.
- Multiple disabilities or deafblind: These students can achieve braille and/or print literacy. However, they need help with the building blocks of learning the skills. Teaching strategies and materials that use touch for exploration and learning are important.