As we enter the second year of life with COVID-19, it is a good opportunity to reflect on the impact of the virus. Beyond the effect on health and health services, the pandemic has touched every aspect of our lives. One of the key conversation topics has been the issue of accessibility, and lack of access to services.
At CareScribe, accessibility is at the heart of what we do. Our products, like Caption.Ed and TalkType, have been designed to advance inclusion. We work hard to make sure our products are easy-to-use and fully accessible. According to the latest figures from the World Bank, 15% of the world’s population experience some type of disability, and prevalence is higher in low-income countries. While digital accessibility is improving in many contexts, a lot of work remains to be done.
Many of our clients are institutions of higher education. It is critical that they provide accessible content to their audiences. Students shouldn’t face barriers to accessing education. We also know how fundamental captions are to multimedia content engagement.
Much has been written over the last year on the struggle to maintain education provision and opportunities for our young people. We can now reflect and consider the experience of different organisations and what they can teach us.
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Overcoming barriers to services
During 2020, many COVID-19-related measures were implemented quickly. Perhaps the most immediate and profound change in most people’s lives was how essential the internet – and our ability to perform tasks and communicate online – became. Bringing services online quickly became an essential component of public safety.
Across retail and commercial industries, customers wanted (and in the example of supermarket shopping for vulnerable people required) the ability to order online and have items delivered.
Many companies required employees to work from home. In the UK, the ONS reported 46.6% of people did some work from home during 2020. Expectations of online meetings became an integral part of many people’s working lives. However, not all platforms are accessible. Some platforms present accessibility barriers that make them unsuitable for people with disabilities and do not integrate with assistive technologies. Captions for online meeting and lectures became a necessity.
Some government and essential services switched to an online presence, in some cases for the first time. In Greece, the pandemic acted as an accelerant to the government’s planned digital roll out of public sector services. An online platform was launched which allowed many administrative tasks, such as applying for a driving licence or registering for a prescription to be conducted digitally for the first time. During 2020, the numbers of employees working remotely was double the previous year.
In the education sector, schools and universities rapidly moved to establish online learning technology to enable distance learning. Some universities had already made a significant investment in the provision of online courses. This is reflected in the growth of the global education-technology sector which had reached just under $19 billion in 2019.
Nevertheless, most higher education institutions found themselves unprepared and rushing to adapt. Professor Sir Tim O’Shea, the former vice-chancellor of Edinburgh University estimated the collective cost of producing five online degrees for each university in the UK to be in excess of £1 billion. Accessing this amount of funding rapidly in a difficult economic climate posed numerous challenges.
It has been widely acknowledged that COVID-19 highlighted and exacerbated long-standing gender, ethnic and vulnerability divides.
The crisis will leave a legacy which poses questions that we need to answer. Lack of access to services, feelings of isolation and the inability to conduct activities in the usual way was experienced by most of the population. This experience shone a light on the reality of ordinary life for disabled and vulnerable people throughout our society during normal life. For universities that had not already taken basic steps to make their learning accessible, such as by providing lecture catch up features, there was a struggle to address some of the fundamentals at the start of the pandemic.
Were we prepared for COVID-19?
Looking at the global picture, we see a myriad of different responses and adaptations to the pandemic. The main problem facing companies and organisations, after safety measures were introduced, was the lack of time to prepare for lockdown, discuss and plan a response. There were also issues with funding, availability of technical support and access to the internet and relevant software and hardware.
Most countries around the world experienced a lockdown between January and April 2020, with some lasting for many months. In Europe, restrictions on movement, work, education and socialising have continued into 2021.
If we take education as an example, the response from countries around the world has varied considerably. For example, in Latin America, only Uruguay had the digital infrastructure to be able to offer comprehensive online learning solutions for students.
In the other countries in the region, issues like lack of internet access in homes, limited bandwidth and lack of ownership and availability of suitable software and hardware proved critical limiting factors to broader engagement with distance learning.
Some education-technology firms took immediate action to address the gaps in access to education. In India, online learning company BYJUS began offering free lessons for students via their app in March 2020. By April, over six million new students had signed up to access the resource.
Accessibility success stories
Finland is a world-leader in education and accessibility is at the core of the government’s mission to create an inclusive culture. ‘Leaving no one behind’ is the mantra at the heart of Finland’s higher education system. The country had already made progress is adopting a flexible teaching model in institutions of higher education prior to the onset of the pandemic.
Many Finnish universities had already made investment in e-learning prior to the pandemic. According to the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre, this was one of the key reasons the country was able to adapt relatively quickly and efficiently to the new normal brought about by the restriction of face-to-face learning.
In the UK, universities were also forced to adapt quickly to lockdowns. Delivering lessons and teaching support online was a major challenge to overcome. In some vocational and practical courses, it was not possible to replicate online the model of teaching necessary. For example, Kingston’s Furniture and Product Design BA course could not deliver the hands-on experience of working with materials. We need to recognise that an equivalent activity online may not produce the desired learning outcome.
Nevertheless, all UK universities now offer some degree of line learning provision and there are several examples of good practice. Oxford Brookes University has set up a hub for online resources. The university uses software to conduct seminars and tutorials remotely via webinars. They have also devoted time and investment to comprehensive advice and support for students struggling with online learning.
What does the future hold?
As we look towards the future, will we return to the status quo? It seems unlikely. Just as remote working seems likely to become a fixture of working life, online and e-learning models are likely to continue to grow.
Integrating technology further into the field of education seems likely, especially in the short term. As we move forward, we need to ensure that we use what we have learned to plan the next stage in evolution of the sector. Online learning provides a vital portal for those with disabilities or on-going health issues to be able to participate as equals. To do so, it must be curated with inclusion at the core. Providing captions on multimedia, as Caption.Ed offers, is one small part. So is inclusive registration, examinations and assessments, learning support, pastoral care and building access. Listening and responding to students needs is also critical.
We must resist thinking of technology as a panacea that can solve fundamental issues like accessibility at the touch of a button. While online learning can provide incredible access, it can also create new barriers and inequalities.
In rich countries, access to the internet and ownership of computers and other online-capable devices is high. In low-income countries it can be low, or non-existent. In disadvantaged communities in the US, UK and even Scandinavia, the focus on remote learning saw civil society organisations scrambling to try to provide computers to children from low income backgrounds.
The experience of the pandemic has reminded us of the fundamental meaning of accessibility. It means access for all. To achieve it, we need to design effective solutions that work for everyone.
Organisations must learn from good practice and take responsibility for developing accessible content. This must be factored into budgets and structures at the planning stage of new initiatives. If accessibility is considered at the outset, it can significantly reduce costs in both time and money.
Accessibility and the law
Since coming into law in 2018, UK universities along with other public sector bodies have been legally obliged to make their websites and mobile applications accessible. Similar legislation is in place across Europe and most of the rest of the world. But what does this mean? Although there is room for some interpretation, universities are expected to make reasonable allowances for people who have a disability as defined in the Equality Act.
 Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018.