Students with disability are traditionally underrepresented in university education, but UNSW Business School’s focus on digital accessibility hopes to change that.

Dr Veronica Jiang believes disability shouldn’t be a barrier to learning. As an Academic Disability Advisor at UNSW Business School and a staunch advocate for Ability, she is dedicated to improving digital accessibility and challenging traditional expectations of what students with disabilities can achieve.

With a marketing background, Dr Jiang has always been interested in how we communicate with each other, and exploring how students with disability access information was the perfect overlap of her interests. Her passion for the field led to a grant in 2022 from the Pro Vice-Chancellor Education & Student Experience Portfolio (PVCESE) to investigate how to improve digital accessibility at UNSW Business School.

When Md Badiuzzaman, Accessibility Researcher and current PhD student at UNSW School of Social Sciences, heard about an opportunity to work with Dr Jiang to create a set of guideline documents, he was keen to get involved.

With a background in engineering and social sciences, combined with lived experience with an acquired disability, Md could identify digital accessibility issues from a student perspective and help Dr Jiang develop solutions to these issues. 

Over the last two years, Dr Jiang and Md have been instrumental in dismantling digital barriers to education platforms for students with and without disability to ensure a more inclusive and equitable learning environment. This has resulted in the Business School Classroom Inclusivity Guidelines and the Business School Digital Accessibility Guide for Learning.

Together, their work has made a huge impact not only on faculty and students at UNSW but also in the wider educational community. 

In 2023, the project team was awarded an Accessibility in Action Award from the Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training (ADCET) in recognition of their work on creating and implementing a series of groundbreaking Digital accessibility guides for Learning.

Dr Jiang also received the 2023 UNSW Award for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning in recognition of her passion for education. This is a testament to the bright and inquisitive minds of the students she has had the privilege to teach.

The UNSW Business School EDI Team sat down with Dr Jiang and Md to learn more about digital accessibility and how, in alignment with the Business School EDI team’s vision to ensure everyone has equitable opportunities to succeed, they’re working to create equal access to education for all.

Q: Why is accessibility important in higher education?

Dr Jiang: The number of students with disabilities at universities is increasing, and universities have a legal obligation to provide accessible documents under the Australian Disability Discrimination Act, 1992. If teachers ensure all their course materials are already embedded in these practices as a default, they won’t have to spend time redoing them when they have a student with a disability in their course. 

Even for students who don’t have disabilities, accessibility leads to an improved learning experience. For example, captions on video content help students who are deaf or hard of hearing, but some of my neurodiverse students also tell me captions help them focus. Captions also help students who are studying on their morning commute or watching videos in their lunch break at work. Colour contrast helps students who have low vision, but it also makes documents easier to read for students who are outdoors in bright light or on the bus.

Md: Despite most educational content moving to online delivery, there’s still a significant gap in the number of students with disabilities that go on to higher education, when compared to students without disabilities. While research has identified barriers in physical infrastructure, challenges in digital infrastructure also need to be addressed for a more inclusive and equitable education.

Accessibility is not just important in universities, learning is required everywhere, especially for government and employment training so it’s something everyone should be aware of.

Q: What are the main barriers students with disability face when accessing education?

Dr Jiang: Digital accessibility is one barrier, but low expectations are another. There is a widespread belief among teachers and educators that students with disabilities can’t achieve the same level of academic performance. This means teachers often don’t prioritise making their course materials accessible from the outset, instead choosing to make the required changes only when necessary.  

Another barrier is a lack of awareness or skills on how to be more inclusive, especially given the wide range of different disabilities. Many teachers simply don’t know what adjustments they should provide for students with disability, especially hidden disabilities, and neurodiverse students.

Md: Lack of awareness and acknowledgement of the needs and rights of people with disability to have equal access to education is also a huge barrier. In Australia, approximately 40% of students with disabilities believe they were less than likely to achieve their study or working goals, which in turn can discourage them from applying to university in the first place. With the most common barriers being:

  • mental health (28%)
  • academic ability (25%)
  • financial difficulty (13%)
  • physical health (12%)

In a lecture with 300+ students, there may be one student with a disability, so making all the content accessible requires a strong social commitment from teachers. And while we have policies in Australia around inclusion, they are not always properly implemented, and there’s no clarity about who is responsible for ensuring all educational material is compliant.

Q: What can universities do to help students with disability overcome these barriers?

Md: When a student with a disability enrols in a class, we need to consider whether both the physical and digital educational environment is properly accessible. It’s our responsibility to support that student, and it sets a good example for other students in their class. All students will go on to work somewhere or become educators themselves, so they need to have an awareness of inclusivity and its merits throughout their education journey.

When digital accessibility is required for a specific course, we evaluate all the digital documents and ensure they are accessible; confirming that all Powerpoint, PDF and/or Word document are accessible on whatever software the student is comfortable with, whether that’s a screen reader or other assistive technology.

We’ve also created our own digital accessibility guidelines to be practical and easy to understand, allowing teachers to quickly address their students’ needs within their course material rather than becoming overwhelmed with information overload.

Dr Jiang: Improving our teachers’ understanding and setting up similar expectations for students with and without a disability would make a huge difference. In 2024, Md and I are offering at least two workshops about digital accessibility to UNSW faculty. We hope this will help increase their understanding of disability and improve the digital accessibility of their documents across all faculties.

At UNSW Business School we use a pedagogy called Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which provides flexibility for all students to promote their learning autonomy. For example, I provide incentives to encourage my students to come to class by giving them marks for class participation. But some students can’t attend in person due to work, other commitments or due to a disability.

So instead, I give them the alternative to listen to a recording of the class and then submit a small written summary and that counts as their class participation. UDL is about designing the course and assessment to include different ways students can express what they have learned, such as a written report, or a presentation, rather than a single way.

The digital accessibility guide is part of the UDL at UNSW, and it’s also part of our peer review process. This means when academics apply for a promotion, their peers review them on a number of criteria – including how well they cater to student diversity, including disability. This incentivises teachers to prioritise and improve digital accessibility.

Q: What other accessibility initiatives do you have planned for UNSW Business School in the future?

Md: We’re constantly looking for new opportunities to workshop and inform people about digital accessibility, especially in a learning context. We also need to focus on mobile device accessibility, as recent government guidelines have been updated to focus on future users of mobile devices.

We’re also looking at how we can create additional educational learning experiences using emerging technology such as augmented and virtual reality so accessibility can be incorporated from the start. I’m also working on creating inclusivity guidelines for physical spaces and events within UNSW.

Dr Jiang: Currently I’m trying to promote UDL further within and outside UNSW. I am an active team member of the 'Diversified' project. This student-led initiative is designed to uplift the voices of neurodivergent students, ensuring their insights inform course and assessment design, ultimately making courses more inclusive and accessible. Outside UNSW, Md and I also hosted a half-day digital accessibility workshop at HERDSA 2023, a top Australasia higher education conference. I also presented UDL and digital accessibility to other universities, including Melbourne Business School, EdukCircle Conference in Philippines.

About the guidelines

The Business School Classroom Inclusivity Guidelines have been designed to inform inclusive classroom practice and reflect current research and best practices in equity, diversity, and inclusion. Research indicates that students are more likely to flourish, both academically and personally, in academic settings that acknowledge and respect their personal experiences, identities, and backgrounds.

The Business School Digital Accessibility Guide for Learning extends the Guidelines to enhance accessibility in online and blended learning environments. By providing accessible materials, instructors can help create an inclusive and welcoming digital environment for every student - and eliminate barriers to student success.

The Business School will continue to update these guidelines based on feedback from staff and students.

 

Learn more about UNSW Business School’s commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion here