Online access for every child

One in every five or six learners in our schools has needed some form of extra help for close to 100 years now. That proportion – referred to as having Special Educational Needs (SEN) or Additional Needs in Scotland – has remained remarkably consistent over that time as has the 1.5 per cent to two per cent requiring special education assistance, according to UK government reports. Many of these learners lack speech, they may only be able to make limited voluntary movements or have severe problems with sight or hearing. Also, they may suffer profound cognitive problems or, conversely, no cognitive problems at all other than being ‘locked-in’ by their disability.

Almost all of the two per cent actually have a unique mixture of the challenges just outlined, recognised under the umbrella term of Severe and Complex Special Needs. Indeed, it is very difficult, or uneconomic, to include them in mainstream schools where it is unlikely the facilities or training will cope with a child that has a particular mixture of these challenges; something they will not come across again for another 30 years perhaps. Consequently, the existence and success of so many special schools persists.

The two per cent ‘severe’ and ‘complex group’ has received immense help through 30 years of technology advance. Computers, for instance, provide them with opportunities to express themselves, and to experience and influence the world at large in a way that was not previously possible. This includes the earliest opportunities to play and to experience the effect of an individual’s actions on the world – or at least the screen – even if only one voluntary sound or movement can be made, even if it was just a gaze. I’m proud to report the UK has a world lead in this switch accessible software.

Universal and special
In a mainstream setting the concept of ‘inclusion’ has been the key. An exponentially increasing range of resources accessed online can be tailored to the precise needs of those in need of extra or more graphic explanation – or just bigger print. Meanwhile, those needing extra help in reading or writing will find all of the support they need from British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) members.

Pre-text learners and early learners of all ages have greatly benefitted from the picture or symbol supported text systems developed by Widgit, Mayer-Johnson, New-2-You and Makaton. Widgit’s ‘Point’ can be licensed to any website giving users picture support for any word that puzzles them.

Website standards
There are accessibility standards for websites, the most basic of which is the facility to convert the confusing array of graphics panels into simple running text – which can be magnified or read to you if needed.

The last UK Government’s admirable Home Access Scheme certainly focused on providing physical access to the internet for every child however severe and complex their access needs. What was missed was whether what they got access to made any sense to them or met their needs at all. The need was for a learning platform special to this group rather than access to what everyone else used.

The almost sectarian doctrine of inclusion is valuable but can only be taken so far. An analogy is to be found in any airport. We are all grateful for the invention of wheeled luggage and the absence of any steps, which contrasts with London underground. This is ‘inclusion’ or ‘universal design’. However, some passengers will need wheelchair access to the rear of the plane – obviously nobody advocates this for every passenger. Resources should be as accessible to all as possible, but some will need something specially designed just for them.

Past Resources
Interestingly, the ‘something special’ can grow to become universal design. ‘My World’, the most popular primary school programme of the 1990s, was originally designed to provide a graphic diary for a single SEN pupil in Derbyshire. Touchscreens were a special needs resource for 25 years before Steve Jobs of Apple fame made them accessible to everyone; and Clicker was originally a special needs (and switch accessible) resource before it was adopted in every mainstream primary school.

Website accessibility and usability has some way to go before all sites are easy to use for everyone let alone those with SEN. I’m not sure that this is any longer the whole issue. We now use websites for less than half our time online. Social media, broadcast media, Skype and the like are now much bigger users of the web.

This offers great opportunities for groups who share low-incidence disabilities to communicate in ways which may be unique to them about their common interests. They will also be able to share activities and news of activities specific to their needs with a worldwide community. Resources for low-incidence disabilities have always been too few and too expensive because of the small market served. Worldwide markets will greatly accelerate the creation of these resources at lower cost, and news of this should spread quickly via an increasingly wired up and accessible world.

Martin Littler is the founding Chairman of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA) and CEO of Inclusive TechnologyLtd. He has been active in the field of Assistive Technology for thirty years and sees the current period of iPads, tablets and accessible technology as the most exciting yet.