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Investigating staff perceptions of e-learning development and support for students with disabilities in higher education

Author - Roisin Donnelly

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Disabled people are under-represented in higher education … the UK has some way to go before it can boast of equal access for disabled students to higher education.
(Skill 1997: 5)

Shevlin et al. (2004) state that students with specific learning disabilities form by far the largest group of students with disabilities in higher education. Even though the enactment of various disability laws has contributed to the increasing enrolment of students with disabilities in higher educational institutions in the UK and Ireland, these students constantly face various barriers in their educational environment (Paul 2000: 209).

When disabled people enter higher education they are taking up an opportunity to increase their knowledge, to develop their social skills, to obtain good qualifications and to expose themselves to debate and discussion. It is an important experience for empowerment (Hurst 1996: 141). Fuller et al. (2004) concur with this belief that for students with disabilities participation in higher education is a matter of equal opportunities and empowerment. Academic developers and learning technologists need to be at the forefront of developments helping staff to meet the pressures of the legislation, while at the same time identifying ways of better supporting all students.

Support for academic staff in higher education in facilitating the education of students with disabilities comes from a wide variety of sources. There are visiting workshops and consultations available in university settings. There is no doubt that in higher education, support is more readily available now for academic staff supporting students with disabilities. This is slowly spreading to a focus on how technology can assist in educating students with disabilities. In several areas there is no doubt that this institution has made great progress in facilitating students with a range of disabilities. There is an Assistive Technology Training Room in the institution with a range of computers and specialised software to make information available in different accessible formats for students with disabilities. An Assistive Technology Trainer provides assessment and advice to individual students and also training and on-going technical support in the use of this equipment.

However, as online delivery becomes more widespread across the institution, there is a need, as Booth and Ainscow (1998: 78) state, for all ‘communities of neighbourhood centres of learning’ to explore what this means for the design and delivery of truly accessible electronic materials and forms of communication. There are various pockets of people working separately in the area of e-learning and supporting students with disabilities in this institution, and this research is beginning to bring these groups together to collaborate in development for the future.

It was important to be cognizant of what existing academic literature was saying about relevant e-learning developments in this area, so a brief critical summary of the literature is provided surrounding the issues of inclusion of students and staff with disabilities and how the provision of e-learning technology can best support this inclusion.

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