Breaking Barriers: The Impact of Accessibility and Inclusive Learning in Schools

Breaking Barriers: The Impact of Accessibility and Inclusive Learning in Schools

Creating inclusive learning environments isn’t a “nice to have”. Districts and educators are increasingly embracing accessibility and universal design to ensure every student has equal opportunities to thrive. 

However, there’s much room for growth. While districts are developing a deeper understanding of diverse learning needs, they’re also increasingly embedding new tools into the curricula—and often, the two don’t mix.

Matthew Hines, who works at the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind, says the problem is that most accessibility features are afterthoughts instead of driving factors in lesson planning and software investment.

When educators know better, they do better, which is why Xello prioritizes and promotes inclusive learning practices. From hosting discussions on inclusive learning to building software features compliant with WCAG 2.2 Level AA standards to publishing blog posts like this one, Xello seeks to empower all educators to provide accessible, equitable lessons so every student can succeed. 

Defining the Terminology for Inclusive Learning Practices

Before discussing how certain principles are transforming education, it’s necessary to establish a solid understanding of the key terminology:

  • Accessibility: Accessibility refers to the design of products, devices, services, or environments that are usable by people with disabilities. In an educational context, accessibility means removing barriers that might prevent students with disabilities from fully participating in learning activities. Accessibility in curriculum could involve providing alternative formats for materials, ensuring physical spaces are wheelchair accessible, or utilizing assistive technologies like screen readers for students with visual impairments.
  • Equity: Equity in education refers to providing fair and just opportunities for every student, regardless of background or circumstances. Equity involves identifying and addressing disparities in access to resources, support, and opportunities to ensure that every student has what they need to succeed. Equitable learning environments involve targeted interventions, personalized supports, or systemic changes to promote fairness and eliminate barriers to learning.
  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Coined by architect Ronald Mace in the 1990s, Universal Design is a concept rooted in the idea that environments and products should be designed to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. In education, UDL applies this concept to curriculum development and instructional practices. The UDL framework aims to provide multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement to accommodate the diverse learning needs of all students. By offering flexibility and options in how information is presented and how students demonstrate their understanding, UDL helps to create more inclusive learning experiences.
  • Inclusive Learning: Inclusive learning goes beyond simply accommodating students with disabilities. It encompasses the broader goal of creating learning environments that welcome and support all learners. Inclusive learning practices recognize that diversity is an asset and strive to celebrate and leverage the unique strengths and perspectives that each student brings to the classroom. These practices can involve incorporating culturally relevant content, fostering collaboration and peer support, and implementing teaching strategies catering to various learning styles and preferences.

Demystifying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework revolutionizing how educators approach curriculum design and instructional delivery. At its core, UDL aims to remove barriers to learning by providing multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression to accommodate all learners. 

Multiple Means of Engagement

Principle: Engagement is crucial for fostering motivation and sustaining interest in learning. Educators can tap into students’ interests, passions, and backgrounds by providing multiple means of engagement.

Implementation example: In a science class studying ecosystems, Mr. Farmer might offer project-based learning opportunities where students can choose to create a model, conduct an experiment, or develop a multimedia presentation to demonstrate their understanding. Students are more likely to be invested and engaged in the learning process by providing choice and autonomy.

Multiple Means of Representation

Principle: This concept recognizes students’ diverse ways of perceiving and comprehending information. By providing multiple means of representation, educators can ensure that content is accessible to all learners.

Implementation example: In a history lesson about the American Revolution, Ms. Walsh might offer various resources such as primary source documents, videos, audio recordings, and interactive timelines. These course materials allow students to engage with the material in a way that best suits their learning preferences and abilities.

Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Principle: Students vary in how they can express their knowledge and understanding. By providing multiple means of action and expression, educators empower students to demonstrate their learning in ways that align with their strengths and preferences.

Implementation example: In a language arts class, students might be tasked with writing a persuasive essay, creating a podcast, or producing a video presentation to communicate their ideas. Students can showcase their abilities and creativity while practicing essential communication skills by choosing between diverse options for expressing thoughts and opinions.

Accessibility: Beneficial to All 

Imagine the accessible doors at your local grocery store. Although these doors benefit people in wheelchairs, others see them as an asset as well: the mom with the stroller, the man carrying seven grocery bags at once, and the person with a compromised immune system avoiding germy door handles. 

Teachers witness the same shared benefits of accessibility in education. Hines explains: “The beauty of universal learning design is that…we’re leveling the playing field for everybody. We’re putting in a tool in front of everybody where they can compete, interact, and succeed to the best of their ability.”

There are numerous advantages to creating an inclusive environment beyond meeting specific accessibility needs. A few to note are:

  • Fostering a culture of inclusivity: By prioritizing the needs of students with special education requirements, educators send a powerful message that diversity is valued and celebrated in the learning community. This approach fosters a culture of inclusivity where all students feel seen, heard, and supported, regardless of their differences.
  • Promoting Life Skills Education (LSE): Students with special education requirements often require additional support in developing social skills and self-awareness such as empathy, communication, and self-regulation. By incorporating LSE practices into the classroom, educators create a more nurturing and inclusive environment where all students can thrive. For instance, collaborative learning activities (such as think-pair-share and fishbowl) not only provide support for students with disabilities but also promote empathy, teamwork, and mutual respect among peers.
  • Encouraging innovation and creativity: Addressing SPED use cases challenges educators to think creatively about how to meet students’ diverse needs. This spirit of innovation extends beyond special education leading to new instructional approaches, technologies, and strategies that benefit all learners. For example, adopting assistive technologies for students with disabilities may inspire the integration of technology-rich learning experiences for all students, enhancing engagement and learning outcomes across the board.
  • Endorsing “all students, all abilities, all pathways”: When teachers prioritize accessibility—especially for special needs students—they endorse the belief that every learner, regardless of their background or abilities, deserves access to high-quality education and the opportunity to pursue their unique pathways to success. And that’s so important, says Melissa Gillard of Reading School District in Pennsylvania. Specifically, she praises Xello for allowing students to research “careers and colleges and options that reflect who [her students] are, their backgrounds, and their priorities and values.” 

Xello’s Approach: Co-creating Enhancements and Supporting Accessibility Culture 

At Xello, accessibility is fundamental to our mission to empower all students to build bright futures. Regardless of their abilities, every learner deserves equitable access to knowledge and opportunities. That’s why we’re committed to ensuring our platform is fully accessible, inclusive, and empowering for all users.

Here’s a brief snapshot of Xello’s approach to accessibility in education:

Xello Accessibility: Fully Accessible, Inclusive, and Empowering 

From the outset, Xello prioritized accessibility, incorporating multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression into our platform. “We’ve embedded accessibility into the DNA of our platform, ensuring that every feature and functionality is designed with inclusivity in mind,” explains Maureen Ariza Paredes, Director of Experience Research at Xello. 

Whether it’s providing alternative formats for content, optimizing navigation for screen readers, or offering customizable settings for individual preferences, Xello is committed to creating an accessible user experience for all.

Co-Creating Enhancements with Clients

Accessibility is a journey, not a destination, and Xello recognizes that there’s always room for improvement. That’s why Xello actively collaborates with clients to gather feedback, identify pain points, and co-create accessibility enhancements that address the evolving needs of diverse learners. 

Through ongoing dialogue and partnership, we leverage the collective expertise and insights of educators, administrators, and students to drive meaningful improvements to our platform.

Catch up on our Xello Remote Roundtable on the importance of accessibility in CCR programming, featuring Xello clients. Watch the webinar here

Fostering a Culture of Accessibility 

Xello is dedicated to fostering a culture of accessibility within the organization and among clients. We provide training and resources to help team members understand the importance of accessibility and equip them with the knowledge and skills to implement best practices throughout the development process. 

Additionally, Xello works closely with educators and administrators to promote awareness and understanding of accessibility principles, empowering them to create more inclusive learning environments for their students.

Make Accessibility in Education a Priority

By prioritizing the needs of students with special education requirements and embracing the vision of “all students, all abilities, all pathways,” educators create learning environments that are more inclusive and equitable, and more enriching and transformative for all students. When every learner is allowed to succeed, the entire educational community thrives, setting the stage for a brighter and more inclusive future.

Reach out to Xello for more information on accessibility in our products and services