Issues in Digital Technology in Education/Inclusion of Students with a Disability in Higher Education and the Internet


Within the past two decades, the inclusion movement has evolved whereby a majority of citizens have equal access to appropriate instruction, resources and services. Only since the 1990s have institutions of higher learning recognized the need to establish and/or improve support systems and services for students with a disability. (Fitchen, C.S., Asuncion J.V., Barile, M., Robillard, C., Fossey M.E. & Lamb, D., 2003) Technological advances in the 21st century have contributed to Internet reliance and “postsecondary entities, like the rest of our society, use the Internet more and more for the things that they do” (WEBAim, n.d., p.7). The “Web is becoming an everyday part of life for many people” (Berry, n.d., p.1).

Fallis (2005) discusses the responsibility that universities have towards the creation of a “democratic life with special obligations regarding accessibility and inclusion” (p. 3). The environment in and around the university has evolved from isolation and exclusion, to segregated educational settings, to inclusive educational institutional environments where people with disabilities are in the classroom as full, participating members with access to appropriate resources. More recently, government, administrators, educators, parents and students alike, have realized that education is a fundamental right of all Canadians and have established laws and processes to become more student “friendly” and include individuals with a disability in all aspects of education.

Including students with diverse disabilities in mainstream “can be a difficult and complex matter” (Loreman, T., Deppeler, J. & Harvey, D., 2005, p.3). “Each student’s needs are unique and must be considered afresh when an accommodation request is made.” (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2004, p.5) According to Hill (1992), in order for a student with a disability to have a successful and positive experience in university two obstacles must be overcome, including availability of specialized services to “maximize the student’s ability to participate fully in the chosen course of studies” (p. 49) and “the campus must be physically accessible” (p. 49). The specialized services include providing access to the Internet which will provide access to information and facilitate communication. According to Kaye (2000) “Computer technology and the Internet have a tremendous potential to broaden the lives and increase the independence of people with a disability.” (p.1)

Education as a Matter of Social Justice

“Discrimination pervades our structural institutions, and to the extent that schools are microcosms of the larger society, they are not immune to its effects.” (Dei, G., James-Wilson, S. & Zine, J., 2002, p.2) Barriers to education have significant implications on the social structures of society, the labour market, healthcare and other elements. A lack of proper education can manifest into one’s livelihood resulting in possible unemployment, increased social ineptness, incompetence, dependency, poverty and other issues. Individuals with disabilities have suffered from this injustice and until recently, were marginalized, often with inequitable access to education. Although there have been significant developments in technology in recent years “the computer revolution has left the vast majority of people with disabilities behind” (Kaye, 2000, p.1).

Education must be accessible and society must recognize that each individual is a contributing member. “When one student is not a full participant in his or her school community, then we are all at risk.” (Sapon-Shevin, 2003, p.27) Individual differences, unique characteristics and differing abilities must be recognized and reflected in a “whole” society. Hutchinson (2001) provides a historical account of inclusion as it relates to the educational system. It has been well documented that until very recently people with a mental disability were often marginalized and placed in institutions without exposure or access to resources, programs and people. Although significant strides have been made to remove barriers, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (2004) maintains that “a significant number of students with disabilities continue to face obstacles in their attempts to access educational services in Ontario”. (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2004, p. 5) The Ontario Human Rights Code “guarantees the right to equal treatment in services, without discrimination on the ground of disability. Education, in its broadest sense, is a “service” within the meaning of the Code.” (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2004, p.6) The Government of Ontario, through the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, is committed to removing all barriers by the year 2025. (Government of Ontario, 2005)

Universities have a vital role to play in the development and establishment of democracy and “must be accountable for their contributions to democratic life” (Fallis, 2005, p. 3). Fallis (2005) discusses the idea of a liberal education and its relevancy and importance to building a democratic and prosperous society. Accessibility is a key component of Fallis’ (2005) position, recognizing that “accessibility is measured by whether visible minorities, persons with disabilities, and aboriginal peoples are able to attend (p.13).

Inclusion and Higher Education

“One cannot understand the mission of the modern Canadian university without understanding its responsibility to be accessible to all who are capable of and willing to undertake university study.” (Fallis, 2005, p. 12) Higher education for students with a disability serves many purposes and is so important as it provides a means to enriching life through the fulfillment of personal goals, accessing jobs, offers financial independence and social prestige, lowers unemployment, improves quality of life and the standard of living. (Fitchen et al., 2003)

In February 2005 the Honourable Bob Rae released a report and subsequent recommendations relating to the status of postsecondary education in the province. As the report suggests, “persons with disabilities can face formidable barriers to accessing postsecondary education” (Government of Ontario, 2005, p.69). Issues including transition from high school to university, early identification of the students’ disability or needs, access to technology, stronger linkages and partnerships between secondary and postsecondary, service provision while at university and transitional services for students with a disability entering the workplace are all components of accessibility which must be further addressed if the inclusion agenda is to progress.

In order to more fully understand and address the various challenges and barriers encountered by students with a disability, and create a more inclusive environment, Fuller, M., Healey, M., Bradley, A. & Hall, T. (2004) offer several recommendations for “supporting disabled students’ learning” (p.315). Accessibility for students with a disability is individualistic and can include whether the students are “are able to attend” (Fallis, 2005, p.13). Attendance, though, is not just limited to one’s physical presence; it also includes participation through assistive devices which make online communication a viable learning alternative. Education serves as “a core public commitment for social citizenship, because full membership requires equality of opportunity, which education can help to provide”. (Fallis, 2005, p.17)

The New York Education Department (2000) discusses the many advantages and benefits to having students with a disability involved in higher education. Aside from increased enrolments and access to a more diverse talent pool, the New York Education Department (2000) notes that students with a disability “make very concrete contributions besides addition to the overall academic and campus life experience” (p.7).

“It is only the past two decades that North American institutions of higher education have begun to recognize the need to deliver disability related services to people with disabilities.” (Fitchen et al., 2003, p.7) Hill (1992) found that “both small and large institutions are attempting to accommodate special needs students” (p.72) Wilchesky (1986) as cited by Hill (1992) attributes an increase in enrolment to four main reasons including the pressure from advocacy groups to improve access to higher education, an emphasis on the recruitment of “non-traditional” students, the increased awareness on the mission of the university to provide more access to higher education, services and resources, and the passage of legislation.

One of the key elements to achieving accessibility involves the provision of opportunities, programs, courses and services “to fit the needs of a variety of learners” (Smith, D.C., Cameron, D.M., Gorbet. F., Henerderson, C. & Stephenson, B.M., 1996, p.26). In the 21st century, access includes removing barriers to technology and making certain adjustments so that information can be readily available on the Internet. Cox and Klas (1996) indicate that institutions of higher learning have responded to many challenges related to physical limitations or barriers encountered by architectural structures. However, the issue of knowing and understanding the full extent of one’s disability, such as a learning disability, remains problematic. Nelson and Lingnugaris/Kraft (1989) also address the issue of service provision for students with a disability and indicate that “a clear understanding of learning disabilities is lacking in many college programs” (p.2).

For students with a disability the issue of access to education has become very important, in particular access “to the environment of the Internet” (Rowland, 2000, p.1). According to Rowland (2000), “the web is a fundamental tool in postsecondary education” (p.3) and that “the intent of postsecondary education is to help prepare an educated citizenry to become participatory, productive members” (p.3). Without access to the Internet the student experience is limited which in turn, compromises one’s capacity to learn and succeed.

There are many barriers which prevent and/or limit Internet access for students with a disability. According to Kaye (2000), people with disabilities “have among the lowest rates of use of these technologies” (p.13). Issues such as cost, insufficient access to specialized software and “lack of awareness of the potential benefits of this technology” (Kaye, 2000, p.13) may contribute to limited accessibility. Heaviside,. S., Rowand, C., Hurst, D. and McArthur, E. (2000) further add that “insufficiently trained special education teachers” (p.1) is a major issue.

The attitude of faculty toward students with a disability and the types of accommodations that must be provided by faculty to appropriately address the student needs is also a challenge. Hill (1992) notes the concern over accommodating “the learning disabled student at the postsecondary level” (p.74) and the limitations experienced by faculty in accommodating students because of insufficient information or knowledge about the nature of the disability and how to appropriately deal with the situation.

Closing Remarks

Within the last two decades, society has witnessed the progression of a more inclusive education system which includes more access to online information and communication. With the establishment of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) significant inroads have been made “to make it easier for people with disabilities to use the Web” (W3C, 2005, p.2).

A “postsecondary education is no longer a luxury of the wealthy but a necessity for anyone who wants to enjoy a decent lifestyle” (Wall & Sarver, 2003, p. 282). Fallis (2005) discusses at length the mission of the university and in particular its responsibility to society. As Fallis (2005) argues, society must expand the dialogue to include students with a disability who are valued, contributing members of this society. In Ontario, the government is committed to furthering the inclusion agenda. “Ontario colleges and universities must be highly responsive not just to enrolments…but to the variety of needs those students have. Institutions should explore both traditional and innovative approaches to the provision of postsecondary education to find a blend that responds to their students’ needs.” (Smith et al., 1996, p.72)

An inclusive system of education promotes unity and is beneficial in a variety of ways. “Many of the accessibility solutions described in WAI materials also benefit Web users who do not have disabilities.” (W3C, 2005, p.2) The inclusion movement is still progressing and “postsecondary education must evolve in a way which provides the opportunity for a high-quality learning experience to every Ontarian who is motivated to seek it and who has the ability to pursue it”. (Smith et al., 1996, p. 5)


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