04 SES 04 A, Reflecting On Access And Equity In Higher Education
Although progress has been made in improving the education support for disadvantaged groups, creating a university setting that enables full participation for students with disabilities continues to be a concern. In Ireland, 25% of people with disabilities aged 15-49 have a third level qualification compared to 39% of the general population (AHEAD, 2019; Central Statistics Office & Higher Education Authority, 2018). The transition to HE for young adults with disability is more challenging than for other young adults (Ebersold, 2012). Students with disabilities often lack relevant support, preparation and knowledge of college and employment, including the expectations and barriers that they might face (McEachern, 2007). As a result, the retention of students with disabilities in HE is lower than students without disabilities (Quinn, 2013) and people with disabilities are only half as likely to be in employment as others of working age (National Disability Authority, n.d.). Enabling people with disabilities to be full participants within society has implications for how environments are structured and how implicit barriers and opportunities to participation are addressed (Biewer et al., 2015).
This qualitative study aims (1) to explore how technology supports students with disabilities transitioning and fully participating in higher education (HE) in Ireland; (2) to understand what enhances and inhibits the inclusion and technology use in HE; and (3) to make recommendations for future action to develop technology-friendly inclusive HE for students with disabilities and for all.
Drawing on the universalistic perspective, this research employed a systems-thinking approach to understand the connections within the system and how to enhance the inclusion of students with disabilities. Adopting a systems-thinking perspective allows for more equitable, resilient and sustainable inclusion and technology, a more meaningful linking of context and processes, and the location of the user experience at the centre of solutions and best practices (MacLachlan & Scherer, 2018).
Focus of Discussion
There is an increasing evidence in the literature that technology can reduce barriers and promote inclusion in HE (e.g., Pacheco, Yoong, & Lips, 2021; Robertson, 2011). Student inclusion extends beyond the classroom setting and incorporates a diverse range of experiences. Specifically, participation within the broader student journey ranges from social and academic transitioning from secondary to third level education to developing skills and preparation for employment (Cunnah, 2015). HE institutions are expected to be proactive in their inclusion interventions in college across the student journey (McIlveen et al., 2005; Nolan & Gleeson, 2017). The growing demand for more equitable and holistic HE is instigating a transformation in how to harness the power and pervasiveness of technology to create an inclusive HE setting throughout the student life-cycle journey. This contribution will address and help fulfil an important strategic vision and political commitment to build sustainable and inclusive HE for all; thereby tackling matters of international relevance for people with disabilities at a time of changing landscape in the demographics and delivery of education.
This contribution is based on findings from a larger research project, entitled “Designing for Enhanced Participation through Technology in Higher Education: The DEPTH Study,” funded by the Irish Research Council Government of Ireland COALESCE Research Fund of Collaborative Alliances for Societal Challenges.
This project adopted a broad vision of technology to include mainstream and AT that enable and empower students to fully participate in HE. A whole systems-approach incorporating the central role of user experience informs the two-phased research design. Phase 1 consisted of in-depth interviews with students with disabilities (n=18) and wider stakeholders (n=28) from various organizations and roles, including academics, disability officers, AT officers, library staff, estates officers, policy-makers, non-profit organizations, and advocacy groups. Interviews were conducted in a public place of convenience and comfort for participants, or online via Skype or Zoom, or over the phone, if preferred. All participants provided informed consent before data collection. Interviews were guided by a topic guide developed from a scoping review of the existing literature and the study’s aims. Each participant discussed their experiences with/perspectives on the role of technology in promoting inclusion in HE for students with disabilities and how to better assist this student group in fully participating in college. All interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed verbatim and anonymized. At the end of the interview, all participants agreed to be contacted at a later date about the second phase of the study by sharing their contact details. Braun and Clarke’s (2006) guide for thematic analysis was employed to identify patterns and generate themes from in-depth interviews using NVivo, a qualitative data management software. Phase 2 included a virtual dialogue forum (n=60) drawing on world-café methodology consisting of small group and full-group conversation to foster constructive dialogue, explore diverse perspectives, share decision making, and create innovative possibilities for action; in this study to identify and prioritize action points for HE institutions. The virtual dialogue forum was undertaken via Zoom in February 2021. Topics, informed by the data from Phase 1, addressed: (1) overcoming barriers in the technology use and inclusion in HE; (2) enabling good practices; and (3) identification and development of priority action points for creating inclusive HE. Data collected from Phase 2 was analyzed for themes relating to priority action points for creating inclusive HE developed during the dialogue fora.
The preliminary analysis of research findings indicates that HE institutions place considerable commitments to ensuring inclusive academic and professional transitions for students with disabilities. The results suggest that disability-inclusion orientation programs, school outreach, peer mentoring and AT training positively influence students’ aspirations to pursue HE and enhance their academic and social integration in college. More resources and support for the provision and use of AT in secondary education are needed to help students transit to and fully participate in HE. Preliminary results further highlight the importance of student-centered professional development support tailored to students' individual abilities and needs, including developing self-advocacy, technology and self-presentation skills. Participants also discussed the value of collaboration and partnerships in widening participation in HE and employability for people with disabilities; community-based, non-profit organizations working to build inclusion in education and employment for people with disabilities play a significant role in developing understanding of disability diversity and building capacity for inclusive HE through knowledge sharing and support networks with universities, employers and policy makers. More support for employers is needed to enhance employability and professional pathways for graduates with disabilities. The presentation will focus on the research findings from the study, and implications for policy and practice will be discussed.
AHEAD (2019). Numbers of students with disabilities studying in higher education in Ireland 2017/18. Dublin: AHEAD Educational Press. Biewer, G., Buchner, T., Shevlin, M., Smyth, F., Siska, J., Kánová, S., … Rodríguez Díaz, S. (2015). Pathways to inclusion in European higher education systems. ALTER, European Journal of Disability Research, 9(4), 278–289. Central Statistics Office, & Higher Education Authority (2018). Higher education outcomes graduation years 2010-2014. Dublin: Central Statistics Office. Cunnah, W. (2015). Disabled students: Identity, inclusion and work-based placements. Disability & Society, 30(2), 213-226. Ebersold, S. (2012). Transitions to tertiary education and work for youth with disabilities. Education and training policy. Paris: OECD Publishing. McIlveen, P., Cameron, M., McLachlan, D, & Gunn, J. (2005). The study to work transition of university students with a disability. Australian Journal of Rehabilitation Counselling, 10(1), 46-55. MacLachlan M., & Scherer M. J. (2018). Systems thinking for assistive technology: A commentary on the GREAT summit. Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology, 13(5), 492-496. McCarthy P, Quirke M, Treanor D. (2018). The Role of the Disability Officer and the disability service in higher education in Ireland: A vision for future development. Dublin: AHEAD Educational Press. National Disability Authority, (n.d.). Employment. Retrieved from: http://nda.ie/publications/employment/ Nolan, C., & Gleeson, C. I. (2017). The transition to employment: the perspectives of students and graduates with disabilities. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 19(3), 230-244. Pacheco, E., Yoong, P., & Lips, M. (2021). Transition issues in higher education and digital technologies: the experiences of students with disabilities in New Zealand. Disability & Society, 36(2), 179-201. Quinn, J. (2013). Drop-out and completion in higher education among students from under-represented groups. European Commission by the Network of Experts on Social Aspects of Education and Training NESET, European Union. Robertson, J. (2011). The educational affordances of blogs for self-directed learning. Computers & Education, 57(2), 1628-1644. United Nations General Assembly. (2007, January 24). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: resolution /adopted by the General Assembly. A/RES/61/106. New York, United States.
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