Creating an 'accessibility for all' culture in classrooms through technology

Accessibility is no longer considered a benefit for just a few pupils with defined disabilities. Educators are realising the value of an “accessibility for all” approach, where all students use the same tools with accessibility features. Students with additional support needs aren’t singled out, while their peers see benefits through access to new learning tools.

Educators are using Google for Education tools such as Chromebooks and Chromebook Tab 10 to encourage more-inclusive classroom environments. Below are stories from teachers and education support specialists who’ve successfully adopted accessibility tools to improve learning for pupils across the board.

Aberdeen City Council: Accessibility as a priority, not an add-on

Hazel Lynch, Education Support Officer for Aberdeen City Council, wants to change the discussion around accessibility in the Local Authority schools: “Pupils shouldn't have to raise their hand to say, ‘I have a disability, can I have extra support?’ The tools should be available to everyone.” If every pupil has accessibility tools on devices, Lynch says, then everyone can benefit—a better option than singling out students for what they can’t do.

To meet this goal of digital inclusivity, Lynch and her colleagues added Read&Write from Texthelp to Chrome for the 20,000 students across the district in 2017. The Read&Write toolbar reads documents aloud, offers picture dictionaries, checks spelling and grammar, and can be accessed on Chrome devices at home. Teachers and students are also encouraged to explore the use of accessibility features built in to the district’s 5,000 Chromebooks, such as dictation and touchscreen with on-screen keyboard to maximise learner engagement.

“We want to get away from talking about ‘struggling readers’ or ‘pupils falling behind’—or language that makes more able students think the tools aren’t for them,” Hazel Lynch, Education Support Officer, Aberdeen City Council . adding that even accomplished students can benefit from the tools.

To encourage use of Read&Write, the district developed an extensive training programme. Each of the district’s schools trained two pupils and two teachers as mentors, who in turn supported fellow teachers and classmates to use the toolbar. Parents also learned how to use the Read&Write toolbar during group meetings and evening workshops.

“It's important for the parents to have an awareness of the tools used across the district," says Lynch. “This means they can support their child and also further develop their own digital skills and confidence.”

Since adding the toolbar to Chrome devices, teachers and parents are sharing stories of pupils’ newfound confidence in their growing reading and writing skills. Pupils attended an ASL and Technology conference to tell educators how they coached their classmates in the use of the tools, such as the text-to-speech accessibility feature to follow classroom reading assignments and the screen masking tool to access learning materials more easily.

Aberdeen City Council is aiming to greatly exceed Scotland’s minimum accessibility requirements for learners. In fact, in June 2018, the council won an “Accessibility for All” award from Holyrood Connect ICT. “We want to make it clear that accessibility is a priority, not an add-on,” Lynch affirms.

“We want to get away from talking about ‘struggling readers’ or ‘pupils falling behind’—or language that makes more able students think the tools aren’t for them.”

Hazel Lynch, Education Support Officer, Aberdeen City Council

Raigmore Primary School: Learners leading learning, while practicing inclusivity

At Raigmore Primary School in Inverness, teachers are strong believers in “learners leading learning.” They practice this by having Primary 5 and 6 pupils pair with younger ones to lead learning, and by encouraging students to devise their own ways to use digital tools such as Chromebooks.

“We pride ourselves on giving our students ownership of their learning and also sharing the skills they have with others, like pupils or teachers,” says David Crooks, former Raigmore teacher and education technology trainer for the Highland Council, currently a primary teacher at Towerbank Primary School in Edinburgh.

Primary 6 students recently pitched in to help Primary 2 students learn to sing ‘Over the Rainbow’ as part of a lesson on weather. The older pupils noticed that one of the young students who was non-verbal couldn’t sing along. The younger students had been learning some Makaton to communicate with their classmates, so the younger and older pupils devised a plan to also ‘sing’ using Makaton sign language.

To learn an entire song in Makaton, however, was daunting—especially since the Primary 1s were due to present the song to parents at an assembly. Crooks and the students brainstormed a way to speed up their Makaton training. Using the front-facing cameras on their Chromebooks, pupils played Makaton YouTube videos while watching their hand signs on screen.

“It was the first time that we’d used the front-facing camera to benefit learning,” Crooks says. “It was the best way for the children to perfect their movements. In addition to watching themselves practice Makaton signs in real time, pupils recorded themselves signing using the Flipgrid app, and watched the videos to further refine their signing. “Our learners feel so comfortable with and naturally curious about the technology that they explore unique ways to use it,” Crooks adds.

During the assembly, the Primary 1 pupils both sang and signed ‘Over the Rainbow’ along with their non-verbal classmates. “They all went with Makaton for that one child,” Crooks says. “The child was able to be included, and felt that they'd contributed something to the assembly, instead of just standing with classmates.”

East Lothian Council: Building confidence in handwriting skills

For most children, learning to write and type generates a deep sense of accomplishment. However, when disabilities stand in the way of developing skills such as handwriting, pupils can struggle to communicate what they’ve learned. At East Lothian Council, learning technologist David Gilmour has found that tablets with handwriting recognition can clear this obstacle, giving learners more confidence in their writing skills.

Jack is a Primary 6 student at Ormiston Primary School, and his dyslexia affects his ability to read and write. “To help him read, we can add the OpenDyslexic font extension to a Chromebook,” Gilmour explains. “But for pupils like him, it’s not just about reading written text—the keyboard itself is a problem. We can’t change the keys on the keyboard.”

When Ormiston Primary began using Chromebook Tab 10 devices, Jack discovered that using a stylus suited him better than trying to type on a keyboard. “Typing is hard for me as well as writing,” Jack told Gilmour. “But with the stylus, I can write and it understands what I’m writing.”

The Chromebook Tab 10’s handwriting recognition software can suggest letters and words based on what Jack writes with the stylus; he can then click on the best choice. “We find a lot of our younger students really love a stylus,” says Gilmour.

Susan, a student at another East Lothian primary school, relies on the tablet and stylus to overcome a progressive condition that affects her mobility. She cannot write with her dominant hand, so is learning to write with her other hand, which is also impaired. Because she cannot speak, voice-typing tools are not an option.

“Relearning to write with a hand that becomes easily tired is a challenge,” Gilmour says. He helped Susan practice writing simple shapes as a way to begin forming letters. However, the shapes were not very recognizable, so progress was slow.

Once Susan began using a Chromebook Tab 10 with a stylus, she could more rapidly improve her handwriting. As she writes, the tablet’s software shows possible letters that she can choose. In addition, the software guides her formation of the correct letter shapes, giving her instant feedback from an unbiased observer.

For a student like Susan, whom Gilmour describes as very determined, “with huge enthusiasm for getting on with things,” the tablet and stylus are helping build confidence in handwriting. “She was quickly able to piece together the name of her brother, letter by letter,” Gilmour. “She had a big grin on her face when she realized that she could write his name.”

Looking for guidance and inspiration on improving accessibility in your classroom? Read other Google accessibility case studies here, and visit The A11y Project for more resources.

Thanks for signing up!

Let us know more about your interests.