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Opening more doors to education and careers for disabled people globally

Looking over the shoulder of a woman holding a mobile phone in her hand

More than one billion people worldwide live with a form of disability. At the same time, the pathways through education tend to have a one-size-fits-all design, expecting disabled learners to find individual workarounds and solutions, often without the right advice and support.

The Open University's (OU) Dr Tim Coughlan is leading the development of a Digital Access Advisor that will help remove barriers for disabled people and unlock their learning and career potential.

“There are large gaps in terms of adult literacy and involvement with college and university education among disabled people in almost every country,” said Dr Tim Coughlan, Senior Lecturer, Institute of Educational Technology (IET). “Disabled learners benefit from tailored guidance and support, based around discussing their individual needs, the barriers they are facing, and what’s going to work for their study goals. There need to be new ways for this to happen, open to everyone, otherwise millions of people will keep on missing out the chance to fulfil their ambitions and potential.”

The availability of expert advisors to provide a one-to-one service is very limited, even in countries and educational institutions with relatively good levels of support for disabled students. Society and technology have also shifted what is possible: Educators and institutions are more aware of potential ways to support disabled learners, and legislation has increased impetus on this. Assistive technologies are known to be effective in overcoming barriers to learning, and while historically these have been expensive and difficult to access, in many cases these are now available within mainstream operating systems and mobile apps. Artificial intelligence is driving continued enhancement to these technologies.

With backing from the Open Societal Challenges fund, an OU team of researchers is designing a low-cost Digital Access Advisor that will transform the international landscape of support. The virtual assistant will offer disabled people the chance to engage in a sophisticated dialogue that recognises they have individual needs. The Advisor will be built on a large and ever-evolving bank of insights and expertise around the different needs of people in different situations and locations around the world, the wide range of disabilities, and the impact of new technologies as they emerge.

The work builds on trials of a simple virtual assistant system: Taylor, developed by the OU for its disabled students with support from Microsoft, and guiding them through disability disclosure processes. Even with the basic first version of the system, 65% of participants preferred the conversation with Taylor over completing forms to access support, and in a further pilot, around 90% of students said they would like to use Taylor again. The project comes at a time when more higher education institution are looking to make use of virtual assistants as the norm. The virtual assistant market is predicted to be worth $14 billion by 2035.

In its first year the Digital Access Advisor project will pull together a wider community of partners - including Jisc - to be part of the design and prototyping stages. Design workshops will involve as wide a range as possible of disabled students and their experiences alongside other stakeholders with their insights and expertise around delivering the most useful support. The crucial bank of knowledge will be crowdsourced via the community engaged with the project, and aim to collect and bring together more than 1,000 pieces of advice on effective tools and strategies from diverse students and contexts.

A roadmap for global delivery will then be set out, including plans to pilot the Advisor with three or more initial universities and colleges, including international partners, and the agreement of partnerships with organisations to license the system worldwide.