There are approximately 61 million adults in the United States who are living with a disability. Of those 61 million, many are not receiving the quality education that they deserve. We review accessible education and learning styles.
What is accessible education?
“Accessible education” (also known as “accessible learning”) is "the process of designing courses and developing a teaching style to meet the needs of people from a variety of backgrounds, abilities, and learning styles." Accessible education follows similar principles of web accessibility and other access-related standards and guidelines − maintain consistency, ensure effective communication, provide course-related materials in formats that can be understood, etc. Essentially, poorly designed environments negatively impact accessibility and the student's ability to learn.
Advocates of accessible education argue that the burden of equitable learning should be on those responsible for providing education rather than students. While most students with disabilities are very aware of their responsibilities to coordinate accommodations through their Disability Resource Office or Disability Services Office, Accessible education is a high-level approach to ensure equal access across the board. Think of it as Universal Design for education purposes, where creating accessible course content is a step towards improved access to learning for all students.
Obstacles impacting accessibility
Millions of Americans face barriers to accessible education. Those barriers can include speaking English as their second language (this includes students who speak ASL as their first language), a need for accessing course materials in braille, or having a learning style that requires a variety of classroom instruction. For example, students with dyslexia may benefit from audible learning materials. Students with ADHD may perform better if they have quiet places to learn, and persons with learning disabilities may comprehend the content better in specialized learning programs, experience greater success testing with additional time, or retain information better when education materials in alternative formats are provided, etc.
What's important is that education systems have built-in flexibility to adapt to a student's needs, and learning styles.
Understanding learning styles
A learning style is a preferential way in which a student absorbs, comprehends, and retains information. Examples of learning styles include visual or spatial, auditory, verbal, and kinesthetic. It’s possible to have multiple learning styles, and learning styles are neither static nor fixed.
Visual (spatial) learning
Visual learners best retain information when "color, layout, maps, and images are used to drive a message." Visual learners also have a good spatial sense.
There are a few techniques that can be implemented to help improve a visual learner’s accessibility to educational materials and ability to retain information. To help a visual learner, use mind maps with colors and pictures to replace text, incorporate different color-coordinated pens when relaying information, create diagrams, and ask a visual learner to use visualization to picture a concept with their mind.
Visual learners comprehend information best by seeing and benefit from writing down the notes that they hear during a lecture so that they can visualize the information later.
Auditory learners have a heightened sense of pitch and rhythm and like to work with sound and music. They learn best when listening, repeating things out loud, asking questions, and participating.
Improve accessibility for auditory learners by incorporating sound, rhythm, and music in their learning, or creating mnemonics or acrostics to the tune of a jingle or a part of a song.
Verbal learners find it easiest to express themselves with both the written and spoken word and know the meaning of many words.
A few tricks to improve accessibility for verbal learners is to try techniques that involve speaking and writing (such as using recordings or talking one’s self through procedures), role-playing, reading content aloud in a varied tone instead of a monotonous one, or creating a short script.
Kinesthetic Learning Style
Kinesthetic learners mainly use their sense of touch to intake information about the world around them. They usually prefer to engage in physical activities.
Educators can improve accessibility for kinesthetic learners by incorporating touch, action, movement, and hands-on work for their learning activities, using physical objects as much as possible, encouraging flashcards to help memorize information, or finding ways to act out the material that they are learning.
Virtual simulators and interactive study devices are more helpful for kinesthetic learners.
Learning styles and online education
Some students with disabilities may face significant challenges as a result of online learning. While visual learners may enjoy e-learning due to online curriculums providing visual information such as graphs, videos, and presentations, kinesthetic learners, on the other hand, may struggle with online learning due to a lack of engagement. Then again, online learning can give the kinesthetic learner a chance to move around freely during the lectures, which could potentially improve their ability to retain information. Auditory learners can excel in an online learning environment due to its emphasis on listening, but only if distractions are kept to a minimum.
Ultimately, the importance of learning styles may be secondary to accessible education. However, having an awareness of a students' learning style, coupled with an emphasis on creating accessible education for all, educators can improve the likelihood that students will have the ability to successfully comprehend the information provided and obtain the education they need to live an independent life.