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Universities across Australia are failing to adequately address the needs of students who are blind or have low vision according to new research conducted by Vision Australia and endorsed by Disability Discrimination Commissioner Alastair McEwin.

In the past few years, online learning has emerged as an increasingly important method for universities to provide course content. However, the increase in online learning environments has not be designed to include all students and accessibility is a growing concern.

Vision Australia general manager government relations and advocacy and post-graduate student Karen Knight said accessibility barriers are making it extremely stressful, difficult and unrewarding for people who are blind or have low vision to study.

“In some cases, the barriers faced by students in this study resulted in participants abandoning their studies altogether which is concerning because we know there is a clear connection between tertiary education and employment outcomes,” Karen said.

Employment outcomes for people who are blind or have low vision are poor compared to the general population. You are more than 4.4 times more likely to be unemployed if you are blind or have low vision, however, people who have a tertiary education are more likely to be employed.

“Recently, I completed an MBA and even though my lecturers were very helpful and happy to support my needs they just didn’t understand accessibility. I had many situations where presentations were provided in PowerPoint which is not accessible and often I would go to class and they would hand out an exercise on a piece of paper expecting I would be able to do it.

“I also struggled with insufficient lead times to get information in a format workable for me. The production of alternate formats like braille takes time so I always ended up behind right from the outset.”

Vision Australia found students who are blind or have low vision experienced similar issues and respondents had studied at 24 of the 39 Australian public universities.

“We wanted to be very clear with our report that we’re not naming a shaming particular universities but the prevalence and extent of these barriers represent a systemic failure by the university sector to develop and deploy online learning environments in ways that adequately address the needs of students who are blind or have low vision.

“We’re calling on Universities Australia, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency and the Australian Government to remove current accessibility barriers and to ensure that future online learning environments do not replicate the mistakes and deficiencies of the past,” she said.

Participants in the national survey reported they encountered significant accessibility barriers when using online learning environments including:

  • Inaccessibility of key components of online learning environments, such as discussion boards and collaborative tools, to the most common assistive technology used by people who are blind or have low vision;
  • Lack of understanding and timely support from disability services staff;
  • Unwillingness of lecturers to make changes to course delivery formats to make them more accessible; and
  • Inconsistency in the provision of reasonable adjustments.

Read the full report here.