The Irreversible Digital Inclusion Movement
Accessibility and Design for All are the base for more independent living and self-determined participation for people with disabilities, the aging population and many other groups in our society. Accessibility and Design for All are the anchors and entrance points to reach the ultimate goal of more independent living and self-determined participation in all domains as e.g. education, work, politics, administration, culture, leisure/sports, religion, entertainment).
Accessibility, Design for All, and the role of Assistive Technologies are accepted as a fundamental social, political and legal requirement in an open, democratic and inclusive society, best expressed with the globally accepted UN-Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The Higher Education Gap
Following this evidence and growing importance, one must expect that Accessibility and Design for All are an integral part of mainstream curricula in order to respect, reflect and implement the potential of Accessibility, and Design for All approach for the benefit of individuals, their communities, business, economics and society as a whole. Higher education (HE) is the agreed and defined educational setting where such developments are pushed forward through education and by building a common understanding using proven methodological frameworks for science, research and conceptual implementation, embedded in awareness raising and common-sense building.
In respect of the growing importance of Accessibility and Design for All there is striking evidence they are not yet part of core HE curricula. Accessibility and Design for All are popping up as additional or accompanying aspects or elective specializations, but very seldom and only in some best practice examples have they already reached the status of core aspects of HE curricula. This gap is seen as a major reason for the slow, or now, overcoming mainstream barriers, lack of awareness, what is delaying inclusion, hindering innovation and in consequence withholding the enormous potential of digital inclusion for people with disabilities, the older generation and other groups with functional limitations.
Not being part of curricula leads to reduced awareness, knowledge and skills and impacts on the actual implementation of Accessibility and Design for All, as well as the use of Assistive Technologies by users, which contradicts the outlined importance and need. Professionals at all levels (e.g. planning, decision making, designing, implementing, maintaining), leading staff and decision makers are not aware of the body of knowledge, guidelines, standards, techniques and tools in Accessibility and Design for All and not equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to design, implement, procure, set-up, integrate, use, maintain services and products respecting the requirements of the broadest range of users possible.
Project ATHENA responds fully to one of the main Erasmus+ programme priorities: Inclusion and Diversity. By developing a set of recommendations on how to integrate accessibility and design for all into the HE curricula, we want to make another step forward in promoting equal opportunities, access
and social inclusion of people with disabilities.
With ATHENA, we aim to support the higher education sector in becoming more interconnected, innovative and inclusive. We hope that with this project, we will accelerate the higher education transformation throughout Europe in order to train future generations in knowledge for an inclusive society. We plan to do it by developing and testing guidelines and recommendations on incorporating accessibility in curricula to stimulate innovative learning and teaching practices to tackle the social inclusion of persons with disabilities. Incorporating accessibility in curricula universities would reduce skills mismatches and offer programmes much more relevant for the labour market and the inclusive society.
We chose the Cooperation Partnerships as with project ATHENA we hope to increase the quality and relevance of higher education teaching programs through development and effective dissemination of guidelines and recommendations on incorporating accessibility in HE curricula. We will base it on the experience of 4 universities already working for many years on accessibility and in cooperation with the European Disability Forum (which represents over 100 million persons with disability in Europe). We will create recommendations by exchanging and developing new practices and methods. We want to push forward the transformation in HE sector to offer students education which will include relevant knowledge on accessibility, leading to improvements and new approaches in a wide variety of professions, leading to a more inclusive society.