Inclusive education: Overcoming barriers to technology

06 April 2021


A student uses a tablet for learning.

Persons with disabilities are two and a half times more likely than their peers to have never attended school. Technology is often an asset for bridging this learning gap and achieving inclusive education for all. Furthermore, the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the adoption of certain tools. However, major obstacles remain in terms of accessibility and connectivity. In Bangladesh and Colombia, some initiatives are promising.  

Broadcasting educational programmes in the mass media and providing learning content on digital platforms – these are two ways countries have ensured the continuity of learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Even if they helped vastly expand the reach of educational content…simple technologies like TV and radio were rarely inclusive or equitable,” notes Sobhi Tawil, UNESCO's Director of Educational Foresight, in a 2020 working paper

In the poorest 20% of households, only a small minority of families own a radio or television. And half of the world's population still lack an internet connection. (UNESCO, DHS StatCompiler, 2020)

The pandemic has had an even more severe impact on the education of children with disabilities. To help close the gap, IIEP-UNESCO is currently documenting good practices in inclusive digital learning in the context of COVID-19. Here are two interesting initiatives that have emerged from the preliminary research. 

In Bangladesh, multimedia books are available offline

When the pandemic suddenly arrived in early 2020, many students sheltered at home without their textbooks. Nearly a year later, learning still depends largely on technology and digital content. Several initiatives – started by people with disabilities and initially intended for blind or visually impaired students – have been able to benefit a wider audience of children through distance learning. 

This is notably the case of the "multimedia talking books" developed by the non-governmental organization YPSA (Young Power in Social Action), in collaboration with the Bangladesh government's a2i programme. These are textbooks converted to Digital accessible information system (DAISY-standard) digital audio books, but also digital Braille books and other accessible e-books.

"The system covers learning from class 1 to class 10 (all levels of primary school and half of secondary school). Students can read in full text and/or hear with a human narrative. During COVID- 19, students could use these multimedia books in online courses, and they can be adapted to different types of disability," explains Vashkar Bhattacharjee, National Accessibility Consultant to the a2i, Government of Bangladesh, and Programme Manager at YPSA.

The resources are accessible on smartphones via the internet, or through an accessible book reader that can be used offline. Since the pandemic, these books have been provided to more than 10,000 students with disabilities in Bangladesh. Adding to its success, several thousand items of equipment had also been distributed to students with disabilities before the pandemic. 

"These tools were not so popular before. Now people have no choice. The use of the accessible dictionary increased tenfold during the pandemic,” says Vashkar Bhattacharjee. 

Based on the conversion of 12,000 pages from four monolingual and bilingual (English and Bengali) dictionaries, the accessible dictionary contains translations and definitions in digital text, which can be easily printed in Braille, or in Unicode text, readable by any screen reading software. Also developed by YPSA, it is accessible on the web, but also via a desktop application that can be used offline. 

However, many challenges remain, including "the coordination between the different ministries involved and the problem of connectivity and equipment for children with disabilities.”

"The pandemic has put a strain on education systems that are already fragile in terms of the inclusion of students with disabilities. Educational planners need to promote inclusive digital learning practices, taking into account the many and complex barriers related to accessibility and adoption of technologies.” Jennifer Pye, IIEP specialist in inclusive education

In Colombia, a relay service for real-time sign language translations

The Colombian Relay Center is a free tool, created so that the deaf population can access an online interpreter from a mobile device.

"Colombia has a long experience and a robust regulatory framework in terms of policies or standards for people with disabilities. From the very beginning of the pandemic, the country has been able to rely on proven educational programmes and strategies," explains Martha Laverde, international consultant and educational policy expert. 

The country now has two national platforms for distance learning, managed by the Ministry of Education: Colombia Aprende (Colombia learns), developed before the crisis, and Aprender Digital, contenidos para Todos (Digital learning, content for all), set up to support distance learning during the pandemic. The latter is equipped with audio, video, and text resources covering the entire curriculum, as well as inclusive content for students with visual or hearing disabilities. 

Image of the website

During the pandemic, the National Institute for the Deaf also promoted the use of the Colombian Relay Station, or Centro de Relevo, for educational purposes. Deaf and hearing-impaired students in public schools were able to benefit from real-time sign language translation during online courses based on educational material from the Aprender Digital portal. 

Developed several years ago by the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications, this telephone relay center has historically enabled deaf and hearing people to communicate with each other in real time, for example during a medical appointment. It is now based on a technology platform, accessible on a dedicated mobile application or through video messages shared on instant messaging. 

"However, this system has limits, because students must have the required equipment, i.e. a tablet or a smartphone (...) In Colombia, populations with disabilities are highly concentrated in the south of the country: rural, poor, and isolated areas, and therefore poorly connected, where the social and material conditions of families are often very difficult," says Martha Laverde.



IIEP is currently conducting case studies on emerging practices in inclusive digital learning, as well as evaluations on the impact of COVID-19 on access to distance education for students with disabilities. This work is being carried out in Colombia, Bangladesh, Mauritius, and Rwanda, in collaboration with the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education (UNESCO-IITE). 

This project is directly in line with UNESCO's action for the inclusion of disability through open and distance learning in the face of the pandemic. It is part of a broader global programme of the United Nations Partnership for the Promotion of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.