Many schools and other academic institutions place a strong focus on the idea of accessible education. Motivated by the intention to create much more inclusive classroom spaces, schools aim to provide thriving conditions to students from a variety of backgrounds, with a whole range of needs, resources, and cognitive skills. Creating such an environment may require various steps, from providing assistive technology for those with special educational needs to providing the right level of support for students who may have other obstacles to overcome.

When it comes to accessible education and inclusive learning, there are two key concepts at the forefront: equality and equity. In achieving accessible education, which is more important? And can you have inclusive learning if you’re lacking one of them?

Keep reading to find out! We explore the concept of accessible education in greater depth, examine both equality and equity and how they’re different, and explain how educators can actually achieve equity in the classroom.

Accessible education - Sign language teacher in a extra tutoring class with a deaf chil

Accessible Education Defined

So, what exactly is accessible education? Accessible education refers to the process of teaching and designing lessons and courses that directly cater to the diversity of student needs. People come from different backgrounds, equipped with different social and cognitive skills, and varying exposure to digital resources. Ultimately, it is intended for schools to remove any barriers that may arise from such differences and make education easy to access without sacrificing any content.

An article written for the Council of Ontario Universities explains that accessible education aims to provide an inclusive way of teaching, taking into account how factors like gender, race, age, disabilities, sexual orientation, and preferred learning styles can result in students having significantly varied learning experiences.  The process of making education more accessible is a vital part of creating an inclusive classroom, where classes not only include people with diverse characteristics but also treat them fairly. When aiming for this outcome, there are two concepts for consideration that are going to be especially important: equality and equity.

Equality vs. Equity in Accessible Education: What’s the Difference?

The terms ‘equality’ and ‘equity’ feature prominently in discussions about accessible education. They are sometimes used as if they are interchangeable, but they actually mean very different things. If schools are aiming to prioritize accessible education, it is absolutely crucial to understand these differences.  With this in mind, we have broken down the concepts of equality and equity below.

‘Equality’ can be broadly defined as: “the state of being equal to one another”.  Generally, referencing equality within education, centers around ideas like equal access to resources and equal opportunities. This is usually perceived to be a desirable end goal, with all students receiving equal treatment from their teachers. However, as a concept, it has clear limitations too.

One problem with the desire for equal treatment and equal access to resources is that students live in different circumstances, which can actually necessitate a level of inequality in terms of treatment and support. In fact, as part of Scholastic’s Teacher & Principal School Report: Equity in Education, 87% of teachers stated that some of their students face barriers to learning from outside of the educational environment.  For example, if one student grows up in a low-income household, with limited access to technology and with special educational needs, while another student grows up in relative prosperity, without any special educational needs, treating the two students equally in terms of resources, support and funding are unlikely to produce a fair outcome.

On the other hand, ‘Equity’ is achieved by acknowledging the existence of unequal social systems and addressing those systems. The primary focus of an equity strategy is not so much to treat people equally but to treat people justly. This may require unequal treatment to overcome obstacles and individual circumstances.

The Race Matters Institute offers one of the best approaches to think about how equity can be achieved: “Strategies that produce equity must be targeted to address the unequal needs, conditions, and positions of people and communities that are created by institutional and structural barriers.”

Race, special educational needs, and poverty are all good examples of structural barriers, but they are not the only ones. Barriers exist in many forms, and teachers need to understand individual circumstances in order to allocate resources and provide support in accordance with what is needed to create a level playing field. To summarize, the concept of ‘equity’ is based on the idea of ‘fairness’.

Achieving Equity in Education

Understanding the value of equity is one thing. However, it’s another thing entirely to actually create a classroom where equity can be said to have been achieved. In fact, true equity can be extremely difficult to deliver, and it may be best to view it as a continuous goal. There are, however, certain steps that can be taken to improve outcomes.

1. Getting to Know Students

Simply getting to know students and their individual circumstances is one of the most essential and efficient ways to work towards delivering equity in the classroom. Picking up on some of the hidden challenges they face and identifying the students who may require some additional support can go a long way towards creating a fairer learning environment.

2. Assist Those Most in Need

Another key step towards achieving equity in the classroom is to assist those who need extra help. Are all students held to high performance standards? How are standards modified to accommodate students with special needs? As a blog from Thinking Maps highlights, each student should be given the support and scaffolding they need to optimize their educational progress. The goal is for all students to work in their Zone of Proximal Development, which is defined as “the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help.” That may mean that they have different expectations on an assignment or are given more time to complete it, or are given resource teachers or aides that provide additional support.

3. Try to Embrace Differences

As the last piece of advice, it is not only important to identify differences, but also to actually embrace them. People from different backgrounds, with different traits, are also likely to have different preferences, including learning styles. While core lesson content should be fairly rigid, flexibility in how learning happens is beneficial.

Summing It All Up

Accessible education is a process that is intended to make education available to people, regardless of their race, gender, economic status, level of ability, sexual orientation, and cultural background. When it comes to achieving accessible education in the classroom, both equality and equity are very important.

A good way to think of it is – accessible education is an approach that is designed to remove some of the obstacles that might otherwise prevent equal access to education.  However, true equality is not necessarily desirable in education settings because students do not operate on a level playing field with all requiring the same support in the classroom.

Instead, the goal should be to provide equity and justice in the classroom — with all students receiving fair treatment from educations, but with attention, resources, and funding allocated based on need. Additionally, an accessible classroom should be equipped with the right devices, such as interactive whiteboards and tablets, to allow each and every student the opportunity and ability to learn and participate. Technology can help increase equity and eliminate any barriers to learning if used well.

(From the editor: This article was originally published on ViewSonic Library.)