An important step towards a universally designed society
The Norwegian government has proposed legislation where the requirements for accessible ICT also will apply to the educational sector. Teaching aids and methods are also specified in the proposal. To define such requirements for the teaching environment is an important step towards a universally designed society.
A change of perspective
Equal rights to education is a long-standing principle in Norway, but the proposed legislation may indicate a significant change of perspective from which one considers this principle. Most importantly there´s been a lack of definition on what this principle means, but in addition the public debate has often circled around economical rather than practical possibilities to participate and complete the education.
Although primary school is free of charge in Norway, there are quite a few occasions where the parents are expected, although not obligated, to contribute economically. When discussing functional abilities, it tends to be more about individual facilitation rather than accessibility and universal design. There is nothing in the Norwegian legislation stating that all pupils as far as possible should be part of a group during teaching, and follow the same plan, use the same teaching aids and interact with the same digital interfaces. This despite the large running costs for individual facilitation, while accessibility to a substantial degree is an investment. To our experience not everyone expects pupils with impairments to deliver their papers the same way as the rest of the class. This is a basis for stigmatization, and may easily weaken the self-confidence for the pupils in question.
Regarding higher education, there is much and eligible debate about the size of loans and scholarships from the Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund (Lånekassen), but there is only one small sentence in the legislation that universities and colleges should be accessible. In this context, there is no definition of what accessible is, other than that it is only referring to the physical environment. As an ever-increasing part of the teaching environment is moved into the digital world, this is an obvious deficiency.
Our children´s future
Bottom line: it is about our children´s future. With a universally designed teaching environment, both physical and digital, both teaching methods and teaching aids, both attitude and practical, we ensure that our children not only has equal rights, but also equal possibilities for education.
By creating and showing the possibilities, the children will have a better chance at figuring out what they want and what they can, rather than being limited by what they cannot. This will probably lead to increased motivation for continuing their education, which in the Norwegian society has become very important for gaining employment. And according to the Norwegian Directorate for Children, Youth and Family Affairs this is probably even more important for employees with impairments.
An important part of the foundation for this proposed legislation was a socioeconomical analysis of the consequences of including the educational sector under the requirements for accessible ICT, which was conducted in cooperation between Funka and Oslo Economics in 2014. The main conclusion from this was that even if the effects are hard to quantify accurately, there is a significant probability that the costs of improving the digital teaching environment will be more than countered by lower expenses for individual facilitation and higher revenues from increased employment rates.
However, it is not only about the digital teaching environment. In our work, we´ve come across teenagers that already in junior high school has been so disillusioned about their own possibilites that they have practically given up the thought of future employment, because the focus often is put on the limitations rather than the possibilities. One of these teenagers is Andreas Semb, but he was lucky and had an amazing experience at the company Uloba during work week. He suddenly realised that it was possible to pursue a career, as he saw several employees with impairments being fully employed with important and meaningful tasks.
Just about the first thing he did after his first day was to search for relevant secondary educations. He came back to Uloba as apprentice, after Uloba took the fight with the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration and made them approve using personal assistance also for young apprentices – earlier it was an unwritten rule that one had to be 25 years to have personal assistance in employment.
Andreas now has his certificate of apprenticeship, and the public revenues from a full life of employment will cover a substantial part of the public expenses for support workers. Unfortunately, many others end up with a life on public support, with substantial public expenses, while the need for personal assistance will stay about the same, just placed under a different budget post.
An accessible society
The previous Norwegian government had an ambition that Norway should be fully accessible by 2025. The current government has removed the specific year, while keeping the basic ambition. To reach such an objective, the educational sector is an important step, but in the long run this objective need to be extended into the work environments as well. And not the least, those already being covered by the existing legislation on accessibility got to get moving.
Through the project Digital barriers for employment, performed by Funka in cooperation with Implement Consulting Group, we found that many employees experience hardship and flat out discrimination due to flawed and inaccessible business solutions and other digital interfaces. In addition, we know that the employment rate for persons with impairments is significantly lower than for the entire population. It is not improving either, despite efforts being made both by the current and previous government to increase the share of employees in this group.
The Norwegian Directorate for Children, Youth and Family Affairs has found that the educational level among persons with impairments is significantly lower than for the entire population. This is probably an important reason for proposing this change of legislation. In the same survey, they found that the probability to gain employment increased more with the level of education for persons with impairments than for the entire population. This is a clear indication on the importance of an accessible learning environment, so the proposed change of legislation is a significant change that should have big positive consequences.
Still, we sometimes hear the employers find it difficult to find qualified associates with impairments. This may have many reasons, among those the mentioned level of education. We found another possible cause in our project on digital barriers, as it seems to be deficiencies in the recruitment phase. Several respondents had experienced problems using digital applications, digital testing solutions and digital communication platforms in the recruitment process. Luckily, we do see some progress here, for instance the recruitment firm Jobbnorge, that by funding from Norwegian Directorate for Children, Youth and Family Affairs and competence from Funka has improved their solution for job applications, both for employer and employee.
The road ahead
An accessible society is a premise for among others digital first for public services, equality for all citizens on all arenas, and the opportunity for an independent life for as much of your lifetime as possible. Even though Funka is very happy for the proposed change of legislation, and expects it to go through processing, it is still just a step on the way. We expect that this legislative process will continue in the near future to also cover the digital work environment.
At the same time, we are aware that there are important discussions around other parts of the proposed legislation, among others concerns that equality on gender will be weakened, and that discrimination in the personal domain has not been included in the proposal.
Even so, the legislation is only one of the instruments towards an accessible society, and must be complemented by driving forces and well-functioning enforcement. Another proposed change of legislation is intended to create clearer division of roles, with the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombudsman as driving force and the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Tribunal as enforcer. There are critics here as well, and there is a risk for reduced capacity and competence in a transitional phase.
The public driving force still needs to be complemented by other driving forces, among those user organisations, private businesses and citizens. In our opinion there are still surprisingly few complaints to the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombudsman related to impairments and accessibility.
To facilitate the big steps towards an accessible society, we need a good combination of legislation, raising awareness, innovative and well-functioning solutions, and reasonable enforcement of the legislation.
And the most important premise to succeed is the desire to create a better society!
Torbjørn Helland Solhaug