According to the United Nations Development Programme, the global literacy rate for adults with disabilities is as low as 3 per cent, and only 1 per cent for women with disabilities. The 1 billion people with disabilities are the world’s largest minority, accounting for about 15 percent of the global population. Therefore, it is imperative that they are fully included in society, starting with having equal access to quality education.  

However, students, scholars and researchers with disabilities in higher education remain under-represented and they are among the most marginalized, vulnerable, and excluded groups on campus. They struggle with accessibility to learning facilities and face various forms of stigma and discrimination, as well as barriers to exercising their rights. Inclusive education is important not only for students, scholars and academics with disabilities but the societies they live in, as it helps to combat discrimination, and to promote diversity and participation.  

In the disability and higher education interview series, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) highlights the contributions of intellectuals with disabilities to the world of academia and explores ways to build a truly inclusive learning environment. The first article discusses the relationship between disability and technology as it pertains to academia, which is especially relevant within the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has shifted teaching and learning online. 

Sophocles said that “nothing vast enters the world of mortals without a curse.” This can be applied to technological advancements, when new innovations are launched to improve lives, but less attention is paid to their inadvertent limitations or to those who are left out. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Professor Emerita of English and Bioethics at Emory University in the United States, can attest to the ways in which the job requirements for faculty change as technology evolves, often without accommodating the needs of people with disabilities, thus necessitating their exercise of ingenuity and creativity to meet their professional demands and keep up with this rapidly changing world. 

Prof. Garland-Thomson works as a scholar, educator, researcher and advocate in a new area in education that is referred to as critical disability studies, which aims to advance disability access, inclusion, and identity in a broad range of institutions and communities. A book she co-authored, About Us, is a collection of essays written by people with disabilities on how they navigate the world. She says the most meaningful work she has done as a professor is to “show everyone in an educational institutional environment how fundamental the experience of disability is to the human condition and the fact that people with disabilities can have decent and productive lives.” 

As a professor with a congenital disability, she self-describes as having upper-body restriction, and doing her scholarly work in an increasingly technologically inclined world has made her work easier in many instances, but less so in others. “Most people use technology in order to communicate, to make things and to work, but for people with disabilities, we have the challenge before us, of using technology that has not been built for us,” she said when discussing the relationship between technology and disabilities.  

As an example of how technology can be both inclusive and exclusive, Prof. Garland-Thomson says she uses talk-to-text technology to write and take notes, as traditional keyboards are not compatible with her disability. In that sense, technology helps facilitate her work. However, as learning quickly moved online due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, technology posed a barrier to a smooth virtual teaching experience for her. While attending video meetings, she was unable to use the chat feature or take notes in most videoconferencing platforms. She cited this as one of the instances in which she has to work around technology that was not designed for those with disabilities.  

As a result, it prompted her to collaborate with a colleague who is hearing impaired. By using appropriate lighting and annunciating her words, she is able to make it easier for her colleague to lip-read, and this enables her colleague to assist her with typing notes. The auto-captioning and dictation functions of videoconferencing tools such as Skype also help them communicate effectively with each other online. For the professor, the creative collaboration between faculty with disabilities enables them to support each other and keep up with the changing demands of their work, even though their preferred technologies are not always compatible or designed to be used in tandem.  

Prof. Garland-Thomson said that the process of navigating a teaching and research environment that was not built with persons with disabilities in mind has enriched her approach to scholarly work on disability by giving her the opportunity to become more analytical. Her experience is “a clear example of how technology use for all people has changed over time and how technology increased our [those with disabilities] access to the world and acted as a barrier to our access to the world at the same time.” 

When asked about the implications of the relationship between technology and academia for the future of education, the professor called on all education institutions to take their commitment to diversity and inclusion a step further. “To truly achieve an institutional culture of inclusion, they should recruit more people with disabilities and provide not just access to technologies, but also support,” she explained. “This is the only way students, faculty and administrators with disabilities can feel comfortable to identify as people with disabilities and request the accommodations they need without fear of being understood as an expense or a burden.” 

Prof. Garland-Thomson hopes for a future in academia where disability as a subject is embedded in university curricula and coursework and “written in prose that will be accessible to everyone, no matter the academic discipline.” She also hopes that the history and culture of disability can be widely studied, understood and integrated, “just as how we have integrated women and racial minorities in curriculums and into the institution of higher education.”