Reflections on Accessibility Challenges for Disabled Learners in Cambodia


Notwithstanding a remarkable recovery in Cambodian education in the last decade, access for disabled learners has lagged behind.  Accessibility goes beyond the availability of computers and teaching resources.  


Barriers to education for disabled students start with barriers in society. Large pupil:teacher ratios and small classrooms reduce accessibility. Instruments for diagnosis are not in place and, as a result, students with learning difficulties or ‘invisible’ disabilities such as dyslexia or mental impairments often end up being labelled as stupid and drop out. The education system is strongly centralized with a rigid curriculum and inflexible learning outcomes that emphasize academic achievement, as opposed to all-round development. As a result, teachers are less flexible and pay less attention to individual learning needs.  

Local NGOs tend to establish special schools, rather than develop integrated programs. Assistive technologies they introduce may not be scalable and render learners dependent on technologies that their families or future employers cannot afford. The pre-existence of a segregated education system makes it more difficult to achieve inclusive education later.  Unfortunately, activities of specialized NGOs give other organisations an excuse not to focus on disabled learners, sustaining an old-fashioned, medical approach to disabilities.

There are socio-economic barriers as well.  Many Cambodian parents decide not to send their disabled children to school. They consider education primarily as a way to acquire wealth and wrongly believe that the first few years of education matter less than the next ones. As a consequence, they tend to invest all their resources in the education of one child, rather than in an equitable education for all their children. Moreover, employment opportunities are scarce as employers are not encouraged to hire disabled people. Until 2008 disabled people in Cambodia were even excluded from teaching.

This is enhanced by social discrimination. Buddhist culture considers a disability as bad karma and a punishment for faults committed in a previous life (Krousar Thmey 2010 Annual Report). This leads to social discrimination and instils a sense of complacency in disabled people and their environment.  Online education in general still faces tough cultural challenges.  Online learning is often considered as second-rate education in a society where education is traditionally associated with teacher instruction and memorisation.  Positive role models are important in changing attitudes and behaviour, as well as systems of quality assurance for online education. 


In 2012 the Cambodian National Assembly decided to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). As the Convention enters into force on 19 January 2013, it will legally bind the government to work on inclusive education.  Ratification fuels expectations that the Cambodian government will adopt a social and universal approach to disabilities, in alignment with the WHO’s position. Developing course and materials with accessibility and flexibility in mind benefit all learners, as these cater to a variety in learning styles, learning speeds and impairments. 

Disabled learners may benefit from more online learning as they can study at their own pace at home. Digital learning materials are usually more flexible as font sizes and types, background colours and format can be changed and assistive technologies used. Online learning allows more control on communication and disclosure. However, online learning may also increase barriers, due to badly designed software and learning materials, or due to a lack of personal support.  

In Cambodia ‘blended’ approaches with supporting regional centres, located in schools or centres for teacher education, that  complement online activities and function as places for tutor assistance and peer support, could be explored. A model applied for some time, among others, in Brazil. Online learning would expand educational opportunities for people outside the capital, deploy scarce human resources more efficiently and allow teachers to follow in-service training without having to leave their schools. The Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (TESSA) programme is a good example of contextualising online learning to teacher education in developing countries.

Changes in legislation do not automatically lead to improvements in accessibility. The government needs to invest in human capital for specialised support services and make assistive technology more widely available, for example through loan kits.  Principles of universal design and awareness of disabilities should be embedded in general teacher education.  Most importantly, disabled people need to be convinced that they as well can have dreams and aspirations, and that they can achieve them as well, with the right support.

Online learning can contribute to an inclusive learning environment by providing a platform for creating and sharing accessible learning materials, creating opportunities for scaling up pre-service and in-service teacher education, allowing learners to study in a more flexible way and opening up access to international courses.

#H810 Final Impressions

The frequency of posts on this blog has been rather limited during the last few months.  This is largely due to H810, Accessible Online Learning, at the UK Open University.  By submitting my end paper (EMA), my third module on my way to a Master in Online and Distance Education is now officially finished (although results won’t be in for a few months).  I posted impressions on previous modules, H800 and H807, before.

Each module follows a broadly similar structure, based on carefully crafted course texts, academic and website readings, asynchronous discussions with peers and tutors in the forum and regular flurries of activity ahead of paper deadlines.  In these papers, learners need to relate course content to their own context.  H810 was not different from other modules.  The relative balance in quality does vary though and some aspects were different.

This module was the most practically oriented so far. All kinds of tools and software passed under the spotlight.  Standards and their practical translation into guidelines were discussed.  Developing and assessing learning resources was an important part in the assessment. The weight of academic papers was lower than in previous modules.  Instead we looked at more videos and websites.  The academic character was more than compensated though in the last block of the course, that focused on interpreting accessibility in education through three models (Institutional Change, Activity Theory, Communities of Practice), taking a more policy and institutional stance.  In particular institutional change (North, 1994), which discusses the difference between theory (issuing rules) and practice (lack of change on the ground) formed a welcome policy viewpoint complementary to the operational focus in the first half of the course.

Tutor support was not so much strong in quantity (fewer supporting messages in every discussion) as in quality (other viewpoints, pointers to supplementary resources, useful tips), which I appreciated.  I found the quality of peer discussion very high, as most learners had a professional role in supporting disabled learners in higher education. For me, without experience ‘in the field’, these discussion offered a welcome addition and reality check to the academic materials.

No course is perfect though and there were some glitches. There was little attention for accessibility development outside the Anglo-Saxon world.  There were no synchronous discussions, except for one tutor-led presentation on Xerte Online Toolkits, which I liked very much. In H800 these discussions helped to create a group bond and although tutor group discussions were lively, I can’t say there was a strong community feeling.  I found the time available for writing the EMA (a 6000 words essay) extremely short, in particular as the deadline was right after Christmas holidays.  A short break sometime in course activities would have been fine. 

But overall I found H810 an extremely interesting course, partly because I had very little prior knowledge.  It definitely raised my awareness for accessibility issues in (online) learning.  Concepts such as a social view on disability, invisible disabilities and universal design are relevant for development cooperation as well.  The course strengthened my belief in online learning, and made me looking forward to my next module, H809 (although I’d love it would start a few weeks later).

#H810 Financial Support for Disabled Students in Flanders

Photo Credit: Klasse
This week we look at forms of financial support that disabled students receive in higher education. As Cambodia does not have a system for financial support for disabled students to study higher education, I decided to look at the situation in the Flemish Community.

Flanders does have a wide range of support mechanisms to help disabled students succeed in higher education. However, findings one’s way through the maze of involved agencies can be daunting.     Additionally, HE in Flanders is heavily subsidized already with annual tuition fees for most courses not exceeding 500 euros.

In the UK the newly approved Equality Act requires anticipation, compared with the previous Disability Act that required reasonable adjustment. The principle of anticipation seems not yet to be embedded in Flemish legislation, although various institutions seem to work on Universal Design Principles, to make all courses and course materials more inclusive.

1. Legal basis for financial and other support 

– The UN convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was ratified by Belgium in 2009. 

– The Participation Decree (link in Dutch) (2004) intends to stimulate participation to higher education for all students, including those with a disability or learning difficulty. The decree stipulates that each institution should make adjustments for disabled students.  However, as the adjustments are not clearly defined, students remain dependent on the commitment of the HE institution.

– The Flexibility Decree (link in Dutch)(2004) provides the framework for differentiated and flexible learning trajectories.  It intends to improve access to HE for disabled students.

– The Flemish Decree on Equal Opportunities (link in Dutch)(2008) prohibits discrimination based on among others physical or genetic characteristics, disability or health situation. The Decree also makes it compulsory for the institution to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate students with a disability. 

– The Flemish Decree on the Financing of Higher Education (link in Dutch)(2008) stipulates that HE institutions can receive additional funds for students with a disability. A condition is that students need to be registered with the Vlaams Agentschap voor Personen met een Handicap (VAPH). Students with a learning difficulty such as dyslexia however are not eligible for financial support. For these students the schools themselves have a budget to pay for extra support.

2. Financial support is provided by the Vlaams Agentschap voor Personen met een Handicap (VAPH), Flemish government agency.  Various non-profit agencies play a complementary role. Higher Education in Flanders is overwhelmingly publicly organized.

– The VAPH provides:
  • A budget for a pedagogical or technical assistant (can be a fellow student). There are limitations on what this budget can be used for, as it’s not intended for adapting learning materials, having someone take notes during lessons or helping finding resources in the library. 
  • Disabled students can request a ‘Personal Assistance Budget’ (PAB). This budget can be used by the student to organize and finance assistance. The student can employ one or more assistants to help with studies or daily activities such as cooking, transport… 
  • Reimbursement of Screenreader software
  • Within this agency there’s an unit that deals with assistive technologies and interpreters for deaf and hard of hearing students.
  • This is a non-profit organisation that coordinates the deployment of interpreters for deaf and hard of hearing.  Some interpreters use VGT (Flemish Sign Language), others write down what is being said (‘Schrijftolk’).

– Disabled students can be eligible for study financing, depending on their parents’ income. This is only for ‘initial academic courses’ such as bachelor and master courses, but not for postgraduate courses. As mentioned before, fees for postgraduate courses are not limited as those for bachelor and master courses are. 

Epos vzw is a non-profit organisation that provides financial support for disabled students who want to study abroad under the Erasmus programme. The organisation provides an additional budget on top of the regular scholarship to cover additional costs.

It should be noted that registration fees at Flemish institutions for higher education are notably low compared with those at UK institutions. Most Bachelor and Master courses have an annual fee of approx. 500 euro. Only postgraduate courses can be much more expensive. 

3. Barriers for accessing support

– Students need a recently issued medical certificate for accessing various kinds of support. This renders disclosure compulsory and may also provide a financial barrier for some students.

– The type of assistance available and required procedure to obtain assistance varies between institutions and even between departments of an institution.

– Frequently there’s a lack of communication about the available support. For example, a list with possible adjustments or assistive technologies is not always available. Students are requested to ask what type of assistance they need, but are not always aware of all technical and other types of assistance available.

– Some institutions have a list with possible adjustments and support and let students choose what they need. This seems to be perceived as positive as individual needs are recognized. However, students need to select the type of support early, and can not always accurately assess what they would need.

– Many learning difficulties such as dyslexia are not recognized by the VAPH.

– Support seems to be scattered among various ministries and organisations and there are many rules for each type of support. It may seem quite daunting for disabled students and their families to find their way in the maze of support mechanisms. Fortunately, most institutions have one person per department who helps with disabled students with their study trajectory.


The ‘Support Center for Inclusive Higher Education’ (Steunpunt for Inclusief Hoger Onderwijs’ (SIHO) – link to limited English version) is a inter-universitary knowledge centre for studying with a disability or learning difficulty.  It’s an excellent source of information and contains various studies and testimonies from students (written and video, both in Dutch,), teachers with a disability (in Dutch) and lecturers.

#H810 Challenges Disabled Students Face in Education

Photo credit: see below

Disabled students encounter a range of challenges in their education, including in online education.  Th is week’s readings feature a few qualitative studies and a variety of case studies to describe the challenges disabled students are facing.  Most readings deal with dyslexic students, and students with mobility, visual or hearing impairments.  Occasionally, we read about students with mental disabilities, dyspraxia and epilepsy.  

Challenges go beyond the accessing the course materials and can be roughly divided between course related challenges, challenges related to registration and bureaucracy, and psychological challenges.

Course related challenges include:

  • accessing course materials: 

Many disabled students use assistive technologies such as screen readers, mechanical page turners, scanners, laptops with specialised software etc. Challenges also include bad pedagogy (such as long PowerPoint lectures) and design (such as images without description).

  • communication with other students

This includes challenges to engage in group activities and to respect the deadlines that come with it.  However, informal peer support is important for many learners with disabilities.

  • examination and assessment

These include problems to work under time pressure, extra time needed due to use of assistive technologies and difficulties to express verbally or orally one’s thoughts.  Inappropriate feedback such as excessive attention on spelling and grammar mistakes for dyslexic students can be demotivating.

  • managing learning

These include challenges to find their way in a multitude of assignments and readings. Looking up and accessing third party materials online may pose challenges.  An university library can be a daunting place for a student with dyslexia.

Registration related challenges include:

  • dealing with procedure to get accepted for additional help
  • deciding whether to apply or not for additional help
  • lack of communication between the administration and the academic department, or between various departments (‘glass walls’)
  • waiting for extra help to arrive 
  • time and energy spent on administrative issues encroaching on study tasks.

Students with disabilities are each engaged in a ‘personal journey’ (Goode, 2007) trying to reconcile a desire to study with a learning disability.  They are actively managing their identity in various ways.  Psychological challenges in doing this include:

  • Dealing with the decision whether or not to disclose their disability

People may have various reasons to try concealing their disability.  Students try finding a balance between a need for assistance and a desire to live and study (as) independently (as possible). Some students fear being stigmatized by their peer students or harming their job prospects when disclosing a disability.  Some students fear being victimized, and prefer a ‘give-and-take’ relationship.  In online learning, students arguably have more control over what they want to disclose and to whom.  

  • Deciding whether to use additional services & issues related to their use

Mortimer and Crozier (2006) report that additional services are underused (and perhaps also oversold).  Lack of information and aversion from bureaucracy may offer some explanation, but case studies show that quite a few students deliberately choose not use services that they are eligible to.  For them using them may present more disadvantages than benefits.  Disadvantages can include creating a sense of dependency or abandoning their coveted ‘ordinariness’.  Sometimes they fear that staff or peers may be unappreciative to their ‘special’ situation.  

Both challenges come down to finding the right balance between becoming ‘invisible’ and becoming ‘extravisible’.

Students with disabilities can become ‘invisible’ if/when their needs are not met— they are disabled by the environment from full participation and ‘disappear from view’. On the other hand, if and when they have to go out of their way to make their needs known they become ‘extravisible’ in a negative way.(Goode, 2007, p.42)

  •  Negotiate a variety of social relations

Studying usually brings a variety of challenges that studying entails, even without a disability to handle. Studying is often a first break with parental oversight. Disabilities may manifest more clearly as study demands rise.  For quite a few students in the case studies studying is a kind of personal endeavour, proving to themselves that they can achieve something, move beyond their limits.

Already facing physical and psychological hurdles, they often didn’t have the energy to ‘do battle’. ‘Battling the system’ was a very common phrase and several interviewees had come close to dropping out. In other cases students had become battle-hardenedand were more able to ‘demand’ the rights to which they knew they were entitled (Goode, p.44). 

The case studies seem to support the argument for a social approach to learning disabilities, in which courses are designed with flexibility in mind, enabling variations in study pace, media preferences, study approach and assessment.  In its accessibility policy institutions should not only focus on developing a system of specialist help, but on designing courses that are inviting for as large and diverse group of learners as is reasonably possible.  

Goode, J. (2007) ‘“Managing” disability: early experiences of university students with disabilities’, Disability & Society, 22(1), pp. 35–48.
Mortimore, T. and Crozier, W.R. (2006) ‘Dyslexia and difficulties with study skills in higher education’, Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), pp. 235–251.

Credit for the picture at the top to UNICEF/UGDA2012-00127/Michele Sibiloni. provides stories on inclusive education from many countries.

#H810 Accessibility and Online Learning

Image credit: Phil Roeder (CC)

Accessibility is the removal of barriers. Barriers can relate to physics and mental disabilities, but also to geography, culture, ethnicity and gender. In an educational context it means providing equitable access to educational opportunities to all.

Accessibility is a responsibility of all of us. In an (online) educational context there is a shared responsibility of administrators, course developers & designers, teaching staff and co-learners to ensure that everyone has access to an equivalent (not necessarily equal) learning experience.

Online learning has potential to remove barriers for disabled learners. Online learning doesn’t require transportation to campuses and lecture halls. Learners have more control over what and how much they disclose to whom. Various tools enable learners to overcome all kinds of impairments and engage in online communication with fellow learners. Online learners may enable disabled learners to be real peer learners and engage more easily in a reciprocal, ‘give and take’ relationship. However, online learning may also increase barriers, due to badly designed software and learning materials, or due to a lack of personal support.

In developing countries 90% of children with disabilities do not attend school (UNICEF data). In Cambodia there are both political, economic and cultural reasons for the lack of accessibility to education in my opinion. Ensuring accessibility is not a matter for a small minority of the population. An estimated 20% of the population in Australia and New-Zealand have a disability. Lifelong learning means that more learners are elderly people, with various kinds of impairments. Impairments may be temporary such as a broken arm. Accessible learning materials are also flexible learning materials, catering for various styles and contexts, thereby benefiting all learners.

#H810 Thinking about Accessibility in Education

Some reflections on the first two chapters of Seale (2006) and the questions in the course text.

Reliable data on the number of learners with disabilities is important to raise awareness with institutions and policy makers on the importance of increasing accessibility of education.  Accurate data make it more difficult to ignore or minimize the challenge.  Officially, 4.5% of the Cambodian population has a disability (UN-SDD, 2010), but given its turbulent past, murderous traffic and high diabetes rate the figure seems an underestimation. Comparing and interpreting disability data is notoriously tricky with various definitions being used. Official percentages vary widely, for example between 1% and 20% in Asia-Pacific.

Again these [percentages of disabled students] figures should be treated with caution. They may reflect an increase in students’ willingness to disclose a disability, changes in the figures in the  general population, changes in support for children in the school system or some other factors. (Seale, 2006, p.10)

from: Disability at a Glance, 2010

Traditional definitions of disability and accessibility focused on the medical diagnosis.  Legal and administrative interpretations are still infused with this approach.  The ICF classification from the WHO, however, integrates more contextual and social elements in its approach to disability.

The WHO argue that their new classification now operates a universal rather than a minority model of disability where everyone may have disability; disability is seen as a continuum rather than dichotomous and is understood as multi-dimensional. This universal model is based on the value of inclusion and rejects the view that disability is a defining feature of a separate minority group of people. (Seale, 2006, p12)

In this approach every learner may have some kind of disability, understood as some limitation of the learner experience. In the Cambodian situation, these may include traumatic experiences, as many families are broken or still face the traumas experienced during the Khmer Rouge regime and its aftermath.  Visual or hearing impairments are often compounded by a lack of affordable glasses or hearing devices.  The social view considers the definition and extent of a disability socially constructed.

Despite legal, pedagogic – a course designed for accessibility benefits all learners – and moral reasons to develop truly inclusive education, disabled learners may often decide not to disclose their disability.  In online learning, the absence of face-to-face contact may increase the barrier.  In Cambodia, culture, religion and poverty all may play a strong role in attitudes toward disability and education, which I want to explore further in this course.

Participants gave a number of practical reasons for why they concealed their impairments:

  • those with invisible disabilities expressed concern that others would not believe that they had a real disability;
  • participants felt that others would see them as less competent;
  • they wished to be viewed as consistent and trustworthy;
  • they worried that others would see them only as needing help rather than as a peer who can give and take in a relationship.  (Seale, 2006, p.16)
Seale argues that disability and accessibility should be treated as social rather than individual problems.  An education system should be flexible enough to cater for a variety of learning needs, rather than redirect learners with disabilities to specialized or medical services.

Accessibility, given this redefinition, is the ability of the learning environment to adjust to the needs of all learners. Accessibility is determined by the flexibility of the education environment (with respect to presentation, control methods, access modality, and learner supports) and the availability of adequate alternative-but-equivalent content and activities. (Seale, 2006, p.19)

This vision may of course clash with economical considerations.  In Cambodia, large parts of the education system are (being) privatized.  Ensuring accessible education requires investments in infrastructure, staff training and school management.  Without sufficient and enforceable legal provisions, they are unlikely to invest in an accessible learning environment.  A magic fairy is an apt imagery here, as paying lip service to an accessible education system is easier than realizing it.

In seeking to develop accessible e-learning practice, we cannot rely on finding ‘magic fairies’ with magic solutions. (Seale, 2006, p.5)

Larry Cuban uses the metaphor of hurricanes on sea to describe educational reform.  Grant policy statements are like giant surface waves.  Education practitioners and scholars point out research findings and bring nuance, like the disturbed waves below the surface.  At the bottom of the sea however, the hurricane above is hardly felt.  This is where teachers daily struggle to cope with the challenges thrown at them and make the best out of it.


Seale, J. (2006) E-Learning and Disability in Higher Education: Accessibility Research and Practice, Abingdon, Routledge, [online] Available from: mod/ subpage/ view.php?id=153062.

United Nations – Social Development Division (SDD) (2010) Disability at a Glance 2010: A Profile of 36 Countries and Areas in Asia and the Pacific, [online] Available from:

#H810 Context and Expectations

Today, H810 kicks off, my third module in the MAODE master programme of the OU.  The title of the module is ‘Accessible Online Learning: Supporting Disabled Students’.

The start seems very promising, with an already active tutor group an interesting learning materials (nicely available in epub format).  Blogging is heavily encouraged and this first week we are asked to reflect on our context and expectations for the course.

I believe that a qualitatively rich education is an universal right for everyone, not only for the ‘average’ or ‘traditional’ learner in developed countries.  Not only is education for many the best chance for upward social mobility, it also enriches and empowers people and gives them a sense of achievement and self-fulfilment.  In Cambodia development programmes are often geared toward increasing enrolment rates, reducing attrition rates and improving the general quality of education.  Learners’ special needs are rarely recognized and only but a few NGOs focus on improving educational accessibility for disabled learners.

Online learning offers tremendous potential for learners in developing countries.  Open courses, such as those offered by Coursera and EdX have many participants from developing countries, attracted by the prestigious institutions involved and the free admission.  MOOCs espouse a completely new educational formula, based on distributed content, networking, participation and self-motivation.  However, in all the hype surrounding these developments I’ve never encountered so far any mention of disabled learners.  Do they participate at these courses?  Are these course designed for them anyway?

Cambodia has come a long way since the first elections in 1994.  Schools have been built, teachers been trained and enrolment rates in basic education been vastly increased.  Resources have understandably been focused on getting the basics in order (schools, teachers, books) for traditional learner groups.  Understandable as in this way with limited resources a maximum number of learners can be targeted. On the other hand, it also means leaving a considerable number of people out in the cold.  Should we as development partners focus on inclusive education, even if it means that a lower total number of people will be targeted?  Inclusive education means expanding educational opportunities for all learners, including disabled learners, learners with learning difficulties, and learners from minority groups. 

I’m looking forward to learn more about what improving accessibility can mean for these various groups of learners.  How they can cope with the educational challenges thrown at them.  How instructional design can be used to develop inclusive course materials.  And how, in Cambodia, we can improve opportunities to those who still fall through the (wide) mazes of the educational net.