Staff lack proper training, and information about assistive technology is hard to navigate, writes Geena Vabulas

In an age when digital is no longer optional for finding work, it is crucial that students with special educational needs leave school with the skills and kit necessary for full digital access.

This isn’t just about writing a CV. Digital access is needed to search for jobs, fill out applications, complete virtual interviews and access training and employment support opportunities.

The reality is that tech skills are more in demand than ever and most jobs, including those not in the technology sector, require a “basic” level of digital knowledge.

However, research from Policy Connect and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology shows that disabled students are leaving education without the digital skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

In particular, they lack knowledge of work-based assistive technology funding and support. They also often don’t have the confidence needed to navigate these issues when starting a new job.

Through our research, we have heard many difficult stories from people unable to apply for work or forced to leave careers as a result of gaps in provision.

But there is hope as we have also heard heartening success stories. These include the dyslexic counsellor who was able to shift her practice online throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

First, though, what is assistive technology?

Assistive technology (AT) is any digital technology designed to remove a barrier for a disabled person – such as screen readers for people with vision impairments.

But assistive technology is not just for computer- or desk-based jobs. Some examples of mobile AT include scanning pens, which help with reading text on paper, and Brain in Hand, an app to support autistic people throughout their day.

The reason it’s so important now is because Covid-19 has accelerated digitisation across the fields of education, training and apprenticeships, as well as in disability employment support. The massive shift to remote working represents amazing opportunities for disabled people’s inclusion in the workforce.

This includes people with travel limitations, for example, or who struggle with sensory input in work environments and who may particularly benefit from working from home.

However, greater unemployment across the country means competition for jobs will naturally be higher. So urgent action is required to ensure the future world of work is accessible to all.

Yet our research has found that education providers do not know enough about AT, the funding available for it, or inclusive digital practices. Teachers and specialist staff often do not have any training in AT and don’t know how best to support their students.

For instance, many educators are unaware that “Access to Work” funding can be used to support disabled students on work placements. This is a publicly funded employment support programme that aims to help people with disabilities start or stay in work.

Sources of information are disparate and hard to navigate

Meanwhile, careers services and disability services are often not joined up and employment advice for students can miss out on crucial information regarding access to digital.

And although there are many sources of information out there, these are disparate and hard to navigate. Importantly, there is a lack of clear guidance and direction from the government.

It’s important to remember that disabled staff themselves could benefit from inclusive digital practices.

Many assistive technologies come at no additional cost and are present in commonly used software, such as the immersive reader function built into Microsoft Word, or voice typing in Google Docs.

Raising awareness of these problems and solutions can benefit everyone, not just students with SEND. It’s against this background that the report makes recommendations to government, education providers and employers.

The UK, already a world-leader in the development of AT, must harness the power of these tools and inclusive practices.

If our government and society can get digital inclusion right, these new technologies can hugely help “level the playing field” for disabled people and open the world of work up to them.