Disabled students in Japanese Higher Education – a time for change

The Open University of Japan (OUJ) hosts an annual international symposium on matters relating to higher education.  This year the theme was supporting disabled students in this context and in particular the role of ICT here.  [See:  http://www.ouj.ac.jp/eng/sympo/2015/eng/] This is timely because the Japanese Act on the Elimination of Disability Discrimination was enacted in 2013. From 2016, this means public universities are legally obliged to provide reasonable accommodation to students with disabilities, while private universities are expected to make diligent efforts to provide this for them.  The Japanese’s own perception is that they are about 30 years behind the USA and UK in this regard.  The symposium consisted of a presentation from the host organisation and four invited speakers, two from the USA, a Japanese leader in the field and myself from the UK.  Each presented on key themes from which the delegates from across the Japanese higher education sector could reflect and draw from in their own context.  Disabled students are currently very under-represented in Japanese higher education; in fact the Open University in the UK alone has more disabled students studying with it than across the whole of the higher education across Japan.

This blog posts discusses some of the lessons I learnt from this my first visit to Japan and impressions I gained.  It is the beginning of an exciting period in Japan that should see an increase in the representation of disabled people in the university student body and significant enhancements in the provision of appropriate support for them.

The numbers game

Takeo Kondo, of the University of Tokyo, gave some detail of the current situation in Japanese higher education and compared it with the USA and the UK.

The official 2014 published statistics showed Students with Disabilities (SWDs) in Japanese Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) numbered 13,449 out of 3,213,518 (0.42% out of all students including undergraduate and graduate students). [JASSO, 2014]

This was compared with  U.S figures for undergraduates in 2009 of  10.8% (19,155,000 out of 2,076,000) [US GAO, 2009];

and the UK figures  of SWDs among the 740,000 first year students enrolled in higher education in 2012 as 73,000 (9.8%). [HESA, 2014]

At the Open University in the UK  in 2013/14 there were over 18,000 undergraduate students declaring a disability: more than 14% of all OU undergraduates. [Internal Data]

The symposium chair, Prof. Hirose, stated that in 2013, there were 90,154 students studying with the Open University in Japan, of whom 698 had declared a disability (0.77%):

  • Visual impairment: 168 students
  • Hearing impairment: 32 students
  • Physically handicapped & sickly individuals (sic): 331 students
  • Others: 167 students

There needs to be some care when comparing such statistics as different classifications of disability may have been used. Further, all these figures are based on self-declaration of disability.  There may be cultural reasons why less disabled students declare their disability at Japanese universities and certainly, with much more limited support currently available for them, there is less incentive for them to do so.  Why declare a disability if it makes no difference to the university’s provision of support?

However, even given these caveats it is clear that SWDs are significantly underrepresented in Japanese higher education compared with the USA and the UK, maybe by a factor of 20.   Takeo Kondo’s presentation went on to give data on the changes of the Japanese data over time and a breakdown of the representation of different disability types.

Reflections on discussions

There was a formal discussion panel at the end of the symposium which addressed selected questions that had been submitted in writing during the day.  The fact that far more questions were submitted than could be addressed in the time was indicative of the delegates concern for the topic.  The speakers had spent 3 hours the previous day having a tour of the Open University of Japan and in less structure discussion with about 10 of their staff.  This section summarises and comments on key themes that arose in both these contexts.

Both from the organisers of the symposium and the delegates it was obvious there was a high degree of anticipatory anxiety about what the change in law means they need to do and whether they have the means to do it.  This could be compared to a commonly expressed anxiety in UK HEIs when the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was extended to include education with the coming into effect of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) in 2001.  As well as anxiety about what needs to be done and how to do it there is also an anxiety about how this will be funded.

It was noted that the pedagogic models of the Open University in Japan and the Open University in the UK were very different.  The former is much more of a transmission of expertise style.  There is little discussion between students and lecturers and they do not deploy tutors.  This has significant implications for how support is best offered to disabled students.  At the OU in the UK if a student with disabilities encounters particular problems it is likely to be their tutor that first aware of this.

The difference in disabled student numbers between Japan and the UK or USA is very marked.  More research would be needed to fully understand this.  Certainly the historical lack of provision of support is a factor.  However other factors may be more significant.  One area here is the impact of the Japanese school system.  From the brief discussions had this appears very proscriptive both in terms of curriculum and style of teaching.  There is a strong emphasis on tradition skills such as well-formed hand writing of Japanese characters.  It appears that if for any reason a school pupil does not fit into this well, which might be because of a disability, they are likely to fall behind educationally and not develop aspirations to go onto higher education.

Concluding Comments

The law is seen very much as a driver for change.  This may well be the case and it was a factor in the enhancement of provision for disabled students in the UK following SENDA in 2001.  However law alone will not affect a substantive change.   Meeting the agenda of widening participation of higher education to be more inclusive of disabled people will have to become part of the value system of Japanese HEIs.  It is going to require a commitment beyond meeting of the letter of the law.  It will need institutional change not just the setting up of specialist support units.  The Japanese perceive themselves to be 30 years behind the USA and UK.  However, it need not take them 30 years to catch-up if there is the political will to affect change throughout the educational system.  I mean to maintain a watching brief on this transition and hopefully undertake some detailed research on it with Japanese colleagues.


HESA, 2014 – Higher Education Statistics Agency (2014) Statistical First Release 197: 2012/13 first year students by Disability. https://www.hesa.ac.uk/stats

JASSO, 2014 – Japan Student Services Organization (2014) Fact finding survey on supporting higher educational opportunities for students with disabilities (in Japanese)  http://www.jasso.go.jp/tokubetsu_shien/chosa.html

US GAO, 2009 – U.S. Government Accountability Office (2009) HIGHER EDUCATION AND DISABILITY  Education Needs a Coordinated Approach to Improve Its Assistance to Schools in Supporting Students http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-10-33



Internal project proposal: Learning Analytics for Disabled Students in STEM subjects

I am currently working on an internal project proposal: Learning Analytics for Disabled Students in STEM subjects (LA4DS-STEM). Hopefully it will run from April – December 2014.

The LA4DS-STEM project will review the potential of Learning Analytics in higher education, specifically in STEM, and with an emphasis on supporting disabled students and facilitating accessibility enhancements.

Learning Analytics is defined as the measurement, collection, analysis, and reporting of data about learners and their contexts, for purposes of understanding and optimising learning and the environments in which it occurs.  The LA4DS-STEM project will specifically explore the following STEM application areas for Learning Analytics. A key output of the project will be an external funding bid for a larger-scale collaborative project. The work of LA4DS-STEM will inform pilots in this project. Provide envisaged benefits are confirmed, this should lead to enterprise level implementation within the OU and across HE.

The findings of the LA4DS-STEM project will be disseminated, firstly throughout the Science and MCT faculties, then to the wider university. External dissemination will highlight the OU’s lead in this field.

Ethics, Learning Analytics and Disability

Today I have been writing a contribution for a paper requested by the Open University’s Ethics Committee about ethics in Learning Analytics.  This blog post is adapted from that.

There are two broad use case scenarios where learning analytics approaches may benefit disabled students:

  1. Targeting support to disabled students or their tutors (Support)
  2. Identifying online activities that seem to be problematic for some disabled students (Accessibility)

As far as we are aware these approaches are yet to be deployed anywhere world-wide but we are actively researching them here at the Open University where we have approximately 20,000 disabled students.  We envisage that if the early promise of this research holds up, deployment on about a 3 year horizon.  These approaches, especially the accessibility one, are reported in more detail in Section 5. of Cooper et. al. 2012.

Firstly, a few definitions:

IMS Global Learning Consortium offered education-specific definitions of both disability and accessibility when introducing its work on the development of technical standards for accessibility in e-learning:

[…] the term disability has been re-defined as a mismatch between the needs of the learner and the education offered. It is therefore not a personal trait but an artifact of the relationship between the learner and the learning environment or education delivery. Accessibility, given this re-definition, 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. The needs and preferences of a user may arise from the context or environment the user is in, the tools available (e.g., mobile devices, assistive technologies such as Braille devices, voice recognition systems, or alternative keyboards, etc.), their background, or a disability in the traditional sense. Accessible systems adjust the user interface of the learning environment, locate needed resources and adjust the properties of the resources to match the needs and preferences of the user. (IMS Global 2004)

Thus disability is not an attribute of a person, but an attribute of the relationship between that person and the tools they are using to meet their goals; in this case online learning.  And, accessibility is a property of the learning resources that makes is usable by all, including those traditionally labelled as disabled.

The principle ethical dilemma when approaching learning analytics and learners who might experience a disability in the context of online learning is:

  • For what purpose has the individual students declared their disability to the university or other educational establishment, and is this consistent with how that information is to be used in the learning analytics approaches?

No other literature has been found explicitly addressing this issue.  So this blog post might represent the first public statement of the problem.

At the Open University students who declare a disability so that they can be provided with support in their studies.  This is consistent with the first use case scenario (Support).  It is a moot point if it is consistent with the second use case scenario (Accessibility).  More critically at this stage of development of these approaches it is not obvious that it is consistent with research into these approaches.  Is it ethical to use historic or current data relating to students with disabilities to undertake research into future approaches of applying learning analytics?


Cooper, M,Sloan, D., Kelly, B.,  and Laithwaite, S. (2012) A Challenge to Web Accessibility Metrics and Guidelines: Putting People and Processes First, Proc. W4A2012, April 16-17, 2012, Lyon, France. Co-Located with the 21st International World Wide Web Conference.

IMS Global Learning Consortium (2004), IMS AccessForAll Meta-data Overview. Available online at: http://www.imsglobal.org/accessibility/accmdv1p0/imsaccmd_oviewv1p0.html (accessed 17/02/14)

New paper on planning for professionalism in accessibility

Just published in journal Research in Learning Technology is a paper I am a co-author on entitled:

Adapting online learning resources for all: planning for professionalism in accessibility

This blog post is a bit of shameless self publicity for this paper but is shared because we believe it contains important lessons for those seeking to address accessibility for disabled students especially in Higher Education.  The abstract and link to the full text follow:

Adapting online learning resources for all: planning for professionalism in accessibility

Patrick McAndrew, Robert Farrow and Martyn Cooper

Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK

(Received 7 May 2012; final version received 24 October 2012; Published 19 December 2012)


Online resources for education offer opportunities for those with disabilities but also raise challenges on how to best adjust resources to accommodate accessibility. Automated reconfiguration could in principle remove the need for expensive and time-consuming discussions about adaptation. On the other hand, human-based systems provide much needed direct support and can help understand options and individual circumstances. A study was carried out within an EU-funded accessibility project at The Open University (OU) in parallel with studies at three other European universities. The study combined focus groups, user-testing, management consultation and student survey data to help understand ways forward for accessibility. The results reinforce a holistic view of accessibility, based on three factors: positioning the university as a positive provider to disabled students; developing processes, systems and services to give personal help; and planning online materials which include alternatives. The development of a model that helps organisations incorporate professionalism in accessibility is described, though challenges remain. For example, a recurrent difficulty in providing adequate self-description of accessibility needs implies that a completely automated solution may not be attainable. A more beneficial focus, therefore, may be to develop systems that support the information flow required by the human “in the loop.”

Keywords: inclusion; students with disabilities; services; personalisation; evaluation; virtual learning environments; EU4ALL

The full text is freely available under a Creative Commons license at: 

Your comments would be most welcome!