The language of inclusivity

Published by Caroline Carlin on

Author: Simon Hawkesworth – Educational Developer, Centre for Collaborative Learning, University of Central Lancashire

For over two decades, there have been discussions and legislative initiatives concerning how we might make the digital world more inclusive and accessible. A series of UK parliamentary Acts, from the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) to the most recent Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations (2018), not only introduced legislative changes and obligations for the Higher Education (HE) sector – and with it raised the profile of issues around access and disability – but have also affected the vocabulary and discourse around these concerns. It’s increasingly the case that concerns around inclusivity forms part of the wider discourse, documentation, and strategies of HE institutions.

However, one of the dilemmas we face, is how to best describe the processes we are working with – and how we can clearly relate them to others. The terms ‘accessibility’ and ‘inclusivity’ have become largely interchangeable for common areas of concern and action. But are there differences between these terms, and is there a benefit in trying to distinguish between them?

Accessibility has until recently, been perhaps the most widely used term to describe attempts to ensure that people can fully participate in the education sector. It’s a term that has either used in UK legislation since 1995, and has appeared in the discussions around these initiatives, and became synonymous with these approaches. In more recent years, the term ‘inclusivity’ has increasingly been used alongside accessibility. Many HE institutions now have ‘Inclusive support’ teams, or centres that consider issues around discrimination and inclusivity that look to support their students and staff and provide advice. Part of that change of vocabulary has developed from a wider appreciation of the need to frame the discussion away from seeing disability as an affliction to be ‘cured’, or as a problem to be solved. This is often understood as the ‘social model of disability’, in which the root cause of the barriers people face is understood as the limiting factors imposed by society, rather than a person’s impairment or difference. Part of that shift is reflected in Jisc’s (2021) distinction between accessibility (‘Accessibility involves designing systems to optimise access’) and inclusivity (‘Being inclusive is about giving equal access and opportunities to everyone wherever possible’). Alongside this, there has been a wider discussion about the impact of language and its effect on our ability to implement progressive change. In 2021, the United Nations published a discussion document about discriminatory and inclusive language as part of a wider call to tackle discriminatory practices.

In addition to the impact of structure and language, there is a growing understanding that the changes we are being asked to make to learning resources – improved contrast, alternative text, captions etc. – benefit the learning experience of all users, regardless of dis/ability. As with the social model of disability, this shifts the discourse away from people with different needs and abilities who need to be accommodated, to one that considers these to be issues that concern and include everyone in our society

As a result, the discussion and the language used has increasingly focused on what we can do to ensure an inclusive environment, rather than a focus on facilitating access to information or content. In one sense, we are coming to understand that accessibility isn’t enough, and that we need to create structures, systems and resources that are not only practically usable and can be engaged with relative ease (accessible?), but are welcoming, consider wider cultural or social implications, and look to make both entering and engaging with the educational experience as effective and meaningful as possible.

So, how can we use these terms in a way that might help us give greater clarity to the issues we are discussing? If we want to move the discussion and the practice beyond the mechanistic processes of amending documents, platforms or websites, there seems a good argument for using the term ‘inclusivity’ rather than accessibility wherever possible to describe all the key elements of what is needed. By inclusivity, we are talking about not only a broad range of practical actions and techniques that we might take, but also a philosophical position that sees the need to act inclusively as a matter of social justice, as well as one of meeting legislative obligations or having pedagogical benefits. Unlike the Jisc (2021) distinction we noted earlier, there may be an argument for ‘inclusivity’ being used to encompass both the practical and philosophical components, because the reality is that we need both. Another reason for adopting this approach, is that it helps to reduce the distinction between ‘digital’ skills that get applied to make content ‘accessible’, and the philosophical strategies around learning that often fall in the ‘inclusive’ camp. Sometimes these distinctions can affect who is deemed to have responsibility for understanding and applying them. Both need to be considered together – the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ – and are the concern of all staff, both academic and professional services.

And what of ‘accessibility’ – is it a term still worth using? Increasingly, HE institutions are using it to encompass some very specific areas, such as the 2018 legislation’s requirement that the websites of all public institutions must include an ‘accessibility statement’. Searches of many HE websites using the term ‘accessibility’ increasingly direct the user to the institution’s accessibility statement, while a search using ‘inclusive’ or ‘inclusivity’ often results in content that has more meaning and value when it comes to the learning and teaching process – so the change in vocabulary is already being reflected in how we label and identify information on our sites.

Accessibility may increasingly become to be seen as a somewhat narrow – though useful part of the terminology we use, but too restrictive for the wide range of issues that we need to tackle. Perhaps most importantly, by shifting the emphasis away from mechanisms around amending digital content (though essential) and towards a broader, more positive perspective, we may help to incentivise people to consider this important issue: to see it as a truly necessary and meaningful change that benefits everyone, rather than a legislative burden that has to be undertaken at a time of diminishing resources and growing responsibilities.

Sources of information

Digital.Gov (2022) An Introduction to Accessibility: Reframing Our Idea of Disability. Available at: Accessed: 15.09.22).

Fallin, L, Tomlinson, T and Watling, S. (2022) Designing for diverse learners. Available at:  (Accessed: 15.09.22).

Jisc (2021) Getting started with accessibility and inclusion: What is accessibility. Available at: (Accessed: 15.09.22).

Kelly, J.  (2019) Accessibility statement(s): Does one size fit all? Available at: (Accessed: 15.09.22).

Scope (2021) The Social Model of Disability. Available at: (Accessed: 15.09.22).

UK Government (2019) The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018. Available at: (Accessed: 15.09.22).

United Nations (2021) Disability: Inclusive Language Guidelines. Available at: (Accessed: 15.09.22).

University of Minnesota (2022) Benefits of Accessible Design. Available at: (Accessed: 15.09.22).

Welcome UK (2022) How Accessibility Helps Us All. Available at: (Accessed: 15.09.22).

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