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Accessibility in a COVID-19 World

Students with disabilities have been particularly affected by the switch to online learning. Make sure you are supporting them by listening to their needs, providing flexibility, and informing them of the services available to them at your institution.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit it affected me, much like the world, profoundly and transformed my way of life. No longer were the days where I could spend hours in my office conversing with my students face to face. No longer did I control the ability to reach out and hug them when they needed it. Instead, a computer screen became the new reality for conducting student appointments. Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangouts replaced the comfort and familiarity of human touch. In-person group gatherings are now conducted virtually for 45 minutes to an hour. 

American colleges and universities quickly adapted as the nation confronted this new COVID way of life. They were catapulting on innovative ways still to meet the educational and diverse needs of students. Flexibility is the name of the game. As a disability services professional, I know all too well that flexibility entails patience, understanding, listening, empathy, and sympathy for students with disabilities. Before the COVID-19 era the world of normalcy for students with disabilities already included barriers to access and equity within the learning environment. In the COVID-19 climate, their everyday world is stripped of the connection and affection of human interaction in the flesh. As institutions adapted to online learning, students with disabilities too had to adapt. 

Impact on request for disability services

At my institution, that adaption included an increase in the number of students registering with my office and in the number of students requesting academic accommodations.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 19% of college students identify as having a disability. My feeling is that, due to COVID-19, there will continue to be an increase of students registering with disability resource offices. 

Institutions will need to continue offering flexible online learning formats to ensure that online learning is inclusive to all students. The incorporation of universal design can achieve inclusivity. Amanda Morin, the author of “What is Universal Design for Learning,” explains, “Universal design is a unique way educators think about making teaching and learning accessible for all students”. A few examples of online learning with universal design include large font size that is readable for all students; 14-point is common, and Sans Serif is an example of a readable text style. Any digital medium, such as videos or PowerPoint presentations with videos embedded, should include closed captioning. Another example is automatically recording online class meetings and lectures for all students to access. 

Virtual access for student support

Access, equity, and inclusion benefit students with disabilities, as all students, therefore universally designing online learning is attainable for all. In my view, the increase of students registering for and requesting accommodations results from the uncertainty and stress that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused. My job as an educator and disability services professional is to meet students where they are. Through reasonable academic accommodations, students’ needs can be met. Students with disabilities experience fear, the stress of not being in a traditional classroom, the anxiety of not physically being around family and friends, and experiencing college life. 

Students also spend long hours in front of a computer screen, which has contributed to more students being diagnosed with a disability, therefore needing accommodations to assist with the academic rigor that comes with college courses. In 2007, the U.S Department of Education explained that accommodations are “modifications or adjustments to the tasks, environment or to the way things are usually done that offers individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in an academic program or a job.” A few examples of accommodation include recording lectures, extending time on an exam or quiz, allowing short breaks from the online learning environment by turning off the computer screen and stepping away for a few minutes.

Faculty and institutions can send a clear message of support to students with disabilities by accommodating them within their syllabi—a statement that welcomes all students requiring support services. Are faculty including information on disability/accessibility offices? Furthermore, faculty must be willing to work with students to meet deadlines, take the time to listen to their needs and be proactive–and not reactive—about what is going on in a student’s life. Remember, flexibility is the name of the game. Inform students with disabilities about the other support services that can help them adapt to online learning, such as the counseling services, student success, and wellness offices. It is a blessing at my institution that these offices offer online services for all students, including online tutoring, telehealth counseling, and wellness. Institutions must be willing to provide just as many support services in the online environment as the in-person environment. 

Forging ahead

I often remind my students and colleagues that nobody asked for this pandemic; nobody wanted COVID-19. However, we must all work together and do the best to forge through the crisis. It will be a long haul, but colleges and universities will continue to illuminate their gifts by rising to the occasion every time to ensure that all students’ needs, especially students with disabilities, are met. Someday soon, we will return to a world in which face-to-face human touch and interaction are the norm we all crave, want, and desire.


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