Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities across the country have rushed to move courses online, potentially overlooking the needs of students with intellectual, physical, emotional and behavioral disabilities.
Dr. Jessica Hunt, associate professor of mathematics education and special education in the College of Education at North Carolina State University (NC State), said “one size definitely does not fit all” when it comes to students with disabilities.
Dr. Jessica Hunt
“The critical question becomes how to make sure remote learning is accessible and minimize barriers students may have to accessing and making sense of information as well as receiving services in the home,” she added. “In terms of access, it is also important to note that students need options and choices to work successfully from home. This is especially important from an equity stance more broadly because not all students have access to devices or reliable internet services.”
Professors and administrators should communicate with students and families about their needs, create a community of educators across disciplines, have a plan for remote instruction and establish a network of support, said Hunt.
To prepare for online coursework, Hunt also suggested only using technology and digital materials from a core set of tools and resources.
“Consider using tools that students are already familiar with,” she said. “If you find the need to introduce new tools or materials, this is a great time to consider that what is necessary for some is often good for all in terms of the accessibility of technology-based resources and materials.
Additionally, the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials recommended that, in order to make online tools accessible, the reading experience should be personalized by using tools such as speech to text and creating high-quality sound videos.
At NC State, for example, despite the campus being closed, the Disability Resource Office (DRO) remains fully functional. The only difference, now, is the lack of face-to-face contact with students. However, students can still schedule one-on-one appointments through phone, Zoom or Google Hangouts.
To prepare for distance learning, professors and administrators at NC State participated in workshops to better understand how to move their courses online in an accessible way. Additionally, individual students were contacted to let them know that the resource office is available to help if barriers arise.
Dr. Elena Silva
The school also created a number of online resources for students, which include study strategies, time management and ergonomics at home. Courses can also be recorded in order for students to go back and reference specific points in lectures as well as take more detailed notes.
“We tried to get them to have as smooth a transition as possible,” said Mark Newmiller, director of the DRO at NC State.
In general, he recommends that college students “communicate with their instructors and disabilities services offices on their campus and not be afraid to let them know what they need.”
Prior to the pandemic, students with disabilities were protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities within employment, schools, public spaces and transportation.
Additionally, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was created to eliminate disability discrimination and can be applied to any program that receives federal funding.
Under the act, online course information “needs to be available in different formats for different users — including websites, learning management systems, instructional portals and instructional materials. Digital accessibility is not a new idea but this sudden move to online is definitely forcing educators and institutions to pay attention in a way they haven’t before,” said Dr. Elena Silva, director of PreK–12 for the Education Policy program at New America.
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