How to Navigate Online College Classes as a Student With Disabilities

Elva Mankin

As the fall semester begins and students head back to class, many are doing so virtually. Colleges are taking coronavirus prevention precautions, with hundreds opting for fully or partially online classes.

But what does the shift to online classes mean for students with disabilities?

To get a sense of what lies ahead, it may be useful to look back at the spring semester, when campuses closed and classes were suddenly shifted online, forcing students with disabilities to make quick adjustments.

Lessons Learned From the Spring Semester Online

One advantage that college officials have to plan for the fall is the ability to look back on the spring of COVID-19.

“Accommodations that had been approved for (face-to-face) communication were revisited, depending on the disabled students’ needs,” Mary Lee Vance, director of services for students with disabilities at California State University–Sacramento, wrote in an email.

While “not all students experienced a need for accommodation changes,” she adds, those who did often needed more time to navigate online exams or have their support services shifted to remote assistance.

[See: What to Expect From the College Experience This Fall.]

Brian Flatley, associate director for the Student Access Office at Adelphi University in New York, says the support offered there “didn’t really change, however the method of support did change” during the spring semester.

Flatley points to closed captions and transcriptions for online lectures, software that takes notes from audio recordings, and technology that describes graphics, charts and other elements to the visually impaired as examples of accommodations provided to students at Adelphi last spring when classes went fully online.

Some colleges also eased the strain of the sudden shift to online courses by adopting pass-fail grading models, extending deadlines to drop courses or making other arrangements to help students, Vance says.

But challenges for students with disabilities persist across the U.S.

John Scott, a product manager for Blackboard Ally, says that an analysis of 500 U.S. colleges by the learning management system provider found that more than 50% of PDFs in courses have accessibility issues. This troubling trend came at a time when PDFs were uploaded to courses at almost twice the rate as spring 2019.

A survey from the Association on Higher Education and Disability found that students with disabilities were more likely to experience difficulty with accessing the internet, technology training and support, course materials and assessments, as well as using learning management systems and communicating with instructors.

Anjali Forber-Pratt, a professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee who has researched disability issues, says that despite the best efforts of colleges, it’s likely that some students with disabilities were disadvantaged in the spring. That experience, Forber-Pratt says, should help colleges get accommodations right as students begin the new academic year.

“The positives and the negatives, particularly in the spring, can help us as we’re looking ahead to the fall to try not to make the same mistakes again, to try to really learn from those experiences,” she says.

Online Accommodations for Disabled Students This Fall

Rosemary Garabedian, director of the Student Access Office at Adelphi, notes that the challenges of online learning will vary for students with disabilities, depending on their needs. For example, a student with mobility issues may find online classes easier while a peer with an attention deficit disorder may face more challenges.

In either case, her office would work with students case by case to provide accommodations. And the Student Access Office, which has different names depending on the college, is where it all starts.

[Read: How Do Online Classes Work: 10 Frequently Asked Questions.]

Students who need accommodations should visit — whether in person or virtually — the office responsible for accessibility issues. Officials there can help coordinate the accommodations needed for classes.

At Adelphi, “the first step is that they are referred to the Student Access Office,” Garabedian says. “We do an intake evaluation, answer the students’ questions, and look at any type of documentation they’re providing.”

From there, students are asked to determine what accommodations are needed and the office works with individuals to implement those measures in what Garabedian describes as a collaborative process.

Incoming students working with disability services should expect colleges to be flexible in this unprecedented moment caused by the coronavirus, Garabedian says. “Usually we want documentation upfront before we provide an accommodation but based on what’s happening, we know we need to be flexible.”

Challenges prompted by the novel coronavirus may affect some students with disabilities more than others.

Blind students, for example, may struggle with interactive components of online classes such as chats or polling.

“Not all learning technologies are created equal,” Forber-Pratt says.

Hearing-impaired students may be well served by transcriptions and closed captions for lectures, but video calls may be a challenge for students who rely on lip reading if other participants elect to use only the audio function.

Regardless of the challenges, students should take their concerns to their college’s disability services office. Students have a right to accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

“Students need to inform their campus if they are unable to use their required website or learning platform so that they can get the information needed in (an) alternate format,” Vance says.

The accommodations available to students with disabilities largely depend on their needs. Individual conditions vary. Some students may be born with disabilities, while others may acquire them later in life, experts say.

“For example, if a student has a newly diagnosed clinical depression diagnosis, they need to reach out to their campus’ (disability services) office as soon as possible, to be guided through the accommodation process, with appropriate referrals,” Vance says. “There are many hurdles we are facing right now and we are committed to making the best choices, however, we are not mind readers. Students have rights, but they also have responsibilities.”

How COVID-19 May Reshape Online Instruction for Students With Disabilities

Looking beyond the fall, disability experts and advocates see both potential positives and negatives.

“So much is unknown regarding the long-term and short-term effects of COVID-19,” Vance says. “For example, we don’t know how many college students, due to newly acquired conditions, will be covered under the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act that will need academic accommodations. Already, we can observe that there is an increase in people identifying as having clinical depression and anxiety.”

She adds that coronavirus survivors may suffer from “serious, lifelong health conditions.”

[Read: Coronavirus on Campus: How College Students Can Stay Safe.]

But there are positives in terms of course design, experts say, which they predict to become more accessible.

Virtual office hours, for example, can benefit students with mobility issues. Virtual presentations may be helpful for students with anxiety issues who struggle when standing in front of peers in a physical classroom.

“I hope that some of the goodwill sticks around because we’ve now shown that this is possible,” Forber-Pratt says, a reference to making course design more inclusive and accessible to students with disabilities.

But above all, students need to speak up and share their needs with faculty and staff at their college, she says.

“Be the best self-advocate that you can be. All of us, as professors, as instructors, we want our students to succeed and we want to make sure their needs are met, but we don’t know what we don’t know.”

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