Access for Students with Disabilities During COVID-19

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Access for Students with Disabilities During COVID-19

In Diversity & Inclusion Student Success by Will Emerson May 26, 2020

During the current COVID-19 crisis, with in-person counseling and disability services temporarily suspended, most college staff members, including disability specialists, are working remotely. As a result, a number of Michigan’s public universities, including Eastern Michigan University, Oakland University , and Wayne State University have added webpages to provide information for disabled students as they complete their coursework online.

The Wayne State University Note to Students about COVID-19 states “In the wake of recent events that have shifted instruction to remote and online delivery for the duration of the Winter 2020 semester, we want to address the needs of students with disabilities. Students who are registered with Student Disability Services for academic accommodations in the classroom will continue to be supported by our office. We realize that accommodations may look different in an online instructional setting. Therefore, we will stay in close communication with ours students and with faculty to make sure reasonable accommodations are in place and to make any necessary adjustments.” This webpage and ones like it are aimed at addressing an increased demand for disability services for students who find that remote learning presents additional challenges to them as learners.

Much of the information provided is designed to help students identify steps to be taken in order to register for disability services, schedule an appointment, provide documentation, and meet, virtually, with an advisor to determine appropriate accommodations.

This issue of additional services for disabled students was addressed in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, reminding higher education administrators to not “…forget about students with disabilities. With the shift to online learning, some students will require different accommodations than they had in a face-to-face class; others will need accommodations for the first time.” Some disability services provided to students address visual and auditory impairment, learning disabilities such as dyslexia, short term memory loss, ADHD, and traumatic brain injury (TBI). It is also significant to note that anxiety can be exacerbated by COVID-19 and the subsequent switch to remote learning. “It is normal and expected to have some worry about COVID-19. However, keeping things in perspective can help to manage this. The fact that coverage is increasing on this issue does not necessarily mean that it presents an increased threat to you or your family. Often anxiety increases when we face new or unknown challenges. All of us have experienced a new or unknown challenge; thus, we are not alone in this” states the University of Michigan-Dearborn Office of Disability Services (might not need this first hotlink) in their Message from DS on Current Events.

Given that nearly 1 in 5 undergraduates experience some sort of disability, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), this emphasis on access and equity is of increased importance during COVID-19.

Here are some recommendations for inclusive teaching practices:

  • Survey students who are using disability services and strive to implement their suggestions.
  • Make sure students have appropriate accommodations to deal with the switch to remote learning such as assistive technologies. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Blind or visually impaired students rely on accessible web content. Screen readers, auditory tools equipped with speakers that read information aloud, help visually impaired students by also altering text size, color contrast, and background images.”
  • Have student workers assist with closed captioning. Software designed for closed captioning may imperfectly capture what is being said in a conversation. Student workers will often be better equipped to understand regional accents, idioms, and terminology.

During these unprecedented times, when students are rising to the challenges presented by COVID-19, it is important to note that the values of access and inclusion remain a focus in higher education. Efforts are being made continue to accommodate students of all backgrounds to help them feel connected to their courses, classmates, and universities.

Will Emerson is Director of Student Success Initiatives at the Michigan Association of State Universities.