Advocates ask: How will students with disabilities be supported once campuses reopen?

Since higher education’s transition to virtual learning environments during the pandemic, some students with disabilities have found themselves facing fewer accessibility and accommodation obstacles. But now that more colleges and universities are setting their sights on a return to campus, Inside Higher Ed reports that advocates are questioning what flexibility might endure beyond the pandemic and how colleges can ensure that their back-to-normal scenarios don’t push students with disabilities to the margins.

Virtual environment providing needed flexibility for some

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 19 percent of undergraduate students reported having a disability in 2015-16. And while some students with disabilities—especially those who are hard of hearing, have low vision, or require extra time on exams—have found the virtual learning environment trying, others have found it freeing and flexible.  

The increased use of Zoom and other video conferencing platforms has improved access for students whose disabilities or sensory needs make it difficult to consistently attend class in person.

“Now that we’re in this entire Zoom-topia I haven’t been asked to have a buddy Zoom me in at all,” Nate Tilton, a master’s student at University of California, Berkeley, told Inside Higher Ed. Tilton, who uses a power-chair, is a disabled veteran, and often has difficulty maneuvering through campus spaces, recalls the piecemeal way he struggled to have classmates record or stream lectures for him before the pandemic. “When we go back to school am I going to be asked to go back to that?,” he wonders.

Another Berkeley student said the consistent online access has proven beneficial when her medical condition worsens and she needs to stay home. Before the pandemic, she would simply miss out on material if professors wouldn’t offer asynchronous or recorded options. “I can’t demonstrate a mastery of material that I was never allowed to learn,” she said, adding that with the flexibility afforded by the pandemic, she “[has] actually never done so well in [her] classes before.”

Calls for a long, careful transition back to campus

Now, as more institutions are considering how and when they will reopen campuses, students and advocates are questioning which pandemic-related accommodations will continue, emphasizing that finding the right way to approach learning for students with disabilities is continuous work.

“The transition to going from online to back to on campus needs to be a long transition period so that students can get acclimated,” Lauren Anding, a UC Riverside student who looks at accommodations for the UC System Disability Ad-Hoc Committee, said.

Karen Nielson, director of the Disability Student Program at Berkeley, which oversees accommodations for students with disabilities, adds that faculty education will be crucial to remove barriers to success. “In every large university setting, there tends to be a work in progress regarding faculty and accommodations. And it isn’t entirely on the faculty. They’re asked to do this and don’t receive any formal training on how to accommodate students with disabilities.”

Syreeta Nolan, a UC San Diego student and co-founder of Disability in Higher Ed, points out that some back-to-campus plans overlook students with disabilities. California’s Governor’s Council for Post-Secondary Education, for instance, published research on addressing inequities for Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, and adult learners returning to in-person instruction, but the report does not mention obstacles for disabled students.

“We’re in these populations but face greater struggles because we’re silenced and unseen within [their movements],” she said.

Nolan and other students and advocates on the ground across UC campuses say they hope universities and systems will take an active role in tracking how higher ed is supporting accessibility and accommodations once campuses start to reopen.

“Disabled students are almost forced to become advocates,” Nolan says. “Some will not choose advocacy—some will just struggle in silence, by themselves.”

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