How can colleges accommodate students with disabilities in the switch to online education?

As colleges switch to online courses for instructional continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic, students with disabilities and their advocates are calling on institutions to maintain equitable educational access and account for all students’ learning needs. The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) last week released a webinar and fact sheet to help educators prevent discrimination, Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports.

Schools legally required to provide equal educational access for students of all abilities

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, higher education institutions must be equally accessible to all, and emerging classroom technologies have been instrumental in helping colleges and universities achieve that goal. But what will happen as teaching and learning leaves the classroom setting?

Schools that lack clear accessibility guidelines and invest in online education tools with insufficient or no accessibility capabilities will struggle with equal access during this transition to digital, says Chris Danielson, director of public relations at the National Federation of the Blind. Despite schools’ inexperience in this area, “the law doesn’t stop applying because a virus is currently running around our nation,” Daniels says. He recommends that professors work directly with students to identify unforeseen challenges and urges the government to establish clear accessibility guidelines for online courses.

Accommodations needed for students with limited vision and hearing

Students’ needs will vary widely. Those with low vision and blindness require course platforms, documents, and images to be compatible with screen-reader technology. To meet these needs, professors are encouraged to use Zoom class conferencing, Word documents, and Google docs—not PDFs—for homework, and images with alt-text descriptions.

Students also may require online accommodations as a substitute for those they receive in person. For students who are deaf, this includes individual supports such as American Sign Language interpreters, and for students with learning or mobility disabilities, this includes remote note-taking services and extra time for tests.

Creative thinking needed for individual, alternative assignments

In some cases, faculty should be prepared to create alternative assignments with the same educational value to meet individual students’ different needs, said Kelly Hermann, vice president of accessibility, equity, and inclusion at the University of Phoenix. She encourages professors to look at these challenges as opportunities to “think outside the box to figure out what can you do for this particular student who’s impacted because we’re not going to be able to put in place a system-wide position in a timely enough manner.” Hermann also advises professors to work with university disability services offices to modify assignments.

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