Accessibility Suffers During Pandemic

Students with disabilities and their advocates say access to equitable education has been abandoned in the scramble to move classes online.

April 6, 2020
 
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In the quick shift by colleges from in-person to online instruction in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the needs of students with disabilities can sometimes be overlooked.

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing, have low vision or are blind, those with learning disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or a physical disability that requires use of a computer keyboard instead of a mouse, students with mental illnesses or various other challenges, have been put on the backburner “en masse,” as instructors scramble to transfer two months' worth of teaching content to a digital format, said Cyndi Wiley, digital accessibility coordinator for Iowa State University’s Information Technology Services.

Wiley said although some faculty members may have discussed digital accessibility in the past, they might not be aware of the importance of ensuring it for all students and may not understand that it goes beyond making special accommodations for individual students that specifically request it. Some faculty members might just be overwhelmed by the pressure to rapidly convert to online classes and overlook accessibility, Wiley said. She said institutions can and should "do better" by making investments in software that continuously provides alternative, accessible material formats for students with any disabilities.

“I would love to live in a world where we didn’t have to make accommodations because all our materials are just accessible,” Wiley said. “If we are not at an enterprise level looking at those resources and creating budget lines, we’re at the situation we’re in now. We have some how-to resources and tips, but faculty are running all over the place and trying to keep up with students.”

The National Federation of the Blind has been contacted by college students facing problems after complete shifts to remote learning by their respective institutions, said Chris Danielsen, director of public relations for the federation. The primary issue for blind students is learning materials not being compatible with screen readers, which read and navigate course documents and sometimes transcribe them into Braille, he said.

“What we worry about now is that in the rush to move everything online in light of COVID-19, universities are paying even less attention to whether it’s accessible or not,” Danielsen said.

Tiffany Anderson, a blind student in her final semester at Johnston Community College in Smithfield, N.C., said the move to online learning has slowed her down. When her Spanish conversation class was in person, Anderson could listen to readings and follow along, but a digital textbook for the course is not available in an online format compatible with her screen reader, and her professor has been relying on that textbook more for assignments, she said.

“It’s stressful, because you feel like you’re falling behind,” Anderson said.

Wiley said students who are dyslexic, on the autism spectrum or who have a learning disability that requires text be read to them can also run into problems when screen readers process documents that are images instead of text. Images also cannot be navigated by students with physical disabilities who only use computer keyboards, not mouses, to go through documents, she said.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing students may also face new challenges, said Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf.

Live teaching formats over the internet may not provide them with American Sign Language interpreters or real-time captioning -- transcriptions of speech produced by a person, not computer-generated -- they may have had in in-person classes. If students had these services provided in the classroom, they should be duplicated for remote learning, Rosenblum said in an email. Colleges should not look to automated speech recognition, or ASR, software for live video formats, such as what is provided as a default for the Zoom, WebEx and Google Hangout conferencing platforms, he said.

“Such captioning is generally subpar and would be a disservice to those who rely on accurate captioning to understand and follow their college classes,” Rosenblum said. “We challenge any claim of accuracy measurements of ASR given that there is absolutely no valid metric to assess the accuracy of captioning at this time.”

Captioning accuracy declines when the speaker's native language is not English or if they have a speech impediment, when live video has background noise or complex terminology or bad internet connections, Rosenblum said. Wiley estimated that the ASR used in videoconferencing platforms is 85 to 90 percent accurate, when the aim should be 99 percent accuracy. The best-case scenario would be for colleges to have a human remote live captioner, but academic departments often don’t have the budget to pay for such services, especially now with the financial impact of making major adjustments in response to the public health crisis, Wiley said.

The pandemic is forcing institutions “to confront who is expendable,” said Mary Vargas, a partner at the firm Stein & Vargas LLP, who focuses on disability discrimination and is a former attorney with the NAD. Accessibility issues occurring now will impact the deaf community later, as deaf and hard-of-hearing students studying health care or medicine will become critical providers who can communicate effectively with other deaf and hard-of-hearing people, she said.

“For students in that field to be locked out of education is just devastating,” Vargas said. “It’s devastating to their career path and devastating to the rest of us who need immediate health-care access.”

People who have not paid attention to accessibility are now being forced to in the middle of a crisis, said Lainey Feingold, a disability rights attorney who works on digital accessibility. From a legal standpoint, the technology should always be usable for every student, and accommodations are required by law, unless it’s an “undue burden,” she said. But providing an equal education to students with disabilities should be more than just a “checklist” to ensure institutions are compliant with federal requirements, Feingold said.

Accessibility should be a “state of mind,” and that has not historically been the case in higher education, said Marion Quirici, a disability studies professor at Duke University who advises the Duke Disability Alliance, a student group that advocates for visibility and accessibility for students with disabilities. Quirici is concerned not only for the students who have disclosed disabilities previously to their professors, or who have very apparent physical disabilities, but those who have not asked for accommodations, especially for unpredictable learning or mental health disabilities, she said.

“Accommodation is first -- you have to prove you have a disability,” Quirici said. “You go through this process of documentation, then decide which accommodation would help you get through this course … The students who are struggling the most are students whose disabilities are not already on the books.”

The move to remote learning has been particularly difficult for Sydney Aquilina, a Duke student who has ADHD and is a member of the DDA. Attending classes remotely while living in a household with seven others is challenging, she said in an email. It’s hard to find quiet space to be productive.

“Not being in-person in and of itself makes it harder to concentrate, and I feel less free to ask the questions that my mind will get hung up on, which makes it even more difficult to focus on what I’m supposed to,” Aquilina said. “Conversation helps me organize and process my thoughts, so the reduction of social interaction makes it more difficult for me to articulate my thoughts and ideas on assignments.”

Online learning, when done in an accessible way, can be better for some students with disabilities, such as those who struggle to navigate campus because they have a physical disability, Quirici said. What the coronavirus pandemic has revealed, though, is that requests by students with disabilities to learn remotely in the past -- which were sometimes rejected at many universities -- are suddenly possible on a broad scale, Quirici said.

This is the “irony of this current crisis,” Deanna Ferrante, a December graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, wrote in an article about the pandemic. Ferrante founded the Alliance Against Ableism at UMass Amherst and said she has a learning disability that affects her reading comprehension and memory.

“In the past, students who need class content to be moved online have faced opposition from administration claiming that the transition would be too expensive, take too much time, and require too much extra training for educators,” Ferrante wrote. “It is painful to me and many others in the disability community that as soon as non-disabled people require the use of online classes to complete their education, the whole world scrambles to get everything running in a mere week.”

Sometimes there’s a reluctance from educators to provide accommodations because they're skeptical of a legitimate need that is not obviously visible, when the attitude should be “flexibility and understanding,” Quirici said. There is a lesson to learn from people with disabilities who are “coming forward as leaders during this transition” and speaking about inequities that persist in higher education, not just online, but in person, Quirici said.

“That flexibility and approachability should be built into our mission as teachers,” she said. “I hope that one silver lining of this catastrophe is that this is all possible and it can be incorporated into face-to-face environments.”

Ferrante said accessibility should not be framed as "guidelines" or "suggestions" for instructors but as a top-down mandate from university administrators.

"It’s very disheartening that now all of this immediacy is in place because of something’s that’s bigger than all of us," Ferrante said. "Maybe it will show universities and administrators the importance of this."

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