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How Accessibility for Universities and Students Has Changed in 2020

It’s safe to say the 2020 school year has not gone the way anyone expected. Midway through last semester, we all went home and everything moved online. For students who were already struggling with accessibility, this shift has been both a blessing and a curse.

In 2020, there are both amazing accessibility tools available to universities and students and huge gaps that still leave some students out. Read on to learn more about what accessibility looks like in 2020 and how the coronavirus has changed the scene on this issue for good and ill.


Less Focus on Differently Abled Students

One of the major catch-22’s of this pandemic is that all the issues with students working from home also applies to professors. Educators are coping with extra family demands, technological challenges, and distractions. And on top of that, they are being asked to learn an entirely new mode of teaching.

With all these extra demands on teachers, the first thing to fall off the priority list may be accommodations for differently abled students. A teacher may not feel like it’s a priority for them to make sure their lectures are accessible when they feel like they’re doing all they can to get a lecture out at all. Plenty of support from the university and access to accessibility tools are key to making sure no students get left behind in our new education approach.


Better Video Communication Tools

In the past, one of the limitations that has made digital learning difficult for disabled students has been a lack of strong video communication tools. Skype was notoriously unreliable, and many video conferencing tools were expensive or ineffective. Teachers who wanted to provide virtual speech-language therapy, mental health counseling, or narrated PowerPoints or screencaps had to learn how to use those tools on their own.

However, the coronavirus pandemic did bring with it a huge boom in video conferencing tools. Zoom and Microsoft Teams are a part of our daily reality and have been widely integrated with education platforms. Educators can now provide their students with more specialized instruction through more reliable digital platforms.


Digital Textbooks

Digital textbooks have both positive and negative impacts on student accessibility in 2020. On one hand, more textbooks than ever are available in digital formats. A demand for digital textbooks from students who don’t want to lug twenty-pound backpacks around has led many publishers to offer their books in both physical and digital forms.

But not all textbooks are yet available in digital formats. This means that blind students must either try to find Braille versions (fewer than 10 percent of blind people read Braille) or figure out another way to access their textbooks. Even if students do read Braille and can find a Braille version of their textbooks, these editions may be much more expensive than traditional textbooks.

Educators should focus on choosing textbooks that are available in digital formats. Even if a book is not marketed as having an e-book version, universities can contact the publisher to ask for digital copies. Oftentimes, the publisher can provide a low-resolution PDF that will work with screen readers and other accessibility tools.


Greater Flexibility of Schedule

Students with learning disabilities, dyslexia, or ADHD have struggled in the past with traditional course timing. It might be significantly more difficult, if not impossible, for a dyslexic student to finish an essay in the traditional given time or for a student with a learning disability to take a test within one class period. Some accommodations have been made, but even these may not have given students the flexibility they needed.

In some ways, moving courses online has allowed students to work to their own schedule. Assignments may still be due on a given schedule, but the student can work when and how it works best for them. If they work best in the mornings or evenings, in short bursts or in long sessions, they have the freedom to learn on their own schedule.


Limited Internet Access

One of the biggest struggles in accessibility during the coronavirus pandemic has been limited internet access. Although it seems like the internet is everywhere these days, many students still don’t have a reliable internet connection in their home. Many disabled students may have struggled financially due to their disability and so may not be able to afford internet access or even a computer.

Before the pandemic, these students had access to the internet through public or university libraries and still had in-class materials to rely on. But with the onset of the pandemic, all of these resources have been shut down. Students who don’t have access to reliable internet at home may find themselves with no acceptable way to access their learning materials.

A good first step for universities to take is to provide computers and personal hotspots for any disabled students who don’t have access to these in the home. If a disabled student still doesn’t have what they need to access online learning tools, universities must arrange for in-person learning following CDC guidelines. They can also find safe, CDC-approved ways to give these students access to the computers and internet they can usually use on campus.


Improvements in Captioning and ASL Interpretation Resources

For deaf students, getting reliable captioning or ASL translation in their coursework has always been a struggle. Under the ADA, colleges and universities are required to provide either qualified ASL interpreters or reliable captioning for deaf students. But the quality of this captioning and access to ASL interpretation hasn’t always been reliable.

Improvements in remote communication and speech to text programs have made these resources much more reliable for deaf students. Universities can hire communication services that can include text interpreting, captioning, transcription, translations, and more. These services are available even in private homes these days thanks to nearly universal internet access.


Greater Health Risks

Although all of us are at risk of catching COVID-19 when we are in public, students with disabilities may be at higher risk. Many students may be on immunosuppressant drugs or may have respiratory challenges. Any physical disability can leave a student at greater risk of getting sick and having a longer, more serious illness.

Universities must make sure they are taking every possible safety precaution if they are going to reopen campus services. All students, faculty, and staff must wear masks on campus, and social distancing must be maintained at all times. Universities may need to arrange for more frequent cleaning of classrooms, as well as implementing additional safety measures in dining halls and dormitories.


Accommodations for Personal Aides and Special Circumstances

Although strict social distancing guidelines are crucial to maintaining a healthy student population, schools must make some exceptions for personal aides. Disabled students may need people around to help them do everything from going to the bathroom to flipping pages in a textbook. These aides may not be able to social distance from the person they’re helping, and that must be allowed for.

Likewise, students with disabilities may have difficulty following other standard health-protective guidelines. A student with a serious respiratory disability may not be able to wear a mask, or a student who usually relies on lip reading for communication may have a hard time coping with everyone wearing masks. Universities must be aware of these challenges and take appropriate measures for the situation to ensure the student still has fair access to learning.


Special Testing Arrangements

Many students with learning disabilities may have special testing accommodations during a normal school year. They may have longer time limits or be able to take the test separate from the rest of the class. Now, with everything moving online, professors who are still learning to use online learning systems may not know how to set up these accommodations for their disabled students.

Universities must provide professors with training in how to set exceptions for testing protocols. They must also work with students on a case-by-case basis to set up a testing system that meets their needs. This may mean extending or removing time limits on online tests or arranging for a different testing format entirely.


Discover Accessibility Tools for Universities and Students

2020 has brought major strides forward in accessibility for students. But it has also seen some major setbacks thanks to the chaos caused by the pandemic. Universities and students must work together to find accessibility solutions that ensure every student can get the education they’re entitled to.

If you’d like to get help making your classes more accessible for all students, check out the rest of our site at Alternative Communication Services. We provide live captioning, ASL interpretation, and more. Contact us today and start using the best accessibility tools available.

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