Whether students, teachers, or professors are ready or not, online education is here. Many students do not consider themselves “online learners” and are being forced to deal with this new reality of remote classes. Any student who normally struggles with academics will likely begin to face increased challenges. Students with disabilities will especially be affected by this sudden transition. As students and educators are still in the initial phases of panic trying to comprehend that education is moving entirely online, no one is talking about the issue of accessibility for students who rely on alternative modes of learning.
At many universities, online education has been consistently underfunded and understaffed, exposing the irony of this current crisis. 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. Students have had to drop out of classes and even abandon college altogether due to the refusal of universities to accommodate online learning needs. 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.
Many universities were not prepared to be teaching thousands of professors how to completely shift their material to remote access. Universities were also not prepared for the lack of knowledge that many professors have about navigating remote learning resources such as Blackboard, Moodle, Zoom, and Google Meet. Some professors still have trouble sending a mass email to their students, so students are rightfully skeptical of their professors’ ability to successfully navigate an online lecture. This is not all professors, but many professors are struggling with some aspect of this alternative way of teaching.
Professors have the hardship of re-planning their courses to ensure that students can still learn during the remainder of the semester. In the midst of all this mayhem, professors are not being given any information to make the online course content accessible to all students. Students with disabilities, especially those who are blind or deaf, will face major challenges with this switch to online learning. Documents are going to be uploaded in unreadable formats for blind students and lectures are going to be held via Zoom without transcription for deaf students. These are just two groups of students of the many in the disability community who are going to be negatively affected by this transition, given the lack of resources and time that professors have to adapt to this alternative way of teaching.
Remote learning tools, such as Blackboard and Moodle, are not intrinsically accessible; educators must learn how to scan using Optical Character Recognition (OCR), caption their videos, and include audio descriptions, just to name a few accessibility features. Accessibility is not new to IT, but it is new to many professors, so specific instruction needs to be given so that professors can accommodate all students. Remote learning is going to take time to be successful, not because it does not currently work but because educators have not been trained on how to use it for the benefit of all students.
The problems that students with disabilities will face are by no means problems that have just started in the past week. These are problems that have existed and have been ignored for far too long. As students with disabilities are neglected the education that they have paid for and deserve during the remainder of this semester, universities will not be able to deny the injustices that students with disabilities face every day. Now there is no other solution but to confront this inaccessibility head-on. Teachers and professors are starting to learn how to convert everything to online content, but it is critical that they are also provided guidelines on how to create accessible content. When creating accessible content, it is always better to be proactive instead of reactive, but the unpreparedness of universities to roll out accessible online plans is yet another manifestation of the neglect that students with disabilities have faced. Accessible education is a civil right, and now more than ever universities have a responsibility to provide that access to every student.
Professors who are not receiving the necessary information to create an online experience for all of their students need to reach out to their disability services, accessibility offices, or assistive technology centers to find out what they can do to support students with disabilities. Professors have a responsibility to avoid creating additional academic struggles in these coming months.
Although online learning has been repeatedly undervalued in the past, somehow this transition has been the fastest thing that many large bureaucratic educational institutions have accomplished. There will be kinks in the system, but universities are thinking outside of the box to ensure that content can be moved online with an emphasis and urgency that has never existed before. Once the content is online, that urgency needs to immediately shift to making that content accessible for everyone. Now is our opportunity: if remote learning becomes the new normal for the coming months, this is the time to make sure that normal is not inherently ableist.
The light at the end of this tunnel could be that accessibility is taken more seriously on college campuses (and at all schools). Once college classes have been mobilized to be online, there is no reason why any student with a disability should be denied access to class content.
Protecting the educational rights of people with disabilities is imperative now more than ever. The U.S. government does not seem to care about students with disabilities falling behind, as legislation in response to the COVID-19 outbreak is proposed to strip away educational rights from students with disabilities. The provision that Senator Lamar Alexander is proposing puts the IDEA at risk by allowing state waiver requests of IDEA requirements. This major attack on disability rights epitomizes the disrespect that the disability community faces in this country.
If you are a student or educator with or without a disability wanting to understand the rights of students with disabilities at this time (and always), listen to this 7-minute webinar created by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights about the recent switch to remote learning. Educators can email questions about making their online content accessible to OCRWebAccessTA@ed.gov or file a complaint regarding violations of federal civil rights law on their website ocrcas.ed.gov.
COVID-19 response resources for professors to create accessible online content:
- Keep Teaching During Prolonged Campus or Building Closures: University of Maryland
- Accessible Teaching in the Time of COVID-19
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