Apr 27 2020

Solving Remote Learning Struggles for Students with Vision and Hearing Loss

These tips can help resolve the most common challenges for students with visual and hearing impairments in remote learning settings.

Attending college and obtaining a degree can be a particularly daunting challenge for students with disabilities. Some advocates for students with vision and hearing impairments are concerned the recent pivot to remote learning could further complicate these students’ learning experiences.

“Particularly for students with disabilities, the transition to remote distance learning can really impact how they learn and what their needs are,” says Cyndi Wiley, program manager for digital accessibility at Iowa State University. 

To help educators deal with these new challenges, Disability Access Information and Support, which provides technical assistance and professional development to the higher education community, has published a set of best practice guidelines on how to help students with disabilities thrive in a remote setting. The Association on Higher Education and Disability has also aggregated a list of resources and tips on how higher ed can be more accessible during the pandemic. 

From ensuring video captions are accurate to making sure assignments are compatible with screen-reading software that converts text into speech or Braille, here are some tips on how to resolve some of the most common challenges for students with visual and hearing impairments in remote learning settings.

Particularly for students with disabilities, the transition to remote distance learning can really impact how they learn and what their needs are.

Cyndi Wiley Program Manager for Digital Accessibility, Iowa State University

Proper Captioning Is Critical for Students with Hearing Loss

Did he say waffles in space? Or wobbles in space? It is critical for students with disabilities to have access to accurate captions of their instructors’ lectures and videos, yet this is proving to be a challenge. 

Popular video platforms such as YouTube, Zoom, and Kaltura all offer automated captioning to help faculty save time. But the accuracy rates of automated captions can be as low as 80 percent, with key terms and names frequently misspelled. 

Some instructors are carving out time to write their own captions. But writing captions for even a five-minute video can take as long as 25 to 50 minutes. This can be especially difficult for instructors already strapped for time as they adjust to the new challenges of teaching from home. 

Instead of writing captions from scratch, Wiley advises faculty to start with the automated captions and edit from there. “Starting with an autogenerated caption is a good workflow,” she says.

If possible, faculty should assign caption editing to a teacher’s aide or a work-study student. There are also companies — such as Rev, 3Play Media, and Adobe Closed Captioning — that offer professional captioning services. But keep in mind these companies can take anywhere from 24 hours to four business days to complete the captions.

Of course, there are many small universities that may not have the resources to hire teacher’s aides or a budget for captioning services. A more economical approach may be to assign a student to take notes on Google Docs, or a similar platform, that can be shared with the class. This way, the note taker transcribes what the instructor says in real time for the class to see.

Ensure Your Tools are Compatible with Screen-Reading Software

Students with certain visual impairments — such as blindness — will often use screen-reading software that either verbalizes or translates print words into Braille. 

But in order for this software to work, educators need to make sure the websites, learning management systems and documents they send students follow accessibility standards.

According to the National Federation of the Blind, documents should only contain one Level 1 heading, and the headings should be hierarchical. Otherwise, the content structure might not make sense to a Braille reader. “Headings should be relatively short, because short headings are easier to navigate with screen access software, and keep documents looking and feeling less cluttered for other readers,” NFB states.

To assist with concerns like this, many Microsoft 365 apps offer an Accessibility Checker tool that flags issues and offers suggestions on how to improve the accessibility of the document. NFB has also compiled a list of tips on how to ensure coursework is intelligible for the visually impaired.

MORE ON EDTECH: How the Remote Learning Pivot Could Shape Higher Education

Many professors may feel overwhelmed by the difficulties that arise with long-term remote learning. It’s important to remember that their classes can’t be perfect at first.

“It's a struggle to have to just flip the switch overnight and move your courses to a remote format,” Wiley says. “Remote distance learning is not the same as an actual online class that has been developed and vetted. Typically, development times are six to 18 months, depending on the complexity of an online course.”

“It does take time to make course materials accessible,” she says. “Do it in steps and phases. Ask what resources your institutions may have to help you along. One step at a time, these little changes can go a long way.”

zlikovec iStock/Getty Images