Sep 28 2020

How Can Universities Help Disabled Students with Remote Learning?

Here are some tips on how to make online, hybrid and remote learning more accessible for students with impairments.

Even before the massive disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, students with disabilities who needed accommodations were often reluctant to ask for them. With a mix of online and in-person instruction likely to remain the new normal, it is important for educators to keep students with disabilities at the forefront of their minds when designing and teaching courses.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 19 percent of college students in the U.S. report having a disability. And many of them might struggle when using technology. A Pew Research Center survey found that disabled Americans ages 18 and older are less likely to feel confident when using the internet and other electronic communication tools.

But improving the online learning experience for students with disabilities can be especially challenging, considering that students’ impairments can range from mild to severe. Many will need customized tools, tailored assignments and individualized support to help them succeed.

COVID-19 Special Education Teaching Strategies

“When it comes to accessibility, the first person to connect with is the student,” says Penny Rosenblum, the director of research for the American Foundation for the Blind.

Rosenblum, who has a visual impairment herself, advises instructors to always start any course — be it remote, hybrid or in person — by encouraging young people who need accommodations to let the instructor know. “The student knows better than anyone else what accommodations they need,” she says.

Below are Rosenblum’s top recommendations for how educators can be more inclusive of students with disabilities.

  • Create text versions of presentations. Most presentations are very visual. People who are blind or have low vision will probably find it difficult to understand your presentation if they cannot see the visuals. Before giving a presentation, make a text version of the presentation — that makes sense without images — available to students on your learning management system.
  • Make sure images are accessible. If you want to include images in presentations, make sure the images are accessible for students who use screen readers such as JAWS (Job Access With Speech) or NVDA (Nonvisual Desktop Access). This requires you to add image alt text, which is written copy that appears in place of an image on screen readers.
  • Ask if online learning tools are accessible. Keep in mind that online learning tools such as polls, chatrooms and emojis may not be accessible for everyone. Let students know what tools you plan to use for the course. If possible, set up a time with each student to go through a practice session. This way, both you and your students will know which tools are and are not accessible. For example, if polls are not accessible for a student, you can read the poll question during class and have the student respond in an email instead
  • Use high-contrast backgrounds. Many students who have visual impairments are not necessarily blind. Using high-contrast backgrounds and certain font combinations can help them see better. For instance, white on black, black on white and white on dark blue backgrounds all offer good contrast.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to solve remote learning struggles for students with vision and hearing loss.

Accessible Video and Audio Solutions for Online Learning

If you have students with vision impairments, it is important to be mindful of adding audio descriptions to videos.

Although Zoom is known for offering accessible hot keys and keyboard shortcuts that can help students navigate settings without using a mouse, its accessibility features are not all-encompassing.

Matthew Janusauskas, the director of technology and consulting services for the American Foundation for the Blind, brings up this common misconception in an AFB blog post: “Our clients may have chosen a good, accessible platform like Zoom, but don’t realize that there’s currently no technical way to render screen-sharing, such as a slideshow presentation, accessibly.”

So how can you tell if you need to add an audio description?

Before showing a video in class, try listening to it without watching it. Does the content still make sense without visuals? If not, you might need to describe the setting, actions and facial expressions in the video to viewers with visual impairments.

If you cannot add audio descriptions, make sure students have access to the video ahead of time so they can have a support person describe the video to them before class.

For students with vision and hearing impairments, accurate captioning is also crucial to their academic success.

Meryl Alper, an assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern University, advises faculty to be aware that most automatic captioning tools are not designed to be inclusive when it comes to picking up accents that deviate from the norm. These solutions are often biased against those whose speech falls outside the boundaries of the “average” speaker, as determined by the technology.

“If these tools were designed by a more inclusive group of people in the first place, then maybe these problems wouldn’t exist,” says Alper, who is also the author of Digital Youth with Disabilities. “You train algorithms based on a data set. And the data sets have historically been pretty narrow.”

Unfortunately, this means instructors whose lectures are not easily interpreted by speech recognition algorithms may need to edit their captions or have the captions corrected before sending the content to students.

If there is one captioning tool that educators recommend, it might be Google’s Recorder app. “It’s surprisingly accurate,” says Alexis Copeland, an adaptive technology specialist at Monterey Peninsula College. “Google’s speech recognition seems to be superior at this point,” although he acknowledges the app is not perfect. It’s always better to review the captions or transcripts before sending to students.

But what is convenient about Google’s Recorder app is that it transcribes audio in real time. Both the transcript and the audio are available offline. And the app uploads the audio and transcripts to Google Drive. Plus, it helps that the app doesn’t have as many features as popular transcription applications such as Otter.ai. “The simpler format is better for students with disabilities,” Copeland says.

How Are Students with Disabilities Meeting Remote Learning Challenges?

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only accelerated the development of new learning technologies that can better support students with disabilities, but it has also given students an opportunity to prove that they can handle more than anyone thought they could.

Many of Copeland’s students used to spend 12 hours a day studying at the campus library, where they received one-on-one support. “That’s what it takes for them to be successful,” he says. Copeland was initially worried that those students would fall behind in classes after losing their in-person support network.

But many of his students stuck it out through remote classes in the spring and continue to take online courses this fall. “Their resilience is pretty amazing,” Copeland says.

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