As Universities Move Fall Classes Online, Are Disabled Students Being Considered?

COVID-19 continues to spread, and the colleges and universities that are opting for remote learning are doing a terrible job of implementing it.

[A student at home takes notes while from her laptop a remote lesson conducted by their teacher]
Considering that 19 percent of undergraduate students live with a disability, institutions of higher learning should assume 1 in 5 of students may need some sort of accommodation and plan accordingly. Shutterstock

Yeah, sex is cool, but have you ever been able to access all of the information you need for a class without going through the dehumanizing process of proving you have a need for reasonable accommodations? Oh, you have? Do you mind sharing some of that privilege with those of us living with disabilities? That would be really hot.

Because right now, the fall semester is upon us. COVID-19 continues to spread, and the colleges and universities that are opting for remote learning in lieu of traditional classroom meetings are doing a terrible job of implementing it. Pre-pandemic, it was already difficult for students with disabilities to secure accommodations, but shelter-in-place orders have made getting the necessary documentation next to impossible. 

Considering that 19 percent of undergraduate students live with a disability, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, you’d think institutions of higher learning would simply assume 1 in 5 students may need some sort of accommodation and plan accordingly during course development. But I guess it’s unreasonable to expect universities to be smart in their approach to remote learning. And considering only an estimated 4 percent of college instructors are disabled, “out of sight, out of mind” seems to be the modus operandi. 

When I asked Harvard University for information about how it’s handling digital accessibility, I was sent on a wild goose chase.

Harvard’s University Disability Resource office sent me to the Undergraduate Office which sent me to Information Technology (IT) which told me if the Undergraduate Office couldn’t help, perhaps I should try Harvard Extension since IT didn’t have information. (I suppose expecting the Information Technology office to have any information was wishful thinking on my part.) Harvard Extension is a separate entity from Harvard University, so it’s unclear why Harvard Extension would have information about how Harvard University is handling digital accessibility. But this disregard for disabled students—and a disabled reporter’s time—isn’t unexpected.

Back in 2015, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were both sued for not offering closed-captioning on publicly available online videos, and Harvard continued to fight for dismissal of the lawsuit until 2019 rather than just adding the damn captions. Meanwhile, MIT at least agreed to add the captioning—in February this year. Although Harvard now requires that “public-facing” websites follow web accessibility guidelines, websites requiring login—such as online courses—need not comply unless a student has specific accommodations designated by the University Disability Resources office. You know, the office that originally told me they couldn’t explain digital accessibility and sent me elsewhere.

When I told former U.S. Rep. Tony Coelho (D-CA), the primary sponsor of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), a piece of legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, about Harvard’s protocol—or lack thereof—he was dismayed but unsurprised.

“Well, they’re considered high class,” he said, referring to the elite Ivy League school. “And I guess they don’t think us, [those] with disabilities, are high class.”

Coelho now sits on the board of a company providing digital accessibility software aiming to make the internet more accessible. He’s currently working with the University of California system to ensure digital accessibility exists, whether or not disabled students identify themselves.

Meanwhile, the California State University (CSU) system has been taking steps since 2008 to promote accessible learning—long before a pandemic pressured higher education into remembering disabled people exist.

I spoke with CSU’s interim assistant vice chancellor for academic technology services, Leslie Kennedy, who said, “We’re trying to go to the model where students don’t have to request [an accommodation], that it’s automatically there. That’s really the best model.”

Seems simple enough.

To that end, CSU is using technology that provides course content in multiple different formats, including ebooks and audio files. All students have access to all options.

As for institutions in the Midwest, fall 2020 plans vary. While University of Minnesota will hold in-person classes, others like the University of Iowa or Emerson College, where I teach, are opting for hybrid models that employ both in-person classes and online activities. 

In my school’s case, they rebranded this Frankenstein means of instruction as “Flex Learning,” making it sound more like a gym plan than a science experiment. Students still must touch base with the accessibility office for accommodations, relying on documentation they submitted during previous semesters and explaining how those accommodations could work in a digital setting (even when the college itself doesn’t know).

Disabled instructors, like me, are sent to human resources—y’know, as a treat—where they get to explain what accommodations they need and why. This is a humiliating process in which someone like me explains how they’re not asking for special treatment, just the bare minimum to complete their job functions, and that they really do need what they’re requesting.

Coelho thinks legislation is the way to go, and while I agree that’s extremely necessary, we need change now. Until the government pulls itself together, we can start channeling the spirit of Leslie Kennedy and the CSU system: offering options and allowing all students to access those options. Options are really what accessibility is all all about.

“They just really revel in it,” Kennedy says of her instructors in the CSU system, the majority of whom have volunteered to undergo the accessibility training. Reveling in accessible content? Sounds pretty sexy to me. “They really enjoy realizing that they’re meeting that broad universal design.”

My suggestion for instructors looking to spice up the classroom with true flexibility, regardless if they’re teaching in person or online, is to do what I’ve always done: treat your students like the adults they are, and trust them. If you start off each semester with a baseline of respect and an open offer to discuss any sort of accommodations or assignments, you’ll foster a positive learning environment and open, empathetic communication, even if your institution isn’t helping at all.

Though it’d also be great if certain prestigious universities just employed empathetic people. That might help, too.