Making remote education accessible to all

A student at Pueblo Community College (Colorado) uses a sign language interpreter for a remotely taught class. (Photos: Pueblo Community College/Steve Bigley)

Among community colleges’ many challenges of shifting to remote education during the pandemic has been ensuring that students with myriad disabilities can access lectures and course materials in a way that enables them to continue learning.

But community college disability officers say they are managing the situation and feel like they are doing right by the spectrum of populations they serve.

For Catherine Carlson, director of the Office of Accessibility Services at Columbia-Greene Community College in Hudson, New York, “it is all about intentional inclusion.” Carlson, who is also president of the New York State Disability Services Council, says her office enrolls all students with disabilities once they have identified themselves and provided documentation, working to ensure the learning management system helps them.

Carlson says it can be challenging to disseminate information about available services in a remote environment, but her office has used many communication opportunities, starting with acceptance letters and new student orientations for new first-years this fall. The college also just launched an “early alert” outreach effort to faculty members to identify students who might be experiencing disability-related barriers and would welcome a dialogue about addressing them.

Tied into this, Columbia-Greene and other colleges face disparities in technical proficiency among students, Carlson says.

“This is particularly important for students who need to use technology to reformat learning materials,” she says. “For instance, a student with reading comprehension disability may use software that allows the material to be read aloud. Engaging in training for computer software can be challenging in a remote environment.”

Accommodating different types of disabilities

While webinars and recorded training sessions don’t typically measure up to in-person training, Columbia-Greene has invested in a program called “Read and Write” that Carlson recommends.

Accommodations for students with different types of disabilities are approved and facilitated case by case and course by course, Carlson says. Blind students likely will need a screen reader for a remote course, which “Read and Write” facilitates through a “talking word processor.” The college works with agencies like the New York State Commission for the Blind to ensure that students receive proper training.

Columbia-Greene also has seen a significant increase in students with mental health issues in the past year, and Carlson has been approving reduced course loads while keeping students at full-time status so they can access certain opportunities available only to full-time students.

“Because of all the extra sources of anxiety in this environment, there’s been a lot of people who need a reduced course load,” she says. “That has become necessary sometimes for students trying to teach their own kids at home.”

Making it work

At Pueblo Community College in Colorado, adapting to a new environment due to COVID went more smoothly than Bonnie Clark, disability resources coordinator, expected. The college had needed technology already in place, and the faculty was stalwart about getting in the swing of recording videos and otherwise uploading course materials, she says.

“For students with disabilities, we were reaching out to them to find out if the transition was working for them,” Clark says. “Did they have the instruments or tools in place? We wanted to make sure they had a laptop with a webcam. Many of them didn’t. We connected them with our IT department to get different resources on campus and were able to find devices and get them delivered to students.”

For deaf and hearing-impaired students, the college found a way within WebEx to enable a sign language interpreter to log in to the same class, and for the student to “pin” the interpreter in the corner of their screen while still being able to see the instructor.

“The sign language hurdle is mostly dealt with. It worked out well,” Clark says.

For students who have physical disabilities that make typing difficult or learning disabilities such as dyslexia that lead to difficulties with spelling, Pueblo uses Dragon Naturally Speaking in conjunction with Microsoft Word so they can use the voice recognition software to write papers, she says.

“We connect with our students frequently to follow up with them and see how things are going,” Clark says. “We do it via e-mail or phone calls. For a lot of those students, we give them time extensions. A lot of things can be done pretty easily in a remote format. Depending on the severity of the issue, students will need audio. If they have an e-book, we make sure they can access it via the audio format.”

This fall, about one-quarter of students have been physically attending class as teachers give lectures while recording them for remote students. In some cases, students with disabilities don’t learn as well remotely, she says.

“It’s been an interesting journey,” she says. “It’s been tough and demanding, but everybody’s come together.”

Adapting to new technology

Kansas City Kansas Community College has always provided accessible materials for students, says Robert Beach, assistive technology specialist. Whether that’s screen readers for blind or dyslexic students, or electronic versions of textbooks “so they don’t have to muscle around a large physical textbook,” it’s nothing entirely new, he says. 

“Robert’s had to do more work with teachers and students, making sure that with vision-impaired and blind students, that their screen readers work with Zoom,” says Alex Twitty, learning specialist. “He’s been doing more troubleshooting than he’s done in the past. … I’ve been doing more intake meetings, through Zoom, than I would have done.”

The Student Accessibility and Support Services Office at KCKCC has developed a document that explains to faculty what accommodations students with disabilities might need, including live captioning, accessible course materials and extended time on exams.

For deaf and hearing-impaired students, the college has for the first time provided real-time captioning rather than relying on sign-language interpreters, Beach says. The school has contracted with a captioning company to ensure equal access to lectures and discussions.

Twitty has found that ADHD students sometimes can focus better in their own bedroom at home than they would have in a classroom, although that depends — if they have dishes to be washed or children running around making noise, it can be more distracting. And he’s seen more students struggling with taking tests online than he ordinarily would in the classroom environment, increasing the need for instructors to allow extended time for individual students deemed eligible for this accommodation.

Other challenges

Mask-wearing has caused problems for students with anxiety, and since the college cannot exempt them from wearing a mask, they have made accommodations for those students to continue virtually, Beach says. The fact that professors are wearing masks in the classroom has created problems for hearing-impaired students who read lips — which Twitty notes led to the decision to buy see-through masks. 

One area where KCKCC has seen a reduction in accommodation requests is for note-takers, Beach says.

“If students are home doing synchronous classes, and teachers are recording and posting those, they can watch it again later, stop and pause, and take their own notes as they go,” he says.

Issues you can’t see

County College of Morris in Randolph, New Jersey, went completely online for the spring and is holding about 20% of classes in person this fall, mostly skills-based subjects like nursing or hospitality, says Bette Simmons, vice president of student development and enrollment manager.

The college has worked with faculty members to ensure they are developing courses with students with disabilities in mind, allowing for text readers, closed captioning on videos, extended time on testing for those who need it, and a remote peer mentor for those who ordinarily would have had one in person, she says.

“Faculty are having to understand that’s an additional person who will be in their Zoom class or Web-Ex class with them,” Simmons says. “We’ve had to have faculty get used to how you use learning systems for students with disabilities and do that through the learning management systems.”

Simmons hasn’t been asked to do much for students with physical disabilities who are remote learning from home, but there have been some requests for assistance among those who have mental health issues. 

“We’re making sure we are connecting them with the appropriate resources through the Office of Counseling and Student Success,” she says. “Those (issues) tend to be more silent in nature. You can’t really see them. It’s not anything you need to put a particular accommodation around, as opposed to providing them with more wraparound support.”

About the Author

Ed Finkel
is an education writer based in Illinois.