Back to School: The Pandemic Makes Accessibility in Education More Important Than Ever

August 25, 2020

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has upended the state of education in the United States. Many institutions had to undergo an abrupt and unexpected transition to online learning during the previous school year, and there remains a great deal of uncertainty across the country about what the upcoming semesters will look like.

While this "new normal" has been chaotic for students, teachers, staff, and administrators alike, the repercussions have been especially difficult for many students with disabilities. U.S. law guarantees that students with disabilities must enjoy fair and equitable access to education. With thousands of schools adopting online and hybrid learning for the foreseeable future, accessibility in education must include digital accessibility.

Accessibility in the classroom

Millions of students in the U.S. have disabilities that affect their educational environment and their learning experience. Below are some statistics about the state of accessibility in the classroom:

The U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), originally passed in 1975 and revised in 1990, obligates schools to provide a free and appropriate public education to all students with disabilities between the ages of 3 and 21. IDEA works in combination with other U.S. legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), to protect the rights of students with disabilities. Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by state and local government entities, which includes public schools.

Digital accessibility for remote learning

Laws such as IDEA and the ADA safeguard the rights of students with disabilities in the classroom. Unfortunately, although the ADA has been widely interpreted to apply to websites and other virtual environments as well, digital accessibility is not always available in practice. For example, the Bureau of Internet Accessibility’s a11y® analysis platform identified failures with 66 percent of checkpoints on the websites of New York City public high schools.

This digital divide has only become more pronounced in the past few months with the sudden transition to remote learning. With many schools caught by surprise, moving education online has been challenging for millions of students. Although closing schools and going virtual has helped slow the virus’ spread, it has also resulted in inequitable outcomes between different students, schools, and districts.

According to a study by McKinsey & Company, for example, remote learning could exacerbate the existing achievement gap among students, especially for low-income, black and Hispanic students. An April 2020 article by the New York Times found that in some schools, only half of students are participating in online learning.

Technological barriers present some of the biggest challenges in remote learning environments: students may not have reliable access to computers, tablets, or the Internet. Such issues are already familiar to many students with disabilities, many of whom heavily rely on assistive technology in the course of their studies.

The good news is that by law, special education students must continue to enjoy the same access to education as their classmates. In March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that schools that continue to offer classes online must also offer instruction to students with disabilities.

While this sounds nice in practice, however, the reality of the situation may be very different for many students. According to a 2016 report by the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities, 38 states do not have clear policies about special education in a remote learning environment. This is further complicated by the fact that each special education student is different, with a unique Individualized Education Program (IEP) to help meet their needs.

Making remote learning more accessible for students with disabilities

Faced with these challenges, there are nevertheless concrete steps that teachers and administrators can take to help students with disabilities. The June 2020 report "Shifting Special Needs Students to Online Learning in the COVID-19 Spring" by the Pioneer Institute concludes that “online learning can be appropriate for most students requiring special services,” with success mainly dependent on the school’s approach and the presence of an adult to supervise the student’s learning.

Below are a few digital accessibility tips for remote learning environments:

  • Record video sessions: If you hold live meetings or lectures, one of the most important steps you can take for digital accessibility is to record and save videos for later playback. This will help a wide range of students with disabilities: for example, students with hearing impairments who require audio transcriptions, as well as students with cognitive disabilities who may want to slow down the video or watch it multiple times.
  • Use a video platform that supports real-time captions: Video platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Google Meet allow you to turn on the real-time captioning feature, which transcribes the content of people’s speech almost instantaneously. This makes it much easier for students who are deaf or hearing-impaired to follow the flow of conversation.
  • Add closed captions and transcripts: As an alternative to real-time captioning, you can add closed captions and/or transcripts to your lecture videos. Websites such as YouTube have automated captioning services that can do most of the work for you, only requiring some corrections for mistakes and grammar issues. In addition, make sure that any third-party videos you share with students also have automated or manual captions attached.
  • Enable video remote interpreting (VRI): Some students with hearing disabilities may use a sign language interpreter during live videos. Choose an online learning environment that can accommodate this service, and work proactively with these students to ensure that they have the setup they need for success.
  • Use accessible file types: When it comes to digital accessibility, not all file types are created equal. PDFs have several accessibility issues that can create barriers for students with visual disabilities who use screen readers to vocalize text. Microsoft Word documents (.doc/.docx) and accessible PDFs are much more friendly to screen readers and other assistive technologies.
  • Be flexible: Students with various types of disabilities often require special accommodations during quizzes, exams, and presentations. Coordinate with students, parents, teachers, and administrators well in advance to provide the necessary assistance and support.

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