A picture of the Student Accessibility Services sign in MUSC.C/O Cindy Cui

How remote education benefits students who experience disabilities

By: Yvonne Syed, Contributor

Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a pandemic in March 2020, educators and postsecondary institutions have been hard at work transferring their teaching to online delivery methods. To accommodate everyone’s health and safety, remote learning has become a norm and is something we will be engaging in for at least a year. 

Earlier this year, McMaster University students completed the remainder of their winter 2020 term online and offered spring and summer courses remotely. Then this past week, through a letter from the provost, it has been confirmed that the university will remain online until the end of the winter 2021 term. 

To accommodate for remote methods of teaching and learning, the university prepared for the fall term by making pre-recorded lectures, posting slides on Avenue to Learn and offering remote office hours. While online learning may not be a preferred method of learning for some students, remote delivery has undoubtedly made life easier in the sense that learning is more accessible for some students with some of the flexibility it brings. This is evident in the ability for students to learn at their own pace in some courses that are now being offered asynchronously, or for courses that now pre-record, podcast or post lecture recordings, as it does not constrain students to set times for learning. The adjustments made related to COVID-19 are showing us that more effortful accessibility accommodations for students with disabilities could have always been arranged.

Prior to the adjustments made as a result of the pandemic, students who experience disabilities were at a significant disadvantage in terms of access to an educational experience that best facilitated their learning and met their individual needs. For instance, students with attention and concentration problems may have trouble focusing during in-person lectures and some students with physical and invisible disabilities may be unable to maintain regular in-person attendance as a result of their conditions. Additionally, deaf and hard of hearing students benefit from the closed captioning made available on the pre-recorded lectures the university is now offering for some courses. 

While Student Accessibility Services is available for students to seek accommodations to support their learning, the services provided by SAS are limited and may fail to completely meet the needs of students. For example, SAS note takers are provided on a volunteer basis, meaning that if there are no student volunteers that come forward to provide notes for a given course, the students requiring accommodations will not receive the support they need to be successful in the course. Thus, students have had to rely on minimal and potentially unreliable accommodations such as having a note-taker for their courses, when they could have more support ensuring that the delivery method of their education is made more feasible for their learning needs. While it is disappointing that these students’ needs were not given priority and that it took a crisis like a pandemic for everyone to realize that these measures could have been implemented earlier, it would be extremely beneficial to have these accommodations implemented in future. 

While it is disappointing that these students’ needs were not given priority and that it took a crisis like a pandemic for everyone to realize that these measures could have been implemented earlier, it would be extremely beneficial to have these accommodations implemented in future. 

Moving forward, it is imperative that McMaster University re-evaluates the extent to which it offers accommodations so that they can support all types of learners, including neurodivergent students and students with disabilities. The current accommodations with online learning may not be necessary for all students once the pandemic improves, but remote or blended learning should still be offered as an option for students who learn better this way. Making access to class materials online and not just in-person allows students who are unable to attend every class, due to mental health symptoms or disabilities, to catch up. The same goes for students who need mobility aids during a harsh winter semester with many snowy days, which may hinder their ability to make it to class.

While creating these accommodations are undeniably a timely and effortful process, it yields results that support an inclusive learning environment and ensures that all students can excel in their educational endeavours. Empowering all students in education, beyond those who are neurotypical and able-bodied, is a matter of great importance. Accordingly, postsecondary institutions must transcend beyond using the universal design for instruction in order to meet these needs.

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