College Students With Learning Disabilities Are Asking For More Support. Will They Get It?

Oct 28, 2020

College students with learning disabilities experienced a sudden rupture of the status quo this spring when most of their courses moved online.

In some cases, the change interfered with the coping strategies students use to learn. But in other instances, institutions seized the unusual opportunity to encourage professors to redesign courses to be more accessible to people with varied needs.

More than two-thirds of colleges saw additional students apply for academic accommodations during the spring 2020 semester, according to a national survey of 212 colleges that shifted to remote instruction because of the pandemic.

That’s significant because under normal circumstances, the majority of students eligible for academic accommodations choose not to report a disability when they get to college, says Adam Lalor, who conducted the survey. Lalor is the director of the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training, which studies education strategies and outcomes for students who have learning disabilities.

The sudden uptick in requests is intriguing for researchers “thinking about why so few generally choose to disclose,” Lalor says. “There seems to be an environmental factor involved.”

And 67 percent of institutions reported that they reconsidered pre-existing accommodations for students due to the shift to online learning.

“What it seems like is disabilities services providers [are] having to think about new barriers placed in an online environment,” Lalor says, such as difficulty reading text on screens or heightened anxiety from being filmed during class discussions or while taking tests.

Augustana College in Illinois received increased student requests for academic accommodations, primarily for extended time on exams and quizzes, says Kam Williams, director of disability services.

And some even institutions that didn’t see a rise in formal requests for accommodations have worked to make online materials more accessible. At Connecticut College, director of student accessibility services Melissa Shafner says officials added new types of accommodations that students asked for, such as live captioning for classes held via Zoom.

New kinds of requests can pose logistical and financial challenges to accessibility offices. Live captioning, for example, can run tens of thousands of dollars for an academic year, although automated services are less expensive. At Connecticut, that cost might have fallen on the instructional technology office that is responsible for Zoom, but its budget was maxed out. So the accessibility office agreed to pay for it—for now.

“This is going to be a big expense that in two months could wipe out our entire office’s budget,” Shafner says. “We will pay for it, but we also need a plan moving forward.”

In this time of increased student need, some accessibility offices find themselves less equipped than before. In the Landmark survey, 9 percent of offices reported budget decreases, 17 percent reported staff reductions and 19 percent reported that their budgets were inadequate to meet needs, regardless of whether budgets were cut.

This could have left some offices unable to fully serve students.

“My estimate, based on at least the first couple of months following March, is that there were a good number of students with disabilities not receiving an equitable education,” Lalor says.

Yet the shakeup of how teaching is normally delivered also presented an opportunity to design virtual courses that had accessibility built into them from the beginning. In the Landmark survey, 77 percent of accessibility offices reported that in the shift to online teaching, they had greater collaboration across the university than they have under normal circumstances.

“To what extent and how much they were listened to—I’m still trying to figure that out,” Lalor says. “I’ve been hearing horror stories about accessibility and also hearing great triumphs.”

The shift to remote classes in the spring did work out well for some of Shafner’s students, whose professors became less rigid than usual about assignments and assessments.

“They had no choice but to give open-book and take-home tests,” she says. “Because of the forced flexibility, it’s made a lot of things actually easier on the students.”

As the pandemic continues, so will challenges for students who have disabilities and the staff who serve them, Shafner says. For example, this fall, freshmen arrived without having received proper documentation of their needs from their high schools due to school closures.

But Shafner also sees a chance to capitalize on the experiments faculty and staff are trying with their courses right now. One sign of progress: the workshop Shafner held for faculty over the summer on universal design for learning was well-attended.

“What I would like to see more at the college is intentional follow-through,” Shafner says. “Even when we go back to normal, could you carry over some of these things in the interest of inclusion and being more universal and making it more accessible?”


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