The pandemic has brought all students challenges, but none more than students with disabilities.
On February 3, renowned disability rights advocate Judith Heumann held a virtual conversation with hundreds of students, faculty and staff at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), titled, “Students, Disability Rights and Social Justice.”
One student told Heumann, a lifelong civil rights advocate for people with disabilities, the work she did before he was even born is why he has access to an equal educational experience today. Heumann served as assistant secretary of education for special education and rehabilitative services under President Bill Clinton.
“She was crucial in there being access like ramps, push buttons, alternative media, sign language interpreters and notetakers,” says Marci Daniels, director of services to students with disabilities (SSD) and WorkAbility IV at CSUSB.
The need for services has accelerated since the onset of the pandemic as students with disabilities face additional challenges in attaining educational success.
Supports for disabled students
In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, most colleges and universities have accommodations and support services for students who have disabilities. When schools had to quickly pivot to virtual learning in the spring of 2020, it took additional efforts to accommodate students dealing with visual and hearing impairments. As the pandemic continues to impact higher education in 2022, students, faculty and staff are still navigating virtual and hybrid learning and trying to make sure the needs of all students are being thoroughly met.
The City University of New York (CUNY), which has 25 member institutions, has an office of disability services on every campus. There are approximately 11,000 students who identify as having disabilities across the various colleges. CUNY has pushed for the development of innovative programs that go beyond the legally mandated services.
“During the pandemic when everything moved online, digital accessibility was definitely a big concern,” says Jenna Lamm, associate director of disability programs at CUNY. “We quickly mobilized to make sure that students had access on these new platforms. A big thing was captioning. Now Zoom has automatic captioning, but at the beginning it did not, so making sure in every class where students needed it, captioning service was in place as well as sign language interpreters as needed.”
Daniels says at CSUSB it took a combined effort from faculty, staff, and student assistants to create a comprehensive strategy that enabled operations to move to the new learning environments. They had to ensure that remote environments were accessible and were able to train students, faculty, sign language interpreters and captionists on software platforms such as Zoom. Assistive technology was provided to students as needed. Faculty had to know how to work with the features essential to students with disabilities.
“The [training] efforts reduced resistance to change through open communication,” says Daniels. “Our deaf students’ GPA[s] actually increased.”
SSD also creates social opportunities for students to connect and alleviate feelings of isolation. “Team members recognized that SSD needed a more robust social media presence and created a strategy for promoting disability awareness through content selected and written by students that contains uplifting stories as well as information on disability rights/legislation, community initiatives and the promotion of awareness activities and department events,” says Daniels.
Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), an HBCU in Charlotte, North Carolina, provides all students eligible for disability support services with academic, residential, and emotional support. James E. Saunders II, director of student support services, says his office works closely with departments throughout the university to provide the best for students with disabilities, which includes adaptive technologies.
JCSU was all virtual for the 2020-21 academic year. Saunders says during that time students with disabilities who utilize student support services showed a higher GPA than non-disabled students accessing student support services. He extends kudos to the faculty for supporting student needs.
LaTausha Perkins-Allen, disability coordinator with student services at JCSU, says the adaptation to virtual learning had some bumps. “It’s been more of a personal challenge,” she says. “Other students have reported benefits of online learning and they’ve expressed less stress, greater flexibility with their schedule and an increased control of their learning process.”
Within the CUNY system there are community colleges, four-year institutions, and a graduate institution. Some students with disabilities such as seizure disorders or learning challenges have diverse needs.
“Students who first entered in the fall of 2020 while we were still remote didn’t get the same chance to have that new, in-person engagement in getting connected to services,” Lamm says. “It’s been a concerted effort to make sure they’re getting connected.”
The CUNY Coalition of Students with Disabilities (CCSD) immediately saw that isolation within the remote environment was a significant challenge and hosted over 1,000 events to keep students connected. “A lot of our amazing disability support staff would advise in the study sessions,” Lamm says.
Some students preferred studying remotely. People on the autism spectrum, who experience sensory issues in a classroom, found it easier being away from noise and commotion.
“At the same time, connecting with students when you’re not physically with them on campus is more difficult,” says Lamm. “We connected with admissions and different academic programs, making sure that as students were coming in and going through virtual orientations that they were being made aware that these services are available.”
For some students, email check-ins are optimal. Others will chat on Zoom. Some require phone calls, Lamm says. It requires meeting the students where they are.
Cal State San Bernardino’s SSD office is open from 7:20 a.m. to 10 p.m. and phones are answered by people rather than a voicemail system. “Whether we were in a pandemic or not, our students want to talk to humans, not an answering machine,” Daniels says. “We see students in whatever modality they prefer.”
Students at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, have recently formed a chapter of the national organization DREAM (disability rights, education, and mentoring), which brought a sense of unity to Hofstra students with disabilities during the time that all classes were remote. Dr. Craig Rustici, director of the disability studies program, is working with the library to produce accessible PDF files. Rustici, who has been legally blind since birth, says he doesn’t think faculty who are putting PDFs on their reading lists realize the consequences of that for students with visual disabilities.
“We’re going to try to increase awareness,” says Rustici, a professor of English who teaches courses such as disability in literature and culture (cross listed for both English and disability studies) and disability, law, and justice.
“Because most of the classes I’ve been teaching since the pandemic are in one way or another about disability, that may have created a community for those students,” he adds. “The pandemic did coincide with my encouraging the students to form DREAM, an advocacy organization.”
He found some aspects of teaching virtually advantageous given his own visual impairment, but other faculty may not have made as successful a pivot to online and that impacted all students, but disabled students more acutely. Adaptations he’s long utilized, such as preferring to have students write their exams via a computer, he is happy to see students adopt. Going forward, Rustici says more faculty members are thinking favorably about giving exams online so they don’t have to worry about social distancing in a classroom. He sees this as a positive for students with disabilities, creating less stress.
Many students have dealt with varying mental health issues due to the pandemic, most notably anxiety and depression. TimelyMD, a telehealth provider specializing in higher education, has endeavored to make mental health services available to students with visual impairments and hearing-related issues. Seli Fakorzi, director of mental health operations for TimelyMD, says students are guided through downloading the app and accessing a care provider capable of working with their disability.
“Our goal is meeting the need for equitable and on-demand student access to care,” says Fakorzi. “We do address, even in our clinical practice guidelines, how we make care accessible to students that have varying challenges. We’re going to be implementing a third-party feature so that students can add someone else to the call if they need assistance.”
CSUSB has operated a food bank and made grants available to students with disabilities who experienced financial hardship. Faculty and staff have increased outreach and touchpoints with students. Daniels says there is greater awareness about making an accessible environment designed with universal design principles.
Perkins-Allen continues to work closely with faculty and college advisors to help spot invisible disabilities in students who do not self-identify during outreach and orientation. If advisors are seeing signs, such as falling behind on assignments, they may refer the student for support services.
Lamm says CUNY institutions have taken careful note of the positives of virtual learning and will continue using that alongside in-person learning and services to reach as many students as possible. CUNY has a growing population of neurodiverse students (autism spectrum and other developmental conditions such as ADHD). Additional programs are being developed. There are mentors and coaches to help with academic struggles.
“Our staff is very creative,” says Lamm. “We’re used to overcoming barriers and coming up with new ways to solve problems.”
This article originally appeared in the March 31, 2022 edition of Diverse.