Many online classrooms and supportive services are not accessible or usable to students with a disability
By Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed.
In their “Situation Summary”, The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers thoughts about mitigating the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus. We should acknowledge that it presents more challenges for students with disabilities than any other students. Not only are many in the community already living with compromised immune systems, but we are also barred from using nearly 80% of all digital platforms around the world; that includes online learning management systems (LMS) and any other digital platforms used by schools, colleges, and universities.
The idea of social separation to stem the pandemic is a good one. I am all for preventing the disease from spreading and “flattening the curve” to ease the intensity of the disease’s impact on our citizens and healthcare infrastructure. In theory, I support those social distancing strategies for schools, ranging from Pre-K to universities, to minimize, or hopefully, eliminate exposure to the COVID-19 virus.
Suspending in-person classes for a few weeks makes sense, but in many cases, institutions are suspending on-campus interactions until the end of the semester. This option could prove crippling to individuals from the disability community. Many are mandating that educators implement online or distance learning to decrease the spread of this invasive virus. Yet, aside from not being able to amass a stockpile of toilet paper, hand sanitizer or water, people with a disability are put at serious risk for not being able to complete their studies due to inaccessible and noncompliant digital platforms.
Then there are learning curves and logistics around teachers and professors moving from a face-to-face teaching model to one complicated by having to navigate and learn a LMS, in many instances for the first time. Many educators across the country may not have used digital platforms as their primary and exclusive teaching model. Throughout the nation, emergency meetings and improvised training webinars are being conducted in the hopes of teaching educators how to use these platforms in days, as opposed to the significant amount of time needed to become proficient. I dare to wonder about those teachers, professors, and administrators who themselves might have a print disability and are barred from effecting the level of knowledge transfer enough to ensure successful completion of the academic semester or school year for themselves and their students.
Universally we are all at a disadvantage, but we need to consider the unfortunate digital barriers to academic enrichment that bars the disability community from executing in any virtual forums. These problems are more complicated to work through compared to preferred learning styles. There are many differences from learning online than learning in a traditional classroom setting and those challenges need to be understood and considered thoughtfully.
Year after year, statistical data shows nearly 80% of all digital platforms, including those of our academic institutions, are not compliant with the laws. As such, they discriminate against and bar people who are blind, aging, or print-disabled from riding through this COVID-19 wave by attending classes remotely.
The online platforms that most institutions use are woefully inadequate. As an abstract notion, usable and functional technology in an LMS could help digital equity and authentic inclusion become a reality once and for all. Wouldn’t the wonderful silver lining of this pandemic be that all online, remote or distance learning platforms were fine-tuned and maximized to include the disability community? Unfortunately, as noted in a piece written by Mark Lieberman “Technology can help address accessibility challenges, but many say it’s an incomplete solution”, it seems to put the focus on the type of technology used by the individual with a disability as opposed to focusing on the digital platforms being coded and developed in accordance with the federal regulations as required by Section 504 of the Rehab. Act and the WCAG standards. Many academic institutions’ websites and apps don’t interface with assistive technologies used by people who are print disabled. If they did, My Blind Spot would not have to advocate for digital equity.
Quarantining students may stave off infection or exposure to the virus, but for the student with a disability, and many others, not having that option for in-class learning could put them at a serious and unintentionally imposed disadvantage. Noncompliant digital platforms deny them equal access to academic enrichment and counters generally accepted thoughts about barrier-free access to education. Because of this, schools and universities may run the risk of legal exposure if their remote or online schooling does not comply with the various sections of the Rehab Act, or the Titles of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It also deprives students of their autonomy and the dignity of accomplishing their studies as independently as every other student.
Being totally barred from access and forced to rely on assistance from others due to technological oversights is disabling.
Not all students with a disability require help or assistance. However, because of this situation, those who are usually extremely independent will now be dependent on the kindness of strangers to help them digest electronic communications and other information in order to successfully complete their studies. All this is because institutions ignored the law and did not design their digital platforms with authentic inclusion in mind. When students are separated from the campus, it means that they will not be able to get the support they usually get.
As a former educator and administrator, I can only imagine the stress and strain my colleagues are under in a profession that is already feeling underappreciated for all the sacrifices they make to ensure our country has a contingent of educated and informed future leaders. My intention in sharing these thoughts is not to further stress them out, but to draw attention to the 50-year-old laws that are still not implemented, exercised, or acted upon.
As there often tends to be in exceptional circumstances such as those brought by this pandemic, we truly have a teachable moment. There are lessons to be learned when it comes to positioning Ability alongside Race, Gender, Orientation and Religion in American culture.
Call the provost at your local academic institutions or the disability office on-campus. Call the superintendent within your school district and ask what they are doing to reduce risks of inaccessible platforms that bar a student’s access to academic enrichment. Ask them to consider the teachable moment that is staring them directly in-the-face and demand that digital equity and authentic inclusion for all students MUST be non-negotiable.
My Blind Spot guides all types and sizes of organizations in achieving authentic digital inclusion. If we bake digital equity into the design and development process from the get-go, the costs can be minimal. But as with any project that needs retrofitting, costs can be a concern. So, get a jump on all of this and ask the keepers of those digital gates at our schools and universities to contact us at MyBlindSpot.org to help bring them into compliance while reducing their risk to legal exposure.
Then maybe, just maybe, the next time the world is plagued by a pandemic, at least America will be better able to ensure that ALL students get barrier-free access to digital communications and information to thrive in their academic pursuits, and not merely those who are on one side of the ability spectrum.