Laila Abdalla, Ph.D.
Laila Abdalla obtained her Ph.D. in English from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. For over 21 years at Central Washington University, she taught undergraduate and graduate courses in her subjects, along with classes on successful writing. Laila has devoted her teaching and leadership to matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion. She is committed to her students’ complete experience above all, raising awareness of BIPoC issues in language, community, and culture. She leads with equity in management and non profit volunteering, and continues to develop her own understandings of these complex issues in her lived experiences and professionally.
Last spring, college students faced huge, sudden changes to their learning and campus life experiences when the coronavirus pandemic broke out.
Higher education leaders moved quickly to continue providing academic services despite quarantine restrictions and lockdowns. The changes affected college students with disabilities in ways not yet fully quantified or understood by higher education institutions. Of the 20 million students enrolled in U.S. colleges in 2020, 19% of undergraduate college students reported having some type of disability.
Various types of disabilities can affect aspects of a person’s daily living experience. A person may experience mobility issues, visual impairment, or difficulty hearing. Other disabilities can appear invisible. They include mental health concerns or circumstances that may impair decision making or memory. These issues may affect a person’s ability to handle daily self-care tasks, like getting dressed or running errands. And a person may face simultaneous disabilities.
Most of the school changes focused on moving to online college learning. Pandemic-related changes to higher education prompted schools to take different approaches in improving accessibility in college for students with disabilities.
This guide focuses on how some individuals with disabilities benefit from online learning. While online learning might improve accessibility for students with physical disabilities, others — specifically people with cognitive disabilities — may struggle with online-only educational experiences.
Read on to learn how colleges provided academic and campus-level support for students with disabilities before and during the pandemic, and to understand why online learning may not fit everyone’s learning style, needs or expectations. We’ve also included information on efforts to make pandemic-era changes permanent, and on organizations that support current or incoming college students with disabilities.
How to Get Accessible Services
In some cases, students with disabilities found the turn to online college improved their accessibility to and success in higher education. Faced with the choice to adapt or halt academic operations during the pandemic, colleges found new ways to deliver learning experiences and support to all students.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, some of these accommodations, “such as remote learning and recorded lectures, were universally adopted overnight.” The ease and speed with which schools adapted learning for all students — which also improved accessibility for many students with disabilities —left many asking why schools waited for a crisis to make changes.
By necessity and design, nearly 100% of undergraduate students took a distance learning course in 2020. That’s a big increase from 2018, when about 35% of students took a remote learning course. According to one analysis, “remote and online learning are here to stay.”
“The need is to determine what combination of remote and in-person learning delivers the highest educational quality and equity,” said the report’s authors. “As institutions refine this hybrid model, they have a once-in-a-generation chance to reconfigure their use of physical and virtual space.” Those changes, they explained, could see lecture halls turned into flexible working spaces, or a new academic calendar with more summertime class offerings.
Changes in higher education usually happen slowly. Still, the fact that it took a global pandemic to push schools to normalize online college and remote work generated frustration among students. Now, as colleges announce their fall semester plans, people with and without disabilities — students, teachers, administrators — want those pandemic-era changes to stay.
“Many people have identified the hypocrisy in the refusal to grant people with disabilities the accommodations that, once everybody needed them, were made readily available instantly,” Josie Steuer Ingall, a rising second-year student at Yale, told the Chronicle. Ingall has ADHD and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome with a cardiac comorbidity. She also serves as treasurer and secretary of events for Disability Empowerment For Yale, a student-led advocacy group.
Federal law requires schools to accommodate academic adjustments for students with disabilities. However, the law does not require colleges to proactively identify students. Campus officials may not test or diagnose disabilities, but they can recommend or connect you with an appropriate provider or diagnostic services. In higher education settings, you must voluntarily disclose your disability and request accessibility.
You can request an academic adjustment at any time. The Department of Education suggests submitting your request to the school as soon as possible once you identify the accommodations you need or want. Colleges may need time to create individualized solutions.
To receive accessibility services, schools may require documentation from a doctor, psychologist, or other qualified person before agreeing to make accommodations. The documentation should describe how the disability affects your academic experience and daily life activities.
Daily Successes and Challenges
In the switch to mostly online learning and remote work, many students with disabilities experienced positive outcomes in adapting to online college. For example, when in-person class lectures moved to online videos, students could review class assignments in a way that best fit their learning style and needs.
The shift to online learning and communications also facilitated a change in how students interacted with disability service providers at their colleges. Nicholas Gelbar, a research professor at the University of Connecticut; Michael Faggella-Luby, a professor of special education at Texas Christian University; and Lyman Dukes III, a professor of special education at the University of South Florida, surveyed about 340 students at two- and four-year colleges in mid 2020.In a study published in the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, they found that many schools moved the entire disability services process online. In the past, students might need to meet in person with a school’s disability services representative, as well as complete paperwork requiring signatures. By providing these services online, advocates say more students may seek support if the process becomes more discreet.
“We know only half the college kids who have disabilities when they get to college file the paperwork to get the services that they have an entitlement to,” Faggella-Luby said in a story published by UConn Today. “Why? Well, at least for some, they don’t want to be one of those kids who has to stay behind at the end of the first class with a piece of paper in their hand, basically saying, ‘Hi, I’m a kid with a disability.'”The drawbacks Gelbar aso identified in the shift to online learning and communication include that students often experience more distractions in a home learning environment. Students also reported feeling less connected to other students and their teachers. And some students also face a digital divide. Not everyone has easy access to reliably fast internet and a device to use online academic work.
Higher Education Accessibility Outlook
Accessibility in higher education reached a turning point in the fall of 2020. Learning experiences transitioned from mostly in-person and on campus to digitally driven programs focused more on career success.
Additional changes to higher education’s business model include massive open online courses and industry-driven certifications. This means that changes implemented for everyone — which also happen to benefit some students with disabilities — will probably remain in place and continue growing.
In contrast with K-12 education, college students with disabilities must take the initiative to serve as their own advocates. Students with disabilities entering college for the first time can prepare for this transition by identifying what learning strategies work for them.
One expert also suggests researching the type of support available at your school. While the law simply prohibits discrimination based on a disability, many schools can readily implement changes to make learning, and campus life experiences more accessible.
Improving time management skills may also help with success in college, since the typical college day has much less structure than K-12 education. Teachers may not have the capacity to regularly follow up with students about attendance or assignments. Neurodivergent students — people with autism, ADHD or dyslexia, for example — may also find apps helpful in managing the day-to-day experiences of college life, like multitasking and scheduling.
Resources for Students and Allies
Many organizations offer support for college students with specific physical, emotional, and learning disabilities or impairments. These groups offer general support, information, and resources accessibility in college for students with disabilities and their families.
- National Center for College Students With Disabilities The NCCSD provides publicly available information and technical assistance about disability and higher education to college students, their families, college administrators and researchers. The center conducts research on disability services at U.S. college campuses. Established in 2015, the federally funded NCCSD shares its findings with the U.S. Department of Education.
- Disability Rights, Education Activism, and Mentoring (DREAM) DREAM advocates for the interests of college students with disabilities. The organization works to increase accessibility in college and advance social and policy change by providing support and mentorship at the campus level. As part of the NCCSD, DREAM works to advance the study of disabilities within the education community.
- Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) AHEAD supports student affairs professionals, diversity officers, and others in higher education with responsibility for creating positive higher education experiences for people with disabilities. Established in 1977, this membership-based organization also produces conferences, webinars, and other professional development content.
Nate Delesline III
Nate Delesline III is a Virginia-based writer covering higher education. He has more than a decade of experience as a newspaper journalist covering public safety, local government, business, transportation, and K-12 and higher education.
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