How Will Colleges Support Students With Disabilities After the Pandemic?

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The pandemic continues to change college life for current and future students.

Within a couple of weeks in early 2020, students and higher education leaders began navigating a new normal. This new normal included legally mandated quarantines, lockdowns, social distancing, and remote learning.

About 19% of America's 20 million college students had some type of disability in 2016. These undergraduate students may face more challenges than others in accessing and succeeding in higher education. Some of these challenges may include insufficient financial support, a lack of mentors, or inexperience in advocating for their needs.

And now, all students and college leaders face more uncertainty as the Delta variant of the coronavirus surges. Some pandemic-era restrictions are returning, just as school leaders sought to resume in-person classes and on-campus life.

As a result, some schools now plan to offer classes mostly or only online for the fall semester's first few weeks. Continue reading to learn more about how schools, students with disabilities, and their allies responded to these changes.

How Do Colleges Accommodate Students With Disabilities?

Colleges offer various accommodations for students with disabilities. They include:

Other common accommodations include preferential seating for in-person learning and recorded lectures. Colleges can also provide note takers. Teachers sometimes make their lecture notes available to all students. These accommodations may support students with cognitive, visual, or hearing disabilities. Students can review and study class content in a way that best suits their learning style and needs.

More than 70% of students in a recent survey discussed in The Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability (JPED) spring 2021 issue said their college granted them at least five disability-related accommodations.

Students must request accommodations through their college's disability services office. Unlike K-12 education, colleges have no requirement to proactively identify students with disabilities. Instead, the school must inform students of available accommodations. Schools and students work together to design reasonable accommodations that allow for maximum participation in classes and campus life.

Disabilities Affect Millions of People

Disabilities are more common than you might realize. According to 2018 data from the Centers for Disease Control, 61 million Americans, or one in four adults, report having a disability. Disabilities may affect a person's mobility, cognition, ability to see, ability to hear, and other senses. These conditions may affect a person's ability to complete daily activities. Examples include using stairs, running errands, making decisions, or bathing and dressing.

As a result of the varied ways disabilities may impact someone's life, any one approach to creating solutions for inclusion cannot work for everyone. Accommodations will look different depending on the needs being addressed. According to Higher Education Today, strategies that can allow students with disabilities full participation and inclusion on campus include:

Students with disabilities may also consider getting involved with the decision-making process for creating new campus inclusion strategies at their school.

Colleges Move Learning Online

Virtual learning quickly became the foundation of higher education in the pandemic. More than 96% of schools transitioned to remote work or online learning in spring 2020, according to the spring 2021 edition of JPED. In addition, 50% of students said they benefited from online learning. Students said they faced fewer distractions, liked the increased flexibility, and felt less stressed.

But virtual learning does not work well for every student. Some people with cognitive disabilities may find remote work difficult. Others may struggle with personal or family distractions at home, which might be the only place available to study. Internet connectivity is a barrier for others.

"What we saw during the pandemic was that the university, given the pressure that (everyone's) health could be negatively affected by COVID-19, was able to quickly adapt to online learning."

– Joaquin Lara Midkiff, president of Disability Empowerment for Yale

Nevertheless, the speed with which schools moved online surprised and frustrated students.

"When the pandemic happened, we were about to go on spring break," Yale University student Martine Cruz told Affordable Colleges Online. "The university essentially had two weeks to kind of find a way to adapt to distance learning. What they showed us is that under pressure, they can put classes online, and professors can adapt to them, and students can (too) — or at least attempt to."

Joaquin Lara Midkiff

President of Disability Empowerment for Yale

Fellow Yale student Joaquin Lara Midkiff said institutional inertia influences everything at the Ivy League school. That's why the speed of the pandemic-era changes seemed unexpected.

Lara Midkiff and Cruz serve as president and communications director, respectively, of Disability Empowerment for Yale, or DEFY. The organization focuses on advocacy for improving the living, learning, and working conditions for members of the Yale community with disabilities.

When he first arrived on Yale's Connecticut campus, Lara Midkiff said he immediately encountered some challenges. "Yale is not particularly accessible for wheelchair folks. It's a very old college — not every building has elevators or ramps." But, he continued, "What we saw during the pandemic was that the university, given the pressure that (everyone's) health could be negatively affected by COVID-19, was able to quickly adapt to online learning," he said.

The Value of Universal Design

As a result of the pandemic, "I think higher education, in general, had to learn to be more flexible," said Wendy Harbour. She directs the National Center for College Students with Disabilities. The NCCSD provides technical information on disabilities in higher education, collects data, and conducts research.

Harbour said research by the NCCSD and other organizations found that "disability services providers don't always understand the depth of problems that students are experiencing right now." Beyond their disabilities, pandemic students face other issues common to college students, such as mental health concerns, and food and housing insecurity.

But the ongoing pandemic has vastly improved communication between schools and students. "People going back now in the fall are fully aware that they may have to switch from in-person class to online learning," Harbour said.

Harbour also serves as associate executive director for programs and development at the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). She said the pandemic has also led colleges to implement more universal design standards.

Universal design makes learning spaces and experiences more accessible for everybody. By making universal design part of every lesson or experience, the result is "if a deaf student or a blind student or a student in a wheelchair shows up, you're kind of already set — you're ready to go," Harbour explained.

"What that looks like in practice is that students of color are represented in the curriculum. Videos are captioned, which helps deaf students and those who speak English as a second language."

But not everyone is enthusiastic about changes to teaching designs. Harbour shared a quote she got from a student. The student said, "'It seems like the nice professors are getting nicer and the mean professors are getting meaner.'" The reason?

"I think some people are reacting by going, 'No, I'm going to double down on how I've been doing (teaching) all this time,'" Harbour said. On the other hand, "There's this other group of faculty — the majority I think — who are really trying to make this work. So if a student suddenly catches COVID, or needs to quarantine, they can adapt."

What the Law Says

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. The act prohibits discrimination based on a disability. It also requires higher education institutions to provide equal access for students with disabilities. However, asking for an accommodation does not always mean receiving what you need.

For example, if a school can prove that providing accommodations would create a financial or administrative strain, the school may deny a request. As a result, students say they continue to face barriers to pursuing their education.

If you or someone important to you is a current or prospective college student with a disability, resources exist to help navigate the experience. Resources include the Campus Disability Resource Database, which offers disability-related information about U.S. colleges.

What's Next for Accessibility in Higher Education?

Many pandemic-era changes in higher education will likely stay in place, said Dr. Joe Madaus. He is director of the Collaborative on Postsecondary Education and Disability and a professor in the University of Connecticut's Department of Educational Psychology.

"We hope that some best practices in instruction that emerged, and that reflect many of the principles of universal design for instruction, will remain," Madaus said.

"I would think that improved accessibility might enable students to be more successful in completing courses, and therefore graduating on time, which would impact affordability. That said, many students with disabilities don’t disclose their disability to their college, so they might not be receiving the accommodations that they might be eligible for."

– Dr. Joe Madaus, director of the Collaborative on Postsecondary Education and Disability and University of Connecticut professor

At Yale and most schools, disability-related accommodations are individualized. According to Cruz, it's unclear if pandemic-era accommodations will stay in place at Yale.

"As far as having classes be more accessible by having them online, there's no indication — at least at this current time — that the university is going to make anything accessible online, that any classes will be offered online, which is definitely frustrating," she said.

Lara Midkiff said at least one bright spot emerged during the pandemic. In many cases, people now seem to have more empathy for people with disabilities because everyone understands what it's like "to not be secure in your own health around others."

Another bright spot? Better accessibility could positively influence college affordability.

"I would think that improved accessibility might enable students to be more successful in completing courses, and therefore graduating on time, which would impact affordability," Madaus said. "That said, many students with disabilities don’t disclose their disability to their college, so they might not be receiving the accommodations that they might be eligible for."

In some cases, schools obey ADA laws, but fail to make changes that align with the spirit of the legislation, Harbour told NBC News. If a student feels that a school is not meeting its ADA-related obligations, "it's really important for people to know that every campus has a grievance process," Harbour told Affordable Colleges Online.

"If people with disabilities feel they're not getting appropriate services they can always file a grievance or ask for an appeal. So students should never just completely accept what their university is saying if they feel it's wrong."

Reviewed by:

Angelique Geehan works to support and repair the connections people have with themselves and their families, communities, and cultural practices. A queer, Asian, gender binary-nonconforming parent, Geehan founded Interchange, a consulting group that offers anti-oppression support. She organizes as part of several groups, including the National Perinatal Association's Health Equity Workgroup, the Health and Healing Justice Committee of the National Queer and Trans Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance, QTPOC+ Family Circle, and Batalá Houston.

Angelique Geehan is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.

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