Online learning brings different accessibility challenges for UGA students with disabilities

Over the past year, remote learning has been a struggle for many University of Georgia students. As classes moved online, students were forced to readjust their daily lives and with it, their sense of normalcy.

For students with disabilities, pandemic learning has been especially challenging. It upended the accommodations and routines that have assisted them throughout their academic careers and pushed them to find new solutions to an unprecedented set of problems.

Making the transition

Simin Savani, a computer science major who graduated in December, is no stranger to accessibility challenges. Savani, who has a hearing impairment, relied on captions to follow her classes. During a normal semester, a captioner would be present in her classes to type out what was going on. When classes went online, so did her captioner.

“My [captioner] and I will have our own Google Hangouts call on one side and join the class as a student,” Savani said. “Whenever the professor or speaker, whoever is speaking, [the captioner would] type that in the Google Hangout while they screenshare.”

Since the start of the pandemic, the DRC has worked to make online classes more accessible to students who require special accommodations. Much of this is done through coordinators, who meet with individual students to find accommodations that cater to their needs, said Erin Benson, director of UGA’s Disability Resource Center.

Benson also said the DRC has worked with the Health Promotion Department to deliver workshops on stress management and mindfulness catered to students with disabilities. The Career Center and the Division of Academic Enhancement have also collaborated with the DRC to help students with disabilities find study strategies for remote learning.

“This semester, we have taken a holistic approach to support students’ varying needs,” Benson said.

The challenge continues

Despite these efforts, students with disabilities still face challenges when it comes to online learning. Savani said many professors rely on auto-captioning systems to caption pre-recorded videos, but these systems are prone to errors, especially if a professor has an accent or a bad microphone. Sometimes, there are no captions at all.

“That was my biggest complaint, and it made a lot of my material difficult to learn as well,” Savani said.

To get around this, Savani would send videos she encountered with low-quality captions or none at all to her captioner. They would add accurate captions and return the video a few hours later so Savani could follow along.

Margaret Lonsway, a freshman genetics major, has also faced challenges with remote learning. She is on the autism spectrum and said it can be hard to focus on schoolwork as a result. During a normal year, she relies on schedules and routines to stay on top of her classes. However, remote learning combined with the transition to college has upended many of her established rituals.

“If I don’t have a routine, I’m just kind of all over the place and I feel like I don’t do anything,” Lonsway said. “I also get distracted way more easily.”

While she doesn’t receive accommodations through the DRC, she’s been proactive about communicating with professors. She said so far, her professors have been helpful when she explains her needs to them.

However, some of the challenges Lonsway faces are more difficult to solve. She said being on the autism spectrum can also make it hard to socialize with others and read body language, even in a face-to-face setting. In her remote classes, she can’t see everyone in the class at once due to Zoom’s layout, and many students having their cameras off. She said this makes it difficult to know when to unmute to add to a discussion or answer a question without interrupting anyone. This is particularly challenging in classes where participation makes up a large portion of her grade.

“In a classroom you can raise your hand and stuff, but on Zoom everyone just kind of talks [at once],” Lonsway said. “As the semester went on, I kind of got better at it, but issues still come up for sure.”

A more accessible university

While remote learning has been difficult, Savani said it’s no less accessible than classes during a typical semester. Even normal classes have shortcomings when it comes to serving students with disabilities. Lonsway agreed.

“There’s some aspects of [remote learning] that are more accessible, and some aspects that make it a little less accessible,” Lonsway said.

She said that in a face-to-face class, she struggles to process audio information without a visual aid. Professors sharing their screen during remote learning has been a big help.

Savani said it could be strange doing group work with a captioner during face-to-face classes. She often felt awkward looking at her captions instead of her peers’ faces when they were working together.

During both remote learning and normal semesters, professors will only make class content accessible if they are made aware that a student in their class has a disability, Savani said. This can be problematic because some students are hesitant to talk about their disability. When accessibility isn’t treated as the default, it can make learning difficult for these students or force them to disclose information they feel is personal.

Accessibility is important,” Savani said. “It’s difficult because you’re not growing up thinking this way, but I think it’s important to step back and think about, ‘How do I make this accessible for other people who I don’t know about?’”



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