The mass migration to online learning is leaving disabled students behind

Rachel, an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was actually considering online classes last year before COVID-19, commonly known as the coronavirus, forced many students into online learning. Rachel, who asked to remain anonymous for her safety and is not pictured in the photo below, has a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome that affects everything in her body that’s made out of collagen and causes damage to her autonomic nervous system, which controls breathing and blood circulation. A flare-up of her symptoms requires her to lie down immediately to quell dizzy spells, which has happened to her during a class.

She tells Digital Trends, that “in many ways, online courses are more accessible” than attending lectures in person. But, in her experience with remote learning, Rachel notes that “there’s a tendency to see online classes as universally accessible, and that some disability accommodations don’t matter anymore because everything is now made available in ways that professors would not have made available before for students who were ill.”

But the internet is not as disability-friendly as the average abled person might think. “From our perspective, the web is vastly broken,” says Sean Bradley, co-founder of AudioEye, which works with companies to make sure their websites are Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant and accessible.

Website designs fall short

As universities and schools try to quickly transition learning from physical classrooms to online ones, disabled students have been (and will continue to be) disproportionately affected. The rapid migration to virtual classes has forced disabled students into using websites and apps that were never designed to accommodate them.

Mark Shapiro, president of the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, tells Digital Trends that the federal American Disabilities Act considers websites, even those of private organizations, to be “public places … [and] organizations that are requiring people to work and/or study remotely are creating a new place requiring public accommodations.” This includes when schools and universities use tools like Blackboard, Moodle, Google Classroom, Zoom, Coursera, WebX, or the other hundreds of other online education platforms now available.

Some of these accommodations, according to Shapiro, include text descriptions of images, sound options for verification, and adjustments to increase font size, type, and color. Others are being able to adjust magnification without losing the integrity of the text or app interface, as well as avenues for users to integrate their own assistive technology. He notes that “to be fully ADA-compliant, mobile applications have additional requirements that need to be considered”.

The internet is not as disability friendly as the average abled person might think.

Shapiro also says that the responsibility of universities and schools goes even further if remote learning is now considered mandatory. “If the classroom moves from physical to digital, and a student does not have a computer, then the university is responsible for accommodating that student by providing access to a computer, accessible applications, and any associated technology to give that student the same experience as all students,” he said.

If schools do stay in digital mode for a significant chunk of time — which trends indicate might happen — it will become further incumbent on administrations to comply with the ADA. The internet, after all, is a heavily visual and auditory medium, and not everyone can see or hear.

As Jeff Rubenstein, vice president of product Strategy at online learning platform Kaltura, explains, there are three layers to accessibility. The first is a bandwidth problem: Is your internet connection good enough to stream video and allow for group chats at a high quality? The second is an equipment problem: Do you have a laptop or phone that has a camera, and can it process video at a fast enough speed? The third is the ableist problem: To what degree is the computer’s software designed with the assumption that the person using has no disabilities?

Getting everyone on the same page

Contracts with some of the top universities in the world and organizations like the United Nations often require that ed tech companies, like Kaltura and its rival Coursera, have disability access built into their programs. Still, not every platform takes those steps, so disability accommodations remain the exception, not the rule.

“Two years ago, we realized that universities will be moving more and more online,” Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda told Digital Trends. “It’s just inevitable, with coming automation of jobs, with new skills emerging, it’s clear that this has to happen.” Six months after the company fully launched its “Coursera for Campus” program, coronavirus struck and forced everyone onto the internet.

“The student experience is better for everyone if the content that’s created is more useful for those who have disabilities.”

Now that online education is the new normal, university courses need to be accessible for a wider swath of people. Both Coursera and Kaltura have said they try to design with this in mind. For example, both platforms offer closed captioning and subtitles in multiple languages. Kaltura, in particular, prides itself on being WCAG 2.0 AA-compliant, meaning it complies with the highest levels of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Kaltura also provides audio description tracks, braille-accessible transcripts, and captioning capabilities — for a fee.

“I’ve been doing ed tech for 20 years, and we work really hard to make sure tools are accessible,” Kaltura’s Rubenstein told Digital Trends. “The student experience is better for everyone if the content that’s created is more useful for those who have disabilities.”

But from Rachel’s point of view, particularly when it comes to user testing of accessibility functions in ed tech, “companies probably aren’t considering as wide a range of disabilities.”

Kara Krewer, a creative writing Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia, was also doubtful about user testing with actual disabled students and instructors. As an instructor, Krewer told Digital Trends that she found many ed tech tools “seem so labyrinthine that your average instructor would have difficulty making them accessible in the first place.”

Krewer also said her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may not be taken into account as a disability. She took a few online classes last year, but said, “I don’t remember much of those eight weeks.”

“Writing and reading take me longer, even with my ADHD medication,” she explains. Add in the inability to leave her home during the coronavirus pandemic, and getting to a mental and physical place where she can focus is difficult. In-person classes can push her to do that because of the accountability.

Both Rachel and Krewer noted that Zoom, the popular videoconferencing software, has been the most accessible tool thus far in their distance learning because of its simple interface. However, Zoom is not necessarily specifically designed as an educational tool.

Room for improvement

Lydia X.Z. Brown, an autistic disability rights activist, educator, and associate for disability rights and algorithmic fairness at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Tech Law and Policy, told Digital Trends the picture is not as rosy for disabled students and teachers as ed tech companies would have us believe.

Brown said many of the accessibility features were implemented “because of litigation by disabled people saying ‘this is inaccessible.’” These lawsuits point to the underlying problem: “Simply because a feature promotes and enables some form of access does not mean that all people who are using that software actually take advantage of that feature,” they said.

Brown pointed to the fact that instructors can upload documents that may not be compatible with screen readers for the visually impaired or provide video lessons that may not include playback features or accurate captioning for those with cognitive disabilities. Nothing in the software, and sometimes in the organization’s procedures, actually stops an instructor when they upload such materials, which renders the course and the ed tech tool useless to disabled students.

Brown also noted that even the interface and UX design of certain ed tech tools can be difficult for disabled students and instructors. “I have a lot of trouble navigating some of those sites. And figuring out where different courses are or where different components to a course are located … And for me as a course instructor, I’ve had trouble with cognitive access navigating Canvas, and I grew up in the internet generation — I know how to use a lot of different software. But because of my cognitive disabilities, the way that it’s laid out isn’t very intuitive to me,” they said.

Instructors may upload documents that may not be compatible with screen readers for the visually impaired or video lessons that may not include playback features.

Brown explained that even reliable internet access is a major issue for disabled students during the COVID-19 lockdown. Even if more websites and ed tech tools are made truly accessible, factors like socioeconomic status and racial disparities come into play.

As the Brookings Institution notes: “Even in a post-ADA world, people with disabilities can face barriers to completing their education, and education is linked to overall health in myriad ways, including individual health knowledge and behaviors, access to health care, exposure to environmental toxins, and jobs that are more physically demanding or dangerous.”

According to a 2019 analysis of 10 mllion websites, at least 98% were found to fall short of the website compliance guidelines laid out by the ADA and WCAG 2.1

Brown and other advocates said a good place to start for ed tech companies is to make sure all their accessibility features are actually requirements and do not cost academic institutions any extra to require. The next step would be for companies like Apple, Google, and others to provide free laptops and tablets compatible with accessible accessories to disabled students so they are not held further back during the pandemic.

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