eLearning and Accessibility: Disabled Students Give Advice

February 18, 2013 BY SHANNON K. MURPHY
Updated: June 3, 2019

elearning and student accessibility
On Tuesday, the Sloan Consortium continued its four-part webinar series on accessibility – this time focusing on Student & Faculty Success in Online Education. While the first webinar in January tapped the minds of top administrators for strategy on developing higher education accessibility policies, this second webinar featured disabled students and alumni who shared their insights about online education. What Students with Disabilities Want Faculty & Administrators to Know covered a range of disabilities, from a blind doctoral student with a degenerative condition to a veteran afflicted with a traumatic brain injury. These speakers shared their unique learning experiences and gave us a further understanding of the spectrum of disability impacting teaching and learning.

Watch the webinar: Student & Alumni Panel: What Students with Disabilities Want Faculty & Administrators to Know

Tips For Faculty in Accessible Learning PracticesDon’t face the board: Those with trouble hearing often sit at the front of the class to read lips. By facing the board while talking, you create the equivalent of a choppy cell phone call. Those with hearing issues walk away with limited information.

Choose a larger typeface and contrasting colors: In online learning, large bold fonts make it easier for those with visual impairments easier to read. Get familiar with your color wheel. If colors are too similar, they blend together, for example: blue and purple. Black and yellow are the highest contrasting colors and are often used in advertising for this very reason.

Minimize the background noise: Recorded lectures with fans blowing or too much background noise make it difficult for anyone to understand audio, let alone a student with a hearing disability.

Observe student body language: Think a student is withdrawn? Maybe it’s more than just shyness. Connect with students and ask questions about their participation and ability to understand content. You may successfully diagnose a fixable comprehension issue.

These speakers were:

  • Daniel Veit (read post-webinar interview) – MS Student, Drexel University & Texas School for the Deaf
  • Alex Cohen – Doctoral Student, Drexel University
  • Henry Alphin – MS Alumnus, Drexel University
  • Dominique Williamson (read post-webinar interview) – BA Student, Columbus State University & U.S. Veteran

After listening to our panelists we summarized their insights into four key takeaways.

Disabled Students & Self Advocacy

Throughout the webinar all of our panelists championed the need to be a self-advocate. Not only did they urge fellow students to take the initiative in learning about the breadth of accessibility resources available on their campuses, but also to constantly remind faculty of their needs. As Dominique Williamson put it: “Because we are the ones affected by the disability, we know what’s best for us.” He’s right.

So how can a disabled student have the same robust experience other students have? A disabled student shouldn’t accept an assignment markedly different than what other students are doing. Instead of completing a consolation assignment, students should push educators to collaborate with them. After all, “just do something else” only further disengages the disabled student.

Faculty Development & Accessibility Training

As Alex Cohen points out, no professor is purposefully cruel when it comes to accessibility. They’re simply unaware. Yet, with 11% of our higher education student population reporting some sort of disability, faculty knowledge of accessible practices should be a campus-wide priority. Many of our students and alumni couldn’t say nicer things about the Drexel University Disability Services office (three of our four speakers attended the Philadelphia-based school). Yet as Cohen explains, certain offices don’t consider the best way of disseminating information accessible to all. “I was so, so, excited when I first got my package welcoming me.  It had all of this information telling me all about campus, online tools, everything that there was to know about becoming a brand new master’s student. [pauses] But it was all on paper.”  A quick call to the Disability Services office gave Alex online versions of these materials that a blind individual can read with a screen reader.

Universal Design & Accessible Culture

Many students prefer online learning because of the flexibility of online programs. Disabled students are often attracted to online courses because in an online forum they are not singled out as “different”. Also the barriers to interacting with fellow students are mitigated. In fact, the very existence of e-Learning has allowed more disabled students access to higher education and degrees. When college course materials are not accessible however, ease-of-use is lost and what was once believed to be an easier process becomes anything but.

Consider video tutorials: “…Using something like EndNote, which is really a magnificent tool for reference and research. What I found was all of the training videos were simply that– videos. ….The dialogue in such videos would be: “Simply if you click over here, or click this button, this is how to proceed.” Without sight and without the use of screen readers, I felt quite vulnerable,” says Cohen.

Henry Alphin makes a fantastic point about the difference between accommodation and accessibility: “Unless there is a universal design process, which promotes accessibility as a culture, then individual students have to self-select and report their issues in order to receive assistance.” Becoming comfortable speaking up is vital for disabled students but inclusive practices benefit us all.

Quickly Changing Technology & The Proactive Stance

Technology has greatly aided our ability to share information and gain access to various resources at breakneck speeds. Consequently, universities have been some of the earliest adopters of new technology. For those with disabilities however, the “next big thing” in online interactivity can be an agonizing experience.

In one instance, Alphin gave us a peek into his world: “As an online student, I’ve had several different experiences related to my speech impediment.  I’ve consistently had problems using the discussion boards.  We also used voice boards and podcasts to provide an audio critique for other students regarding projects and various assignments.  Yet the voice boards and blackboards had no editing functions.  This means I would have five minutes to express my thoughts and accordingly I would re-record the posting until I was satisfied with the outcome. This could, and has, taken hours.”

It’s important to keep in mind when adopting new technology, disabled students can have mixed results. Take two students’ experiences with PowerPoints featuring voice-over audio. Online professors find these helpful to give their students visual and auditory engagement, but for a deaf or blind student this can be problematic. Cohen, a blind individual loves these presentations because he enjoys the audio as most screen readers cannot read PowerPoint slides when contained in a video. Daniel Veit however, a deaf doctoral student, finds that slides are insufficient without the professor’s audio recording. And if the video hasn’t been captioned, Veit must obtain a transcript of the audio and match it to the slides, which can be tedious. As a result, the same online teaching method yields a markedly different experience for each of our disabled students.

In summary, because of the spectrum of disabilities, it can be hard to create educational content that is easily accessible to everyone. This is why students with disabilities have to be comfortable asking for what they need. No one should suffer silently. In the meantime, professors can make small changes and work with students to pilot new ways of creating accessibility in eLearning. Administrators however, should turn their attention to buying practices and universal design. “You look at what I need to be successful and it’s completely different than what Daniel needs to be successful or Henry or Dominique, says Cohen. “But just to be aware… of the efforts of social sustainability and being inclusive.  Understand that anybody with a disability is just one of your students and they want the same experience as anyone else. They might just need a little additional assistance from time to time to get there.”

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