When the University of Massachusetts transitioned to remote learning in March, Disability Services suddenly faced the challenge of ensuring that registered students would continue to receive their accommodations remotely for the remainder of the spring semester. As the COVID-19 pandemic persisted through the summer and the fall semester drew near, Disability Services faced the same challenge again – this time, having to think in the “long-term.”
Disability Services tried to help students prepare for the remote fall semester by encouraging students to communicate with their professors about their accommodations and providing tips on how to set up a distraction-reduced study space at home.
“In the spring, we were all just pinch hitting, trying to figure out how to make this work,” Disability Services Interim Director AnnMarie P. Duchon said. “And then in the fall we were like, ‘OK, how are we going to make this work.’”
Remote Learning: Benefits and Challenges
According to Duchon, course registration presented one of the greatest challenges because the prolonged uncertainty of whether or not UMass would be conducting in-person courses made it difficult for Disability Services to put “more challenging” accommodations in place in preparation for the fall semester.
For instance, students who are deaf or hard of hearing and require altered text, interpreters or captioning are allowed to register for courses at an earlier date to allow adequate time for the preparation of such materials. When the University announced its fall semester plans on June 29, Disability Services was left with a shorter amount of time than usual to prepare accommodations.
“There were some delays,” Duchon said. “In that situation, we always advocate with the instructor for more time because it’s not the students’ fault. But putting yourself in that person’s shoes – nobody wants to start the semester behind.”
Disability Services continues to operate remotely and has been working with the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health and Student Affairs and Campus Life to provide additional resources for students.
“We’ve been working within Student Affairs to create a more holistic view of how we can be there for one another and how we can get through these tough times,” Duchon said.
Duchon said there are some benefits to remote learning, as professors have had to adjust their routine teaching styles to address the changes presented by remote learning.
“We’ve been forced to evaluate what the actual learning objectives are,” Duchon said. “It’s a new paradigm. I think it encourages faculty to not only evaluate, but to also find opportunities to keep [the learning material] engaging.”
During the spring semester, students registered with Disability Services have continued to meet with their learning specialists remotely over the phone or on Zoom for academic support.
Assistant Director of Academic Access Rachel Adams oversees the learning specialist program and said it’s a “mixed bag” when considering how students have been finding remote learning. While some students are finding that remote learning has allowed for “more productive uses of their time,” others are struggling with the high school-to-college transition.
“Some students really love the convenience of being able to ‘Zoom’ in, some of them can show up in their pajamas if they want to,” Adams said. “I would say that especially for students that had pre-existing relationships with learning specialists, [meeting remotely] has been going well for the most part, because they already have that connection.
“But I would say that some of the challenges we’re seeing is for new students, and fostering that connection has been more challenging because they don’t have that pre-existing relationship,” Adams said. “Thinking about the freshmen, who are transitioning from high school to college classes but not the high school to college environment, I think there’s some cognitive dissonance… in terms of their mindset.”
According to Adams, learning specialists have observed a trend of their students feeling “disconnected” and “lacking the motivation to do their class work,” as well as exhibiting signs of anxiety and depression.
“It’s just so different and so removed from the social learning environment that we are accustomed to learning in, because it’s all right here,” Adams said, pointing at her computer screen. “It’s all right here in this format, so there’s no kind of contextual clues. So I think that… it’s this layer of abstraction that the students are struggling with, as well.”
Duchon and Adams encourage students to reach out for support if they are feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
“If I could communicate one thing, it would be to reach out,” Duchon said. “If you’re hurting, if you’re lonely, if you’re frustrated, if you’re any of those things. There is a small army of people who are here to support you, but we won’t know unless you tell us. So please reach out, reach out to whomever, whenever, consistently. We don’t want anyone to feel alone. We are all going through this in our own different ways, but there’s a lot of support.”
“I know this is hard… and I don’t want [students] to feel like they’re alone and that they can’t ask for help,” Adams said. “I think one of the best things that an individual can do for themselves is learn when to ask for help, because that is a sign of self-awareness, and that is a strength. We want the students to feel comfortable in this space, and we highly, highly value the student and their voice.”
Technological Resources and Assistance
With most classes being held remotely, UMass Amherst Information Technology has been working closely with the University community to assist with technological difficulties. UMass Amherst IT also operates the Assistive Technology Center, which provides assistive technology to members of the UMass community, such as software and tools for document and screen reading, magnification, dictation, text-to-speech and note-taking.
While ATC support was normally available in the Lower Level of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, the ATC now offers remote support, providing remote training and consultation by phone or over Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams.
IT Chief of Staff Karen Howard said the University’s adaptation to remote learning and the consequential technological development is potentially indicative of the future of higher education.
“The pandemic meant the campus had to rapidly…pivot to remote instruction,” Howard said in an email. “Remote access to education has been sought by the disability community for years. The campus community has quickly acquired new skills and gained greater acceptance for remote learning and work. I am optimistic that this will have a lasting positive effect on how we support communities with different abilities with the expanded possibilities.
“In terms of challenges, there has been operational impact working around staff furloughs and other changes that may have slowed down our response as team members come up to speed,” Howard said. “However, these concerns have served to raise awareness and developed new opportunities for cross-training and skill-building across our team with assistive technology. This has prompted more collaboration to improve processes and workflows between departments on campus to support students with disabilities.”
Student Support: The Alliance Against Ableism
The Alliance Against Ableism, a student organization and support group advocating for accessibility, learning inclusivity and publicity relating to disability awareness, has been working to provide resources and support for students with disabilities.
The AAA currently has about 100 active members, most of whom have continued to stay in touch by meeting remotely, emailing and communicating on Slack, a channel-based messaging platform.
The AAA has also continued to advocate for disability awareness on campus through programmatic efforts such as hosting discussion panels and presentations. Some upcoming events include the “Structural Obstacles to Holistic Disability Support in Higher Education” on Oct. 21 and “Everyday Ableism: Disability Through a Social Justice Lens” on Oct. 22, both for which students may request event accommodations.
David Paquette, an AAA member and a master’s student in the College of Education, has been working to advocate for a heightened awareness of students with disabilities on campus since joining the alliance last fall. While he thinks most faculty are accommodating to students registered with Disability Services, Paquette emphasized the importance of professors acknowledging student accommodations and working with disabled students, especially during times of remote learning.
“I think most faculty want to do the right thing and provide the accommodations and provide accessible content, but little things can create big, big barriers,” Paquette said. “For instance, having an inaccessible PDF for a student who uses a screen reader can create a significant barrier for a student.”
“I would say the majority of faculty fall into the category of wanting to do the right thing,” Paquette added. “But there’s always a small chunk who might push back against certain accommodations because they feel it jeopardizes academic integrity, and they require a little bit more pushing sometimes – that’s where Disability Services comes in.”
Paquette urges students to get involved and reach out to the alliance for support.
“I encourage students to continue to get involved, and if they feel that something is inequitable…please come to a meeting and share it with us, and we can work together to try and address it, and support one another as these are strange times,” Paquette said.
While it remains unknown as to whether the University will be conducting in-person classes or continuing to operate remotely in the spring semester, Adams said Disability Services is preparing for either possibility.
“We’re definitely thinking about if we’re remote, what we’re going to do and how we’re going to respond,” Adams said. “We definitely want to put time and intention into developing strategies to help foster connections remotely, which is something that none of us really knew how to do, so it’s a bit of trial and error. This is a space where we want the students to feel empowered, and we want the students to speak up about what their needs are…and give us feedback so we can go from there.”
“I’m hoping as we go through the spring, whether we’re back or we’re still at home, that we’re really able to focus on what matters to students,” Duchon said.
While Duchon misses working in-person on campus, she feels proud of the accomplishments made by both Disability Services staff and registered students.
“Like everybody else, I miss the energy of being on campus and seeing students – the whole social atmosphere,” Duchon said. “But I find that we’re also kind of proud of ourselves. We made this happen out of nowhere, and hopefully in time, this will create more opportunities for folks. It’s not something I wish on anybody, but it’s also been really fascinating to see how it’s worked out.”
“The silver lining of this experience is that we all get to evaluate the value of what we do,” Duchon said.
McKenna Premus can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @mckenna_premus.