Online Learning Era Neglects Blind Students' Needs

A year after many campuses transitioned to remote instruction, blind students continue to encounter barriers that undermine their learning.

February 19, 2021
 
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Blind students report challenges like materials arriving late after many colleges and universities transitioned to remote learning amid the pandemic.

The shift to remote learning has been extremely challenging for blind students, with some still facing unresolved accessibility issues.

The National Federation of the Blind and other organizations have warned for months that colleges are failing to provide blind students with the timely accommodations and support to which they are legally entitled.

In some instances, blind students have had such a poor experience with remote learning that they decided to take time away from their studies rather than continue online, said Chris Danielsen, director of public relations at the NFB. This is a concerning trend, as research suggests students who take a pause from their education sometimes decide it’s not worth coming back.

Many students have reported that the digital class materials colleges provided for remote learning are incompatible with screen readers, Danielsen said. Physical materials, including Braille and embossed diagrams, graphs and equations, sometimes arrive too late for the corresponding class.

Working Toward Digital Equity

This article draws on reporting conducted for a new Inside Higher Ed report, “The Digital Divide: Lessons From COVID-19.” The special report examines how the digital divide is shifting and what solutions institutions and instructors can employ to improve digital equity for all students. The report is available to download at this link.

Getting accessible course materials in time for class has been a recurring problem for Salvador Villa, a kinesiology and health education student at Austin Community College. While the college's accessibility office is fairly quick at converting worksheets and notes into a format that he can read on his screen reader, some of his professors have been preparing lessons much later than they did before the pandemic. Some professors send class materials to the accessibility office just hours before class, meaning Villa doesn't receive them in time.

“Everything became more last-minute once we went virtual,” Villa said. “I’ve learned that when it comes to getting the materials you need, you have to push. One of my professors has 700 students, and I know I’m not their No. 1 priority. I will talk to them during office hours and email them before and after class, but when everything’s virtual, it’s not like I can physically show up at their office and say, ‘Hey, I need you to help out with this.’”

While some of his professors have gone above and beyond to ensure he has everything he needs to succeed, Villa said he doesn’t hold any grudges against those that haven’t helped him out. He knows they have a full plate at the moment. That said, a little more communication would go a long way.

“It would be helpful if professors could reach out and say, ‘Let’s have a little chat about how you work,’ instead of assuming we’ll figure it out as we go,” he said. “Every blind student has a different way of working. Some are more tech-savvy, and some prefer Braille. It just depends on what they’re comfortable with, what they like and what they know.”

Some students have faced particular challenges studying STEM subjects, said Trisha Kulkarni, president of National Association of Blind Students, a division of the NFB. A computer science major at Stanford University, Kulkarni is currently living in Ohio and studying complex mathematics remotely. Graphs and equations are much easier for her to understand when they are embossed on physical paper, she said. Unfortunately, it can take weeks for these materials to arrive in the mail.

Synchronous lectures on videoconferencing platforms have been difficult to follow, too, Kulkarni said.

“Zoom and other platforms have done a lot to make the platform more accessible from a navigation standpoint, but they haven’t really tackled how to get visual information off of someone’s screen as they’re sharing it,” she said. “Recently a lot of my professors have relied on screen sharing to keep students engaged, so that’s been pretty difficult for me to follow.”

Like Villa, Kulkarni said the inability to drop by a professor’s office and ask for help has been challenging.

“I didn’t realize how often I map out on the table what I think a graphic looks like to confirm my understanding,” she said. “That’s tough in a virtual format.”

Blind students have also faced significant challenges with online testing in the past year. Villa said he had to take several exams much closer together than his peers because he received accessible exam materials late, which was a stressful experience. College placement tests have also been problematic for some students in the past year. Danielsen discussed the issue with Inside Higher Ed for a recent special report, "The Digital Divide: Lessons From COVID-19."

The College Board, for example, moved its Advanced Placement examinations online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The examination board initially failed to provide blind students with nonelectronic hard copies of the examinations, citing security concerns about blind students potentially cheating or leaking exam questions, but it has since changed its policy.

“There’s only so much you can do with a screen reader. When you’re studying something complex, sometimes you need a hard copy,” Danielsen said. “Most Braille displays are one line, with between 14 and 40 cells across. You can’t represent a complex graphic like a map or a graph like that. Mathematical equations are very problematic to display in that way as well.”

The NFB and five blind students filed a complaint against the College Board with the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in early May 2020.

In a press release at the time, Mark Riccobono, president of the NFB, said the College Board was “propounding a false choice between equal access and security” and forcing a “one-size-fits-all accommodation” on students in violation of federal law.

The dispute was resolved later that month and the civil rights complaint withdrawn. Admitting no wrongdoing, the College Board agreed to provide approved students wishing to take or retake the test with hard-copy Braille tests and tactile graphics.

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