Accommodating Adult Students – Perspectives from AccessibleNU

by Christine Scherer and Kristina Wilson

Learning Designer Krissy Wilson and Content Editor Christine Scherer asked Alison May, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of AccessibleNU, about the unique needs of adult students and the implications for online coursework. Dr. May has served AccessibleNU since 2007, and most of her work has focused on partnering with colleagues to raise awareness of disabilities as a form of diversity and to enhance web accessibility.

What benefits do online courses afford students with disabilities?

Online courses often have many accommodations built right in, Dr. May explained. In on-ground classes, a student might typically use an audio recording device or note-taker to help capture lecture content; in an online class, where the student can watch a lecture video multiple times, no such accommodation is needed. Likewise, physical disabilities can make attending an on-ground class difficult; in a self-paced, online course, students don’t need to head to campus.

Another huge benefit to students with disabilities is the anonymity that online courses provide. “If you design distance learning courses accessibly, [students] might not have to self-identify,” Dr. May noted, “And they so much prefer not to share that they have a disability if they don’t have to.”

What challenges do online courses afford students with disabilities?

Although online courses afford students with disabilities many benefits, they also come with challenges. Dr. May noted that sometimes, students taking online courses have documentation stating concerns about a student’s difficulty learning new technologies.

Students may also face the use of inaccessible software, such as video conferencing tools, which are difficult to live-caption and exclude many blind or low-vision students.

Additionally, some accommodations facilitated by AccessibleNU are most easily addressed on campus. For example, if an accessible copy of a textbook cannot be produced by the publisher, a student may have to mail their book to the university in order to be converted. Compared to a local student who can drop the book off on campus, this can add additional lag time to receiving an accommodation.

Distance also poses a challenge when producing images in relief with AccessibleNU’s Pictures in a Flash (PIAF) Tactile Image Maker. While images can be printed with some speed, mailing them from campus to a remote student could prove time-consuming.

How many online students have disabilities?

“There’s a higher percentage of individuals with disabilities taking online classes than taking brick-and-mortar classes,” said Dr. May, pointing out that adult students are also likely to experience disabilities that accompany age, including hearing loss, visual conditions, or health complications.

She also noted that the number of students registered with disability services is increasing year-over-year. “We’re going up pretty consistently about 17% per year. And that’s nationally, not just us. We have 5 people serving almost 900 students.”

As mentioned earlier, students with disabilities are attracted to online courses precisely because they often don’t have to request accommodations. Just because they haven’t self-identified doesn’t mean they aren’t there!

What can we do to improve online courses for students with disabilities?

Use the LMS to facilitate accommodations.

Many common accommodations are easier to facilitate in an online course than in an on-ground course. Does your student require extended time? You’ll probably just edit an assignment setting in an online course. In an on-ground course, you might have to hire and schedule a proctor to monitor a student who is given extended time. “Our office proctored more than 1700 exams last year,” said Dr. May.

But you shouldn’t stop there! There are lots of ways that faculty can make online courses even more accessible.

Provide text-only alternatives.

When recording videos for your online course, Dr. May encourages faculty to provide captions (we recommend scripting when possible).

I know what you’re thinking: “If we get a request, we’ll caption it.” Unfortunately, captions often prove too time-consuming to produce for students at a moment’s notice and students end up going without. Plus, “All of us really benefit from captions,” Dr. May explained. “It’s also great for English-as-a-Second-Language learners.”

Having a text-only alternative for slide presentations and infographics is also critical. Dr. May shared this maxim from a blind alumni: “Simple is beautiful.” Think about your textbook. Is an ebook available that can be read with a screenreader? If not, how long might it take for that book to be converted to characters that a computer can read, a process known as optical character recognition? The same consideration should be made when it comes to additional course readings; any documents distributed as a PDF should be clear, quality copies with selectable text.

Choose add-on technologies carefully.

So you want to use an up-and-coming webapp in your online class. Great! But before you do, consider whether or not it will be accessible to a variety of students. AccessibleNU is “crushed with requests” to vet educational software, and “any time that I’m vetting technology for accessibility, that’s a student I’m not getting to work with,” Dr. May drove home.

What should you consider when vetting a webapp?

Value pedagogy before technology. What’s the purpose of the webapp? Will it serve the course objectives? Or is it merely shiny and new?

Ask a representative from the company or service to perform an accessibility demonstration. If they can’t or won’t, there’s a good chance it won’t serve all of your students.

Put yourself in another’s shoes. Could you operate this software using only a keyboard? Could you participate in use of the software if you were deaf or hard-of-hearing? Consider establishing student personas for testing.

Understand the services and limitations of AccessibleNU.

While AccessibleNU provides a broad variety of services to students, faculty, and staff, there’s one big thing they don’t do–assess or retrofit online courses and webapps for accessibility. It’s up to you!

Commit to making your courses web-accessible.

Dr. May acknowledged that making your course accessible is time-consuming, but added that instructors, “do so much more thinking-through of the material, what’s important, and how you’re presenting it.”

Consider reading through the additional blog posts on accessibility in order to soak up more best practices on topics like designing for students with colorblindness, creating accessible PDFs with Acrobat, and using alt-text.

“Deliver an accessible product from Day 1,” Dr. May says, and “the dividends will pay off. If the way you design your course means a student who would otherwise have to self-identify and request accommodations doesn’t, I would say you have leveled the playing field.”

Looking ahead

Looking for more information about meeting the needs of students with disabilities? Review the Information for Faculty page on the AccessibleNU website, or contact Christine Scherer or Krissy Wilson.

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