Jonah Markowitz / The New York Times

Student Disability Services is finding new ways to accommodate students' needs as classes resume online.

March 30, 2020

Accessibility Accommodations Evolve as Classes Move Online

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As Cornell classes soon resume instruction online, students may be wondering how accessibility and accommodation needs will be met in the virtual classroom. Due to the diverse nature of the disabled student community, that answer may vary.

According to the Student Disability Services website, disabilities are “conditions that can substantially impact your ability to breathe, hear, learn, perform manual tasks, take care of yourself, walk, and work.” Disability can include conditions as varied as mental health disorders, orthopedic conditions and traumatic brain injury.

As a result of the diverse needs of disabled students, accommodations may or may not change when classes become digital, depending on each given student.

“Switching to a fully-online platform may be just fine for some students with disabilities and challenging for others. Communication will be key,” said Zebadiah Hall, director of student disability services.

But online instruction may introduce new accommodation needs for some students that were not previously present in an in-person setting, according to Hall.

“For example, if a professor uses videos as part of online instruction, a student with disabilities may need the videos to be close-captioned,” Hall said.

Jasmine Nie ’22, treasurer of the Cornell University Deaf Awareness Project, shared Hall’s concern for the need for closed captioning, pointing out that accessibility concerns can extend to professors as well.

For example, Nie takes an American Sign Language class taught by a deaf professor, who uses powerpoints to explain grammar while demonstrating or explaining signs.

“ASL classes are more dependent on visual demonstrations, so our ASL professor is asking us to read through the powerpoints before classes, so that we have more time in class to just practice ASL,” Nie wrote in a Facebook message to The Sun.

On Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation website, which assists faculty in making the transition online, one of the frequently asked questions is whether teaching materials need to meet accessibility standards — the answer to which is, generally, yes.

According to CTI, the accessibility needs of students currently enrolled in the class should be prioritized, and that students who are requesting new accommodations should be referred to SDS.

According to the SDS website, students who need accommodations letters can still request them and have them emailed to faculty so that professors have documentation of their needs.

Other factors, including socioeconomic status and nationality, can further complicate the accessibility of online classes — from national website restrictions to limited technology and Wi-Fi access.

Despite the move to virtual classes, many disability services still remain available, with SDS staff and counselors working with students over email, Zoom and Skype.

For students who remain on-campus, CULift transportation services remain available, while Tompkins County Area Transit buses are running on a reduced schedule. CULift runs largely on campus, and can be accessed by students approved by the SDS transportation coordinator if they have permanent or temporary disability-related mobility challenges. Students can still register with CULift online.

Students who are not graduating seniors and have borrowed SDS equipment can bring it back to campus next semester or ship it back, while graduating seniors need to ship the equipment back once the semester has ended at the department’s expense, according to the SDS website.

There are resources for both disabled students and faculty members who are working to accommodate them as class formats evolve.

“Students with disabilities need to feel empowered to ask for what they need,” Hall said.