Although some colleges and universities have made great strides in accessibility, progress is uneven across higher education. Our survey of college students shows the gaps and points toward solutions that institutions can pursue to enable equitable opportunities for all students.
The year 2020 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), yet despite the law's age, many colleges and universities have been slow to implement changes that maximize opportunities for students, faculty, and staff with disabilities. Even as some institutions have embraced a culture of accessibility and are making strides, others have a long way to go. Individuals with disabilities have filed and continue to file discrimination lawsuits and accessibility complaints against colleges and universities, most recently in relation to their struggles with inaccessible web content and technologies that pose barriers to their learning.1
In an effort to better understand students' experiences with technology services and support on their campuses, EDUCAUSE expanded the accessibility section of the 2020 student study. The majority of students with disabilities reported good or excellent ratings for their institution's approach to supporting their need for accessible content and/or technology accommodations. However, we found that about one in three respondents did not rate their experiences positively (figure 1). In their open responses, students cited various reasons to explain their poor or fair ratings, and several common patterns emerged that demonstrate the kinds of barriers students with disabilities encounter. Given the examples below of common institutional obstacles, we offer actionable measures that can be taken to pave the way for all students on their road to a college credential.
Roadblocks: Difficult Process, Limited Resources
A number of students with disabilities explained that they rated their experiences as poor or fair because the process to apply for accommodations was difficult and/or lengthy and/or the resources available at their institution's disability services offices were insufficient or limited.
- "I got approved for extra time on tests, when that's only the bare minimum of what I need. I've been fighting for at least 6 months now to get the accommodations I need, and nothing has happened."
- "Some of my classes have a strict no-laptop rule, but it is helpful to take notes on a computer because my hands hurt when writing. I am required to register with [disability services] to use a laptop, but that takes too long."
- "My university does not have a lot of resources for the office of disability services. Although I received assistance, I didn't receive everything I wanted and needed due to the lack of resources."
- "My institution provides nothing to help with technology accommodations; that is on the student to obtain."
Traffic Jams: Delays and Suitable Technology
Other respondents discussed challenges related to the timeliness in getting the tech tools they needed and/or obtaining suitable technology for their classwork.
- "It took [until] my midterms to get accepted for my access services."
- "Because many times the accessible technologies have to be special ordered or given, which creates delays in how long students have to work and singles them out in front of others. Accessible technologies should be presented upfront and in conjunction with the standard format (like transcripts for videos) or just be accessible in the first place (like providing document formats that are screen-reader capable)."
- "I need text-to-speech software for my accommodation. Obtaining a suitable text-to-speech software has been a huge pain. The textbooks and reading materials that are physical are very hard to get into text-to-speech software because you need to scan them and convert to OCR file and upload it to TTS software."
- "While my professor and my access specialist worked to have media captioned for my online course, and started well in advance of the semester to do so, captions were not initially provided. Then when the professor and access specialist reached out to the media department, they quickly ran the media through speech recognition software and it was rife with mistakes...I should be given the same access as everyone else. I can struggle through my course, but that doesn't make it okay. This is not the fault of the professor or the access specialist. The media department needs to put out quality material that provides equal access, not 'that's good enough' material created by people who do not understand the disabilities of people for [whom] they create content."
Breakdowns: Issues with Instructors
The most common answers from students with disabilities were related to issues with their instructors, with half of the students who responded to this question citing difficulties working with faculty to get their approved accommodations. We identified three primary patterns of difficulty that students discussed.
Lack of Awareness
A number of students shared that their instructors lack awareness of their accommodation and/or knowledge about how to follow the accommodation policy or directions.
- "I often have to educate my professors about how to provide equal access or explain why the usual way is not sufficient to my needs. They seem unaware of their responsibilities under the ADA."
- "Many teachers are unaware of my accommodations, and even when prompted by me, they still do not address them. On the other hand, there is always one teacher who is great, but this is almost always an outlier, and this happens rarely."
- "Some of them claimed they did not know about the accommodations and said they needed proof even after I had the emails sent out."
- "Instructors did not always know where to look for an email regarding my accommodation from [disability services] and did not always understand what it [required] them to do for me."
Lack of Discretion
Students with disabilities also described experiences with instructors who demonstrated a lack of discretion in respecting their privacy and/or maintaining confidentiality.
- "Every semester I'm singled out to come talk to an instructor about accommodations in front of other students."
- "Some instructors are amazing, while some are severely lacking in not only being discreet but openly outing students as [disability-support] students."
- "I have experienced professors willingly talk about my accommodations and disability in an environment that would not be considered private."
- "I have a teacher who has treated my disability completely inappropriately—walking up to me in class and discussing testing conditions (I feel completely uncomfortable with his treatment of both me and how he has handled my disability and my information). He actually seems to delight in bullying the disabled students in his class."
In addition to the problems above, many respondents said they had instructors who were either reluctant to provide approved accommodations or refused outright to provide them.
- "Online professors are excellent with accommodations. However, in-class professors are not willing to provide anything more than testing accommodations. Don't even think about a professor giving out notes or study guides. If it involves additional work for the professors, it's not going to happen."
- "Mostly it has to do with the attitude most of my professors have had with being willing to comply with my accommodations and their willingness to help me be successful in class. They view my accommodations as an inconvenience and make their distaste very clear."
- "Often professors don't follow my accommodations; some don't respond if I send a copy of them through email, on Canvas, or even in person and have ignored or refused to use them. Once I told the college and nothing was done...professor had us take in-person classes, and I had to drop the course because of my testing anxiety. I prefer to take tests online, which is also in my accommodations, and yet he refused to follow them."
- "They make it impossible to receive accommodations...Sometimes professors will, but more often than not they say no. If someone asks you, 'I am blind in one eye and nearly blind in the other; can you provide me with the materials you use in class because I cannot see them?' would you tell them no? If someone says, 'I cannot speak in class because if my heart rate increases dangerously I'll faint,' would you tell them you don't care? My instructors do. Their unwillingness to help disabled students on their own merit (and even when a student does have accommodations, they fight it) says so much about them and the institution they work for."
The student comments above are troubling, especially when accessibility is viewed through the lens of social justice. At best, the experiences described suggest that some instructors may be ignorant about policies that are designed to protect individuals with disabilities and the purpose of accommodations—to help level the playing field so that all learners have the same opportunities for success. And at worst, these experiences signal that others may be indifferent to or scornful of students who have different learning needs.
Regardless of the possible reasons, such attitudes and behaviors are discriminatory and put additional barriers in the way of students who have specific needs that institutions are obligated to accommodate. An instructor's reluctance or refusal to give students their approved accommodations contributes to an unwelcoming environment that can negatively impact their college experience. As one student told us, "They don't actually care about their disabled students; they only care about making their own lives easier by treating everyone the same. This alienates and isolates the disabled students, and ultimately they perform poorly in academics compared to their abled peers."
Paving the Way for Greater Accessibility
The emergency move to remote learning in March of 2020 laid bare numerous access issues that many students experienced, yet students with disabilities have been enduring barriers to their learning at colleges and universities long before the global pandemic. To improve the experiences of students with disabilities, institutions should increase funding for student disability and IT accessibility services so learners can get the services they need, when they need them. Adding capacity to these units can help streamline the review of requests and shorten wait times for the approval of accommodations and the procurement of the tech tools learners require for their academic success. Recognizing accessibility as a holistic process that is made up of interconnected parts can allow institutions to align accessibility services with institutional goals across multiple departments. Colleges and universities should consider ways to digitalize processes across units to efficiently and accurately process, track, and support students who have different learning needs. And if this effort is part of a larger institutional strategic goal, it could be considered part of digital transformation as well.
Colleges and universities must treat accessibility as a social justice issue and work across units to educate faculty and staff about learning variability. Designing inclusion-education workshops and instructional support programs on the challenges that students with disabilities face in obtaining support services in higher education, the purpose of accommodations, and maintaining student privacy can help build understanding, empathy, and more equitable experiences for students.
Now more than ever, higher education course design and pedagogical practices should incorporate the principles of universal design for learning (UDL), which is designed to give learners multiple means of engagement, representation of information, and action and expression of knowledge, where accessibility is built into course design. When we consider that almost half of students with disabilities in the 2020 student study said they did not register for accommodations at their institutions or weren't aware that support services even exist, UDL becomes even more critical to student success. Individual accommodations are limited in that they help only one student, one time, and in one way.2 However, through UDL, colleges and universities have more opportunities to support students who choose not to disclose their disabilities; in turn, UDL can ease the burdens that many overtaxed and under-resourced disability services offices face while expanding access to all students. If technology and course content are thoughtfully and inclusively incorporated into a course guided by UDL, then ideally the need for individual accommodations is greatly reduced.
Instructors who incorporate UDL principles into their courses increase engagement, access to content, student choice, and agency not only for students who have documented disabilities but for all learners. Previous EDUCAUSE research on the technology needs of students with disabilities has shown that taking a few basic steps in course design, such as using style features and creating alternate file formats of digital content, can instantly increase access for all learners.3 Many students are experiencing access roadblocks to their learning right now, but a culture of care, professional development on accessibility, and the adoption of UDL can help remove those barriers so that students have a smoother ride on the road to academic success.
- Trent Brown, "Lawsuit Filed by Blind Student Accuses Duke of Discrimination," News & Observer, June 4, 2020; see also "Higher Ed Accessibility Lawsuits, Complaints, and Settlements," University of Minnesota Duluth; Lucy Liu, "Harvard to Caption Online Video Content Following Lawsuit Settlement," Harvard Crimson, December 2, 2019. ↩
- Thomas J. Tobin and Kirsten T. Behling, Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2018). ↩
- Dana C. Gierdowski and Joseph Galanek, "ECAR Study of the Technology Needs of Students with Disabilities, 2020," EDUCAUSE Review, June 1, 2020. ↩
Dana C. Gierdowski is a Researcher at EDUCAUSE.
© 2020 Dana C. Gierdowski. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.