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Report on the Consultation with Students with Disabilities, Post-Secondary Teachers and Adapted Services Counsellors on Accessibility of Remote Classes During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Montreal, April 8, 2020

Report on the Consultation with Students with Disabilities, Post-Secondary Teachers and Adapted Services Counsellors on Accessibility of Remote Classes During the COVID-19 Pandemic

On April 1, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Quebec Association for Equity and Inclusion in Post-Secondary Education (AQEIPS) organized a consultation on Zoom to discuss the accessibility of remote classes during this crisis with its student members with disabilities (SWD), post-secondary faculty, adapted services counsellors, representatives of advocacy organizations, etc. Thirty-six people participated.

This unexpected situation resulted in many significant challenges to face in the context of post-secondary studies and education. All courses are now taught remotely, which can cause accessibility issues for all students, whether they are disabled or not. AQEIPS therefore organized this virtual event in order to analyze the challenges experienced by the post-secondary community and to propose possible solutions.

We started by taking the time to exchange with participants on how they were feeling during this crisis. We shared about our fears, concerns and coping strategies.

Challenges:

This collective trauma that we are experiencing generates challenges, anxiety and difficulties for everyone for a variety of reasons. Here are a few that we identified.

Challenges Experienced by All:

Isolation caused by confinement and social distancing.

Loss of income. Even if teachers have not lost their job, they may have spouses or loved ones who lost theirs, so there is an economic stress for everyone.

Those who have kids now have to take care of them at home 24 hours a day, so there is less time to work or study.

Some may have loved ones who are sick, or maybe they are sick themselves.

For some courses, it was necessary to use software or material that was available on campus, but that many don’t have available to them at home. Teachers have to be creative to rethink evaluations.

Challenges Experienced by Students:

Students find themselves, for a variety of reasons, among which disability, in a vulnerable situation – sometimes combined with other precarious situations. Multiple marginalization situations complicate remote learning.

Students may have lost their jobs, or they are worried they won’t be able to find a summer job. Those who work in essential services may have to work overtime and they have less time to dedicate to their studies as well as a greater fear of being exposed to the virus.

Some university residences asked students to leave at the beginning of the pandemic. Several of them, including SWD, will face challenged in finding new dwellings, especially in the context of the housing crisis in urban centres.

Many will not be able to do the internships they had planned for, or they will have to try to postpone them.

A consensus between students and teachers during this meeting was that it will take a lot of motivation and self-discipline to attend remote classes, which few students have during this time of crisis.

Some said that because of their disability it was already difficult to concentrate in class before the crisis and that it has become even more so now.

Students are afraid of getting lost in the organization, they don’t really know how to plan their time at home, they feel a psychological disorganization because of the pandemic, they fear they won’t understand remote classes or that they won’t be able to connect to them.

 

Challenges Experienced by Teachers:

The level of comfort with technology varies from person to person. Not everyone has the same ease with transferring their courses to virtual platforms so quickly and not all subjects lend themselves easily to it.

Everything happened so fast that there was no time to learn about the various software to use to modify courses and put them online.

Everyone is feeling a sense of urgency. Each teacher is doing the best they can at the moment with the resources they have. Teachers all have different teaching styles. They had to adapt very quickly to this transition.

In terms of making courses more accessible to SWD, it is not all platforms that are universally accessible. Furthermore, few post-secondary educators know the basics of Universal design for leaning (UDL), but it is an approach that works and that it would be beneficial to apply to remote classes. Post-secondary educators are experts on the subject matter they teach, but not necessarily experts in pedagogy. A counsellor from adapted services at Dawson College told us that many teachers do not know about UDL, but when they learn about it, they find that applying it can help all students. It is an equalizing measure for all and it does not create undue hardship when offering accommodations.

 

Accessibility of Remote Classes

We asked students if they had ever attended remote classes and how they found the accessibility. Many were not satisfied with their experience.

We asked if the videos of the classes were accessible to all. For example, are there subtitles or interpreters to accommodate Deaf and Hard of Hearing students? It does not seem to be the case, but a CEGEP teacher said she compensates by teaching with very detailed PowerPoint presentations, containing lots of visual content. She presents by offering the same content orally as visually as much as possible.

A student and former member of the Regroupement des aveugles et amblyopes du Québec (RAAQ) said that they tested the “open school” platform. Their observation is that most of the web interfaces and documents (PDF files, videos, etc.) have little or no accessibility features, therefore they are not compatible with speech synthesis software. We have to think about accessibility from various angles. The student pointed out that in a study environment, if we are told to use a certain platform for the courses and that this platform is not accessible, it is very serious. Remote classes are thus less accessible than in-person classes for students who have a visual disability.

There are concerns regarding what will happen to accommodations initially planned to compensate for disability, because the evaluation agreements will undoubtedly be modified in many cases. As always, accommodations are given on a case-by-case basis. This is positive when it is to take into account the uniqueness of needs, but less so when a person’s difference makes their needs invisible.

A UQAM professor said: “I moderate some profs’ illusions that it is enough to improvise a digital course offering for students to be able to adhere to it and learn with it. It is essential to maintain a link, to maintain relationships. Numerous studies have shown that remote classes have a very high drop-out rate. We are trying to make education accessible online, but we have to differentiate between synchronous (real time) and asynchronous (pre-recorded video, for example) modes. There are also hybrid formulas. Among all these means, some tend to increase accessibility and others lessen it. You have to put things in perspective: there is not the same emergency to provide education as there is to provide medical care.”

Students asked us what would happen to those that are entitled to a note-taker. If the course is recorded, it may be watched more than once. But what if a teacher only offers synchronous classes? Will the student be able to reach their note-taker from before the pandemic to continue to receive their notes?

Is it more or less accessible to follow a course from home depending on the type of disability? People with reduced mobility are disadvantaged by the buildings of many post-secondary institutions that are difficult or impossible to access.

Many questions remained unanswered, but they represent issues that need to be addressed to make courses accessible.

Possible Solutions

To promote success during the pandemic and make remote classes more accessible now, but also in the future, we talked about various potential solutions. The consensus among course lecturers, teachers, professors and counsellors was that the best way to make a course accessible is to ask students what they need.

A counsellor from the Adapted Services at Dawson College said: “We have online courses since Monday and there is already a difficult situation in accommodating a Hard of Hearing student. Teachers don’t have time to research accommodation measures that could be available to improve the situation.” She asked if there was someone who could synthesize the information for teachers on how to make courses accessible.[1]

A teacher from Montmorency College who was already working a lot online before the crisis says that a solution that she tested was a synchronous meeting to ask live questions, which she records for those who need to hear it again. Microsoft Teams is, according to her, an accessible platform that is easy to use for this. She says that it is important to maintain a relationship of trust with students and to reassure them. Everyone is scared at the moment. No one knows what will happen. There is a desire to get back to a sense of normalcy, back to our daily routine. So, to resume academic activities can be comforting and healthy. But doing everything like before is impossible. We have to be flexible. Other examples of solutions that she suggests: giving more time to hand in assignments, adapting to students who need more interaction or less interaction. Giving five assignments and using the best three for grades, etc.

 

What do we do when students don’t have internet access? This same teacher says that it is possible to do all the work for her course on a smart phone if the person does not have a computer. If a person is quarantined in a region without a network: they can talk to her on the phone and hand in their assignments when they will have internet access again. For now, we have to do the best we can in an exceptional situation. We will learn what works and what doesn’t work and apply what we will learn in the future, when we will have more time to plan remote classes that are accessible to everyone.

 

An adapted services counsellor in Baie-Comeau said: “We polled our students to ask them what technologies they had access to and what they were concerned about. We shared their concerns with the management. For example, we advised them to integrate UDL (Universal Design for Learning), which allows different ways of looking at skills.”

 

The UQAM professor pointed out that pushing for the use of technology too much can generate inequalities and even discrimination. We have to be very flexible. We can communicate by phone if necessary, for example. Everyone has to know that they are important and that we are not abandoning them. The need to reassure students came up often.

 

Options Available to Students to Complete Their Courses

A representative from the QSU said: “We put up an FAQ page on our website, on which we put all of the Ministry’s responses. The QSU’s position: that the student be allowed to choose the future of their semester (pass/fail or actual grade, drop-out, distance learning). For accredited internships: if suspended, the Ministry asks partners to relax their regulations for internships.” For updates, see the QSU’s page.

At UQAM, students can choose between a pass/fail mention or a traditional grading system. Pass/fail is interesting for students who already have accumulated sufficient grades on assignments for a course.

A CAC-FECQ representative said: “For CEGEPS there will be equivalences and incompletes instead of pass/fail. Link for information (in French only): https://www.fecq.org/covid19.html. This page also contains information for international students, students who are parents, students in precarious situations and SWD.”

There are also options for CEGEP students to finish courses now with no mention of failure. The COVID-19 situation allows them to ask for an incomplete mention without justification for one course. This could allow a lighter workload during the semester, if necessary – far from ideal, but it’s better than nothing as a potential survival strategy. It is for only one course, not the entire semester.

Other option: getting the EQ mention, which is not a grade, but it means that the person passed the course. This allows for a continuation of the academic path. There will be a double calculation of the R score. The best of the two grades is maintained. It can take some of the pressure off.

 

Conclusion 

This virtual meeting allowed us to reiterate that flexibility is essential and that we have to keep in mind that everyone is vulnerable at the moment. We have to be patient with each other.

We intend to hold another meeting at the end of the crisis to see where we are at, to report on what we’ve learned and what could apply in the future to favour inclusion and accessibility, whether it be on campus or online.

We will also share this report with all stakeholders (MÉES, teachers’ unions and counsellors).

 

 

[1] Follow us on Facebook to find out the dates of our next webinars that will be about this issue.