Lessons learned from changes to disability-related accommodations during the pandemic

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Lessons learned from changes to disability-related accommodations during the pandemic

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EAB Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellow, currently serving as the University of Montana Director of Disability Services for Students (DSS) and Montana 10, a program designed to support degree completion among low-income students at the University of Montana. Capolupo is leading the process of redesigning the role of the Disability Services office as it transitions from providing academic accommodations to greatly eliminating the need for accommodations through practices that instead foster equity and inclusion.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.

Ensure advancements to disability-related access continue with in-person learning

Question: How can we keep the educational advancements made in terms of disability-related access when we return to an in-person learning environment?

Ask your disability services office how many accommodated exams they administered during the pandemic. Then compare that to the number of accommodations they did the year before.  If your institution is like the University of Montana, you will find that the need for in-person accommodated exams decreased tremendously. You may think, “Of course it did, most, if not all, courses went remote.”   Then ask yourself why this decrease in in-person accommodated exams cannot continue when we return in person?  Consider your answers, then challenge your assumptions through the lens of creating a more inclusive and accessible environment.

Prior to the pandemic, most exams were paper-based, conducted at specific times, time limited, and administered in person. This type of testing environment works best for students who have the ability to accurately see, hear, respond positively to stress, quickly recall facts, and the physical capabilities to accurately reproduce the written word.  However, none of those skills are actually what the test is designed to measure.  Many disabled students do not possess these capabilities; therefore, they must request testing accommodations that place them in a separate or segregated environment to remove the barrier of these “non-essential” skills.  Disability accommodations by definition are changes to non-essential components in a given environment. Moving forward, we need to ask ourselves whether a testing component, for example, is “non-essential” and why we continue certain practices if the practices result in separation or segregation.

The paper-based, time limited, and in-person testing model is indicative of just how complacent the majority of higher education institutions have become in terms of continuing practices that could be viewed as segregated for students with disabilities. Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, offices like mine have become good at providing access not by teaching and educating on practices that foster inclusion but by providing accommodations that in a fair number of cases promote segregation. Disabled students still have to request that video content be captioned or audio described, course materials provided in accessible formats that can be read aloud with a computer, and test books be converted to digital formats. Some universities still purchase learning platforms that are not accessible under the guise a “conditional use” because they are “academically necessary,” and hold classes and events in buildings that are not physically accessible.

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When the pandemic happened, it was simply expected that we would design courses that would allow the most students the greatest chance at success. Faculty were provided with training on inclusive educational models and students were provided the resources and tools necessary to access classes online. As we plan a return to in-person courses this fall, it is my intention to shift the role and function of the DSS office into one that promotes access not through the use of accommodations but one that largely eliminates the need for them.

One of the EAB resources that we will be using at UM to gauge where we need to go to facilitate greater equity and inclusion is the 360-Degree Student Equity audit. This tool provides an excellent reference point to examine your institution’s practices no matter where it sits on the Diversity Equity and Inclusion continuum.

See the fellows' blogs from the capstone projects

Amy Capolupo and others participated in the Spring 2021 EAB’s Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship

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