Not only were students with disabilities tasked with transitioning to remote coursework, but their classroom accommodations and interpreters had to quickly learn how to work around the out-of-classroom environment as well.
With over 2,000 students registered with Students with Disabilities Services (SDS), Director Deborah McCarthy said students’ accommodations are still being met in their remote settings.
Even though many of these students may rely heavily on face-to-face communication, she said the department is working with students to provide them with tools and resources as best they can, along with transitioning the accommodations remotely.
Before the transition to remote instruction, SDS offered classroom accommodations for students with disabilities, including converted academic materials, Braille, note-takers, access to class presentations, deaf and hard-of-hearing services, and permission to leave or move around the classroom.
After USF transitioned to online instruction March 23, most classroom accommodations had to move remotely as well.
McCarthy said technology has been a fundamental part in making this transition work.
“We authorize a lot of extended time testing and instead of [students] coming to SDS to take the exams in person, we work with faculty to make sure that Canvas or whatever the exam platform allows for the extended time,” McCarthy said.
Students also rely on the 10 classroom assistants and five interpreters currently employed by SDS.
Classroom interpreters are especially useful for some hard-of-hearing or blind students since some students read sign language, need note-takers or the lectures described to them.
“It’s hard if you’re deaf to meet by phone, but they’re meeting by video chat or by email to make sure that they’re getting the information that they need, which is the same thing with our blind students,” McCarthy said.
Before the transition to online, McCarthy said there were blind students who would have someone describe the lecture. This includes translating what somebody wrote on the board or describing what is happening in a lab.
McCarthy said those students are still being provided the same services that they’ve been using all along since their classroom assistants and interpreters are assigned to students for the entire duration of the semester.
Now, they work together by phone and have remote meetings to make sure the student’s coursework is still accessible.
“So it may be at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on Wednesday, it may be at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, they’re setting their own schedules and then reviewing the materials together,” McCarthy said.
Some video platforms, such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, have automatic caption features, but depending on the speed and accent of the speaker, the converted text can be a hit or miss.
While there is some accommodating software for captioning, other platforms such as Blackboard Collaborate don’t have that feature.
In those cases, McCarthy said the student and their interpreter would both log in to the class together and interpret during the session.
“It’s draining because it’s probably harder to watch two screens at a time than it is to be in a classroom and take in all of the human action as you’re looking at the board,” McCarthy said.
For students who need a quieter learning environment, the remote transition has been challenging for some.
“We have been doing a lot of talking with students about how to create ‘reduced distraction testing’ in an environment that’s different than what they’re used to, especially if they’re at home with family or siblings or other people who are working,” McCarthy said.
The concerns some students were expressing at the beginning of the remote transition were about distractions in their homes — such as siblings or the TV — as well as environmental factors like living next to a highway.
“Individually, we’ve been able to give some advice and have offered to send some of the noise-reduction headphones that we have in the office,” McCarthy said. “Also, some people may need to be offered to take their exams at 10 o’clock at night instead of 10 in the morning when the rest of your family has gone to bed.”
McCarthy said SDS has been able to operate at full capacity because the needs of the students in the department have remained the same — but the workload has increased.
Last April, McCarthy said the accommodation requests for current students would slowly trickle down and SDS would get about three to four a week.
But last week, SDS had 11 accommodation requests and the week before, there were seven.
McCarthy said she’s not exactly sure why there has been a surge of applications, but two factors could be noted.
“We do have some increased numbers, whether that’s because of the crisis or because people have time now that we’re remote to seek out services — we don’t know, it’s hard to say,” McCarthy said.
The student staff consists of 10 graduate students who are exam proctors, three students who work with assistive technology and two student workers who answer the phone and handle administrative needs.
There are also 10 full-time staff members and one graduate student who works on SDS’ outreach programs such as training faculty about its services.
McCarthy said as the department moves to the summer semester, the SDS staff plans on having more conversations with USF faculty about continuing education accommodations for students with disabilities until the end of the pandemic.
“We are closer to the goal of having all of our materials accessible simply because they’ve had to be [since we are operating remotely, so] that’s exciting,” McCarthy said.
“It’s a good outcome for an unfortunate situation.”