The pandemic proved that creating a virtual classroom is, in fact, possible.
After the worldwide closings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, college campuses are now scrambling to put policies in place for the start of the fall 2020 semester.
The shutdown overwhelmed so many instructors (and students alike) as courses shifted from in-person learning to online only.
Class discussions were now virtual discussion boards. Blue test booklets became online quizzes. Course meetings changed to Zoom lectures with lagging audio and fizzled-out Wi-Fi connection.
As the new semester approaches, many students and faculty have the same question: What are classes going to look like now?
But for disabled people on college campuses, the answer is simple, and it has to do with accessibility.
The accessible classroom fantasy isn’t as out of reach as we thought
The pandemic proved that creating a virtual classroom is, in fact, possible. This is something that chronically ill and disabled students have been asking for in all facets of academia: loosened attendance policies, the ability to use adaptive technology, video chatting for class meetings on days when you can’t quite leave the couch.
Remote learning wasn’t only suddenly possible, but it was necessary for everybody and therefore accepted as a valid method of learning.
“We had no choice but to go online,” the universities stated. “This was the best option to keep our students safe and healthy.”
But what about all the students pre-pandemic who had to drop courses or even put higher education on the back burner because they weren’t able to accessibly take the class without putting their health in danger? Aren’t they part of the group of students you say you have to protect?
The truth is that modern technology makes it possible to offer remote learning for students who can’t physically attend classes.
My question is that when we have a stable, viable vaccine for COVID-19 and our world slowly becomes just a little bit safer, are we, as instructors, going to drop all that we’ve learned about remote learning because it’s no longer “necessary” for able-bodied students and faculty?
As a disabled course instructor, I primed my class for remote work from the beginning.
I was the graduate instructor of a creative writing course when the pandemic hit. I watched as my colleagues and professors struggled to transition from our regularly scheduled classes to remote learning.
And, yes, I felt it too: the pressure to instruct perfectly in this new style, to strike a balance between meeting the course requirements but also loosening expectations in the face of global grief.
But I didn’t ever feel that remote learning would diminish what I wanted my students to learn.
There was a lot of work to do, of course, to adjust course expectations and switch class discussions to more of a thread-like, social media-esque method.
Yet, most of my course material was already digitalized, with plans in place for students who were unable to physically attend my classes to begin with.
I know what it’s like to have to drop out of a class because the room is too small for a wheelchair, or the professor won’t let students have laptops for note-taking. I know the pure, acidic dread of flipping right to the attendance policies on syllabus day. And I didn’t want my students to feel that.
So, from day 1 in my class, I tried to foster a dialogue with my students so that they would first feel comfortable telling me if they needed accommodations (even if not officially documented through the school).
Then, I would make suggestions to the class on accessibility and accommodations I thought might help in certain situations, and asked for feedback, altering the classroom design accordingly.
Remember, teachers, that trust goes both ways with students. Trust them to tell you what’s working and what isn’t working, and be open to change. Course flexibility is exactly what’s needed as we navigate the pandemic, after all.
To my fellow instructors, please hear me when I say that syllabus day shouldn’t be a power struggle.
As fresh-faced graduate instructors, my cohort received frequent pedagogical coursework so that we were able to apply up-to-date practices for facilitating a classroom.
I remember one professor who talked about the “proper” way to greet a class on syllabus day. Be sociable, but not too open. Be friendly, but don’t be their friend. And treat the syllabus like a firm, unbending contract.
“Put a little fear of the syllabus in them,” the professor said. That way, we wouldn’t have students take advantage of us on things like attendance, missing assignments, and class participation.
We were expected to tell our students that if they didn’t come to class every single day, they would fail. If they didn’t participate, they’d be cold-called in front of the entire class. No completed assignments meant no second chances.
But I couldn’t do this. I thought back to all of the days when I pushed through the sharp pain of dislocated ribs to come to class. The days when I felt my shoulder slip out of socket to carry my school books.
Or the times when I had to politely excuse myself from class to go vomit in the bathroom, shaking and nearly fainting, only to then redden my pale cheeks with a pinch so I’d appear “normal” when I returned to class.
My question to teachers in all grade levels is this: Hasn’t the pandemic proven that suffering through health complications only makes matters worse for the person experiencing them as well as the peers in their environment?
Isn’t it worth the risk that some students might “take advantage” of attendance flexibility if the students who truly need to stay home are able to be safe?
We underestimate our students. We judge them unfairly. Skipping class doesn’t automatically equate to laziness. This is the type of attitude that, when applied to all students from the start of a course, makes disabled students feel alienated and stereotyped.
Teachers, we can — and should — do better for our students.
Common doubts to classroom accessibility
Here are the most common doubts that instructors have when it comes to classroom accessibility, and how we can reasonably address them.
1. ‘How will I know if my students are really sick or faking it?’
Controversial answer: Does it matter?
The reason I ask that is because if you have the right system in place, your students won’t have to fall behind on the course materials or assignments unless they’re actively not putting effort into the class.
I think as instructors, we forget that we don’t want our students to fail — no matter what situation they’re in. Openly communicate with your students. Come into the classroom with full faith that they want to be there and that they want to learn.
And, for what it’s worth, throw in a freebie day here and there in which they can miss class, no questions asked. Or have them complete extra credit to make up for missed attendance days.
Your students will appreciate this and feel more inclined to actually attend class when they’re able to.
2. ‘I’m just supposed to let my students skip all the time, no questions asked?’
Of course not.
Typically, I give my students one freebie day to use. I won’t ask questions as to why they’re missing class, but they do have to email me before class to say that they’ve decided to use their freebie day so I can mark it on my attendance sheet.
I go on to explain to my students that there are excused and unexcused absences. Illness, pain, mental health, and interfering life circumstances (job, family care, flat tire, etc.) should always be excused without a fight.
This doesn’t mean that your students are excused from doing the work required to pass the class, though.
I had several students with chronic health conditions as well as mental illnesses who needed attendance accommodations.
My philosophy was that physically attending class shouldn’t be the most important goal for them. Instead, I wanted them to focus on learning the material and mastering course expectations.
My classroom was discussion-heavy, meaning that I expected my students to read the assigned short stories or essays before class and then be prepared to talk about those readings.
On the days when my students were physically unable to attend class, I asked them to complete the assigned readings and other coursework whenever they were feeling well enough to do so.
I also created a submission folder for students who missed class due to health conditions so they could upload their annotations and informal notes on the readings.
This accommodation allowed my students to prioritize their health while still managing the assignments that the other students also had to complete. It was also a quick way for me to assess whether these students met the expectations of the course assignments.
Yes, I did have students who skipped without explanation and didn’t choose to utilize this accommodation. But I graded them appropriately to the amount of work they were putting into the class.
More often than not, my students who had chronic health conditions were able to prove that they did the course readings without jeopardizing their physical and mental health.
3. ‘Should I have different approaches to teaching depending on what students need at a particular time? How would I have time to do this?’
That’s exactly what accommodations are all about.
Our students learn in a variety of ways. Some students do better remotely and with a digital platform. Others aren’t able to access technology, either because of disabilities or life realities, to make online learning work.
This is why we have to be prepared for as many scenarios as we can be.
Having both paper materials and digital materials allows for students to choose the method of learning that works best for them. Clearly, in-person lessons with paper materials isn’t necessarily feasible with the upcoming semester due to the coronavirus safety protocols.
If your students are struggling to learn remotely, check in with them one-on-one through email or video chat to see what adjustments might be able to help.
Don’t be afraid of trial and error, too. Some accommodations might seem doable at the start but end up not working for either you or the students.
Making a classroom accessible does take a lot of time and energy. But it means that your classroom will be more inclusive for all types of learners.
4. ‘I’m a teacher with a disability. My accommodations might not be right for what my students need. What do I do?’
Check in with your departments, colleagues, and campus accessibility services for alternative ideas, and don’t jeopardize your own health for the sake of teaching.
You have rights just as your students do. Your classroom should always be accessible to you and your needs, first and foremost.
5. ‘What are other accommodations I should consider when constructing my classroom?’
Here are some accommodations I’ve put in place, but there are many others. Make sure you talk to your disabled students. This is the only way to grow accessible practices throughout campuses:
- Have transcripts, closed captioning, or both for videos.
- Use accessible PDFs that screen readers can recognize.
- Allow students with social anxiety to speak privately to the instructor, or email informal notes on class discussion, rather than forcing participation.
- Have flexible attendance policies with “make up” accommodations.
- No pop quizzes.
- When doing a class activity, introduce several approaches in the event that some students aren’t able to access the work (i.e., allow students to use phones, laptops to type for freewriting exercises rather than requiring hand-written participation).
- When able, organize the classroom to allow space for mobility devices, and allow students to choose the seats (i.e., if they need to be closer to the door or closer to the front of the classroom) that work best for them.
- Always talk to your students. They’ll be able to help you understand exactly what they need to be successful.
Accessibility and flexibility are the only ways to make teaching effective
This goes for both instructors and students.
Take it from disabled people when we say that adapting to unfit situations starts to come naturally when you’ve done it enough times.
Unfortunately, with the unpredictability of COVID-19 and uncertainty on vaccine development, we’re going to have to accommodate to shift with all the changes in our world.
Having an accessible classroom means having a classroom of options for your students to learn in the way that’s best for their individual needs. In times when there might not seem to be a lot of options, look to your students for hope.
They are the future thinkers, the open-minded learners who will pass on all the information we give to them.
And, soon enough, they’ll be the ones to find ways to make education even more accessible.
Aryanna Falkner is a disabled writer from Buffalo, New York. She’s an MFA candidate in fiction at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where she lives with her fiancé and their fluffy black cat. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Blanket Sea and Tule Review. Find her and pictures of her cat on Twitter.