Will accessibility gains be lost in the “new normal”?

Blended and remote programmes have made learning easier for many students, Kelly Louise Preece finds

Kelly Louise Preece is the Researcher Development and EDI Manager for postgraduate researchers at the University of Exeter

The Disabled Students’ Commission (DSC) recently published an in-depth qualitative report exploring the impact of Covid-19 on disabled students’ experiences. Many of us in the sector saw this report as confirmation of what we have observed in our roles – while the pandemic brought untold challenges, it moved us much further forward in developing the skills and structures to deliver truly accessible teaching and learning.

I come to this report from a unique perspective. I run an educational support service for postgraduate researchers, who featured significantly in the report. I am also disabled myself and one of the founders of our university’s Disabled and Chronically Ill Staff and Student Network.

I suffer from several chronic illnesses and have benefited significantly from the flexibility of working from home. Reducing my commute from a half-hour drive to a 10-second walk has led to a reduction in symptoms, fewer sick days, and an increased ability to manage my condition. I am healthier and able to contribute more to my job.

Adjustment period

It was, therefore, unsurprising to me that disabled students reported the same. It is without question that Covid-19 has had a detrimental impact on students, and the student experience. But for many students, it has led to the implementation of reasonable adjustments that have been recommended and requested for a long time.

I was particularly struck by the following comment from a student with a reported mental health condition:

Once online learning became the norm, it upset me to realise how many adjustments were possible to me that have been denied in the past.

Blended and remote learning has been possible for several years but because it was seen to benefit the minority, not the majority, it was dismissed for mainstream higher education programmes.

I have been working towards a blended, “flipped” model for our training since 2015. The rationale for this was the increasing numbers of part-time and distance students registering for research degree programmes, and the need to provide adequate support for the “non-traditional” student.

This includes a webinar programme to mirror all face-to-face sessions and the development of new asynchronous online content built using the principles of Universal Design for Learning.

All our materials are available in multiple formats to make resources accessible but also flexible depending on people’s learning styles and preferences.

Lesson for all

As our online and blended learning programme has expanded, what we’ve observed is an increased sense of belonging from students who are part-time, distance, disabled, parents or carers, or just have to balance work and study to pay their living costs.

But this provision has also benefited our campus-based students. In feedback on our webinars, campus-based students have noted that they like the “convenience of doing it from home” or in their lab/office and the “bite-sized” nature of this one-hour online training.

When Covid-19 hit, we were already delivering an online version of all our provision – and we found our engagement doubled from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021.

Now, I’m not saying we’ve got it all right. Clearly, as the DSC report shows, we still have a lot to learn. And online doesn’t always equal access.

As the report highlights, some “accessible technologies” such as automatic captioning leave a lot to be desired. And prolonged periods of screen time are inaccessible to so many. As someone who suffers screen-induced migraines, I’m searching for the solution to that one. And that’s before we even start discussing the issue of technology poverty.

For disabled students, the fear is what comes next? After years (nay, decades) of fighting for reasonable adjustments, many are concerned that what we have gained during the pandemic is going to be taken away as we move into the “new normal”.

As the DSC report states:

the concern was that this would only be a temporary change unless knowledge is properly embedded and any follow-up initiatives were meaningful.

For my service, I am determined to move forwards and not backwards. We are adopting a digital-first approach to our training, offering blended, synchronous, and asynchronous versions of our training.

Because what I’ve learnt from delivering online and blended learning, before and during the pandemic, is that if you design teaching and learning for the minority, you benefit the majority.

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