Students with disabilities and students with low incomes face more barriers to online education than able-bodied, upper class students and it needs to be addressed.
Due to the pandemic, there has been a call for teachers and professors to show more compassion and leniency, but they have spent years withholding that same compassion and leniency from students with disabilities. Able-bodied students have been getting extensions and accommodations that were scoffed at before COVID-19, like attending class remotely. Students with disabilities have been asking for these accommodations for years and they’re only now being implemented because it is able-bodied students who are affected. It shows these accommodations were always available, but were never given because professors could not empathize with their students or just didn’t care.
People with disabilities have been advocating for themselves for a long time to try to get accommodations like recorded lectures and remote work. Back in March, people with disabilities across the country took to Twitter with the hashtag #DisabledAndSaltyAF to share their frustrations. Many shared stories about being denied accommodations in school or at work that are now widely available for able-bodied people.
Meanwhile, other accommodations have been forgotten about in the rush to create online curriculums. Professors sometimes neglect to provide captions or transcriptions of their video lectures. Some websites offer auto-generated captions, but those are often inaccurate. Students who are hard of hearing or have some form of auditory processing difficulties need accurate captions to understand their lectures. Many online readings are images of the text that are unable to be read by screen readers. Students are given longer reading assignments than pre-COVID that are especially difficult to get through for students with learning disabilities.
Online classes and policies are also incredibly classist. Many instructors ask students to keep their cameras on, and in some cases, their microphones unmuted. This can be really uncomfortable for students who live in poverty and don’t want to show their living conditions to their teachers and classmates. Students who are now at home may also be helping care for younger siblings or their own children due to online schooling. Some teachers don’t want their students to attend class in their bed, but if they don’t have a desk to work at, there aren’t many options.
There is also the issue of the digital divide, which disproportionately impacts students of color. An estimated 16.9 million students don’t have access to high-speed internet according to a report compiled by education and civil rights organizations. Native American students are the most likely to be without internet at 34.2 percent, followed by Latino students at 31.2 percent and Black students at 30.6 percent.
The requirement of keeping a student’s camera on can also make learning difficult for some students due to potentially not having fast enough wi-fi to handle using video. It also doesn’t help if the student has siblings who are also in Zoom classes at the same time. Some students may not have computers with working webcams or can’t afford them. While the CARES Act funding SIUE offered attempted to rectify this, the money ran out before some students could apply.
There needs to be more of an effort made by school and university administrators as well as educators to make sure everyone has equal access to education even during the pandemic. Whenever we’re able to resume “normal” life, we need to continue allowing people to use these online formats. It’s been proven that it can be done and the only thing preventing it was ableism.