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A National Investigation of Disability Services Response to COVID-19

by Adam Lalor, Ph.D. and Manju Banerjee, Ph.D.

Since March 2020, US colleges and universities have faced the greatest obstacle to delivering higher education since the Vietnam era:  COVID-19.  As a result, institutions of higher education and their disability services offices were forced to pivot and begin providing accessible education to all students online.  Within days, college campuses were empty, and online learning management systems became the site of higher education.

As required by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, colleges and universities were expected to make online courses accessible to all students with documented disabilities. Postsecondary disability services offices were charged with collaborating with faculty, IT, and students to ensure that accommodations were provided in this new environment. 

With this in mind, Drs. Adam Lalor and Manju Banerjee conducted a study of 212 colleges and universities from around the nation to better understand the experiences of disability services offices during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participating institutions represented varying institution types (i.e., doctoral universities, master’s colleges, baccalaureate colleges, and associate’s colleges), control (i.e., public vs. private), sizes, and disability services foci (i.e., compliance, service, comprehensive) from different geographic regions.  Data was collected on topics ranging from accommodation provision to resource allocation and staffing to lessons learned.
The results of this study depict a disability services field that is nimble and able to respond to the changing needs and realities of our students and our world.  Highlights:

More than two-thirds of surveyed institutions saw additional students apply for academic accommodations during spring 2020.

67% of surveyed institutions reconsidered pre-existing accommodations in light of the unique challenges online learning presents.

77% of accessibility offices reported that the shift to online teaching spurred greater collaboration across the university.

Although it is hoped that the world will not face another pandemic of this sort for centuries, it is critical to understand whether our system of providing disability services at the postsecondary level can handle an international crisis.  This study demonstrates that disability services offices will continue to provide services and access to students with disabilities regardless of how higher education is delivered.  

Read more about the study at this EdSurge article link

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