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In response to  the coronavirus pandemic, nearly every college and university in the country has announced it will move to remote learning .  LDA is aware that this change raises many questions  for students with learning disabilities. How will a student access course material? How will accommodations be made?

LDA interviewed LDA Board Member, Manju Banerjee, PhD, Vice President of Educational Research and Innovation at Landmark College in Vermont and an expert on college students with disabilities, on how this move to remote learning may affect college students with learning disabilities.

LDA:  Dr. Banerjee, if a student has already been determined to be an individual with a disability by his or her college’s disability services office, does he or she need to do anything right now to continue this determination?

MB:  No. If a student has already been determined to be an individual with a disability, that designation will remain.

LDA:  Will a student with a learning disability get the same accommodations for remote learning as he or she has for face-to-face classes?

MB: Reasonable accommodations are available to all eligible students with learning disabilities whether in a remote learning setting or face-to-face courses. Of course, some remote learning accommodations  may be different than in a  face-to-face setting.  A student should  review his or her regular accommodations  and  think about  how these might work in a remote learning setting.  As instructors outline how remote learning will work for their classes, the student must work with the instructor and  with the college’s disabilities services office to determine any  changes to accommodations or new accommodations that may be needed.  Students may request a change in accommodations at any time.

As soon as possible, I strongly recommend students have a discussion with the college’s disability service provider and the course instructor about how  remote  learning will be done  and for ways in which existing accommodations can be adapted or if new ones are needed.  As many instructors are new to remote learning, students should be ready to approach their instructor at any time if the instructor’s teaching method changes.

LDA:  If a student is requesting a new accommodation or a change to an existing accommodation, how should he or she proceed?

MB:  The process will likely be very similar to the original request for accommodations.  A student must demonstrate why the accommodation is needed to access the course material.  Individual colleges and universities will have different policies around how any revised accommodation letters will be shared with an instructor.  A student should check with  the college’s disability service provider as soon as possible regarding revisions to existing accommodation letters. Self-advocacy is key.

LDA:  It seems a student should also be in communication with his or her instructor about the move to remote learning and any possible changes that may be needed to accommodate it.

MB:  Absolutely.  Students should not hesitate to connect with the course instructor .  Students need to recognize that instructors are being asked to make extraordinary changes to their courses in a very short amount of time.  It is important for a student to be proactive to get the needed accommodations but also to be respectful of the new  demands being placed on the instructor.  Open communications are key. Instructors are learning how to teach in a remote learning setting, and students are learning how to learn in a remote learning setting.

Also, students should communicate with the instructor to find out how office hours will be handled.  Although not an accommodation, many students with a learning disability find it very beneficial to regularly see the instructor during office hours.  Students should make every effort to work with instructors to ensure that  these kinds of interactions continue.

LDA:  For many students with learning disabilities, one of the most important accommodations is extended time on exams/assessments.  How will that work in a remote learning setting?

MB:  A student should be eligible to receive the same accommodations that he or she was entitled to previously; however, adaptations may be necessary for the remote learning setting.  Many instructors are adjusting their student assessment practices to align with remote learning. Talk to your disability services personnel about extended test time on online assessments, technologies that make online assessments available for a specified time limit and ways to personalize it for extended time, and any online proctoring services that your college may be using.

LDA:  Although we don’t know what remote learning will look like for every course, many colleges already have online courses.  Are there lessons learned from online courses that may be helpful for students with learning disabilities who are in a remote learning setting?

MB:  There are many things we’ve learned from online courses and the difficulties students with a learning disability may encounter.  For example, in an online course a professor may have a discussion board which can be difficult for students who have a writing disability.  A student who struggles with writing should find out the instructor’s expectations for writing in the remote learning setting. One suggestion is to talk with the course instructor and get a clear sense of writing expectations, grading of posts, and so on. If appropriate, a student may request as an accommodation not to be penalized for grammatical and spelling errors on posts.

We already know from online courses that there are techniques for students with learning disabilities to facilitate their participation in a  course.  For example, when using a learning management system (LMS) such as Canvas or Blackboard, it is often better to write in a Word document and then copy paste to the post site.

As an instructor develops the remote learning setting for his or her course, students with a learning disability may want to talk with the college’s disability services office about accommodations that have been developed for online courses that may be needed in the formerly face-to-face course.  It is still not known how instructors will teach in a remote learning setting, but it is likely some teaching methods now used in online courses will be used in a remote learning setting.

LDA: Some students with a learning disability get tutoring and/or coaching services from their college.  Will these students still be able to get this tutoring and/or coaching?

MB:  Many college disability services offices provide study skills and learning strategies sessions for their students. It is possible to provide tutoring and coaching services via phone, Skype, or other conference calling modalities. Check with your disability services office on how they are planning to provide remote student support. A preferred approach is to use technologies that will allow for screen sharing such as Zoom or Google Hangouts.  Students should find out the platform used by their college,  make sure they have the software loaded on their computer, and be familiar with how to use it.

Also, many students with learning disabilities get private tutoring and/or coaching not provided by the college.  These students should discuss how this private tutoring and/or coaching may continue.

LDA:  For college and university students with a reading disability including dyslexia it may be difficult for them to keep up with the expected written changes to course syllabi as well as university announcements.  Any suggestions so they can better follow changes?

MB:  Excellent question.  Keeping track of these changes may not only be difficult for students with a reading disability but also for those who are challenged with organization.  Students who work with a coach or tutor should ask them to double-check that they haven’t missed any course requirement changes or deadlines.  Other students should consider reaching out to a classmate.

LDA:   Will the disability services office pay for additional access technologies that a student may need to access the course material now that it is in a remote learning setting?

MB:  A student should connect with the college’s disability services office as soon as possible regarding accessibility needs for a remote learning setting. Individual circumstances vary widely. If a student is eligible for a reasonable accommodation to access the course in a remote learning setting then disability services must provide the accommodation(s) that gives him or her equal access.

LDA:  One last question, what should parents do to support their college student with a learning disability?

MB:  Parents should talk with their college student and encourage him or her to communicate with the college’s disability services office and instructors as soon as possible and to continue to stay in communication as the semester progresses. Self-advocacy becomes increasingly important in this situation.

LDA:  Dr. Banerjee, thank you for your time and expertise.  We expect these coming weeks will be a learning experience for all of us as this extraordinary shift in higher education occurs.  I hope we can reach out to you in the future as we learn how this is all going to play out.  Is there any final take-away you have for college students with learning disabilities?

MB:  Be proactive and do not hesitate to be a strong advocate for yourself!