Ensuring Equitable Access for Students with Disabilities During the Transition to Distance Learning

Across the country, schools have started the transition to distance learning options in response to the widespread outbreak of COVID-19. All 50 states have taken measures to close all public elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools, and students are moving to online learning. As distance learning methods are established, educators and school administrators are being called upon to consider the 6.7 million public school students with disabilities who may face new challenges with these changes.

Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and requires educators to ensure provision of educational services if a student has an individualized education program (IEP) or is receiving services under Section 504. Unless closed to all students, schools are required to provide the same level of accessibility to online educational resources, regardless of disability status.

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights released a webinar on March 17 that describes:

  • The applicable legal framework;
  • What accessibility means in the context of distance learning;
  • What the Office of Civil Rights is doing to help schools achieve accessibility goals; and
  • Resources for teachers who are new to the distance learning format.

As described in the webinar, equal accessibility is achieved when students with disabilities can learn material, interact with peers and engage in the same programs and activities as easily as their non-disabled peers. Students with hearing, vision, mobility or cognitive disabilities benefit from a number of accommodations such as speech recognition software, text-to-speech applications, mouth sticks or eye-tracking software.

Educational institutions are encouraged to routinely test the accessibility of their online activities by using a combination of automated checkers that assess the code of the website as well as manual checking to ensure that nothing was missed. The Office of Civil Rights warns that automated checkers may be unable to recognize that a student cannot use a mouse, instead relying on a keyboard to access online resources. For this reason, supplemental manual testing should be conducted by individuals who have the tools to recognize and address such issues. Schools are urged to consider all varieties of disabilities along with the tools and technology used to participate.

The Office of Civil Rights also published a fact sheet for education leaders containing information and resources expanding on civil rights protections in regard to distance learning. A supplemental fact sheet acknowledges that some services may be impossible in the distance learning format and that federal law allows some flexibility. While the law mandates equal access, it does not specify methodologies. In the event that technology cannot adequately accommodate a student’s needs, the law allows for “equal effective alternative access” to information and services. Examples of alternative services include reading a document to students with vision impairments while distributing the otherwise accessible information to non-disabled students.

Schools and administrators continue to be encouraged to follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in addition to public health authorities when taking actions to further reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools.

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services released additional guidance on ensuring accessibility for students with disabilities, including:

In practice, ensuring equal access with little planning time poses a challenge to administrators. While some states and school districts were able to prepare assistive technology and lesson plans, others have had to make critical choices about how to move forward with distance learning.

New York City launched remote learning programs on March 23. According to the New York City Department of Education, efforts are being made to ensure students in special education programs will receive instruction from the same educators they are used to. Schools will contact families to discuss how best to deliver instruction and are working to provide Assistive Technologies to accommodate students. In a letter from the Chancellor of Education, parents are assured that individual learning plan meetings will take place over the phone. 

Kentucky’s largest school district has struggled to transition to online learning plans due to concerns about equity but plans to begin distance learning on April 7. Jefferson County Public Schools is working to ensure all students have digital access. The district plans to distribute 25,000 Chromebooks to students in need, including those enrolled in special education programs. Other ways of addressing accessibility issues include the provision of internet hot spots to students or parking school buses in centralized locations where students can access the internet to complete their non traditional instruction.

On April 1, New Jersey’s Board of Education voted to temporarily modify rules prohibiting remote administration of services to students with disabilities. The new flexibility will give students access to telehealth and telemedicine services in addition to remote or online platforms used for learning. These services will soon be available remotely to students with disabilities and include physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and counseling.

In addition to difficulties in education, other programs, services and organizations serving students with disabilities have been negatively affected by the virus. Poncho Timmons, founder of the Pennsylvania Youth Initiative (PYA),  put activities on hold indefinitely due to the COVID-19 outbreak. PYA offers a variety of programs for students with special needs, such as workshops focusing on career readiness and networking. One program is a “reverse job fair,” where participants are behind the table instead of employers. Students spend the morning developing a poster board for who they are, jobs they would like and preparing for interviews. Unfortunately, the programs are primarily designed for group settings that are not feasible due to safety concerns.

School districts are also legally required to account for accessibility issues among students learning English and students who cannot access the internet from home. Instead of risking state and federal funding, some districts that are unable to provide accommodations for protected students have elected to suspend online learning for all students. The federal coronavirus relief bill that was signed by the president on March 27 enables the secretary of education to recommend potential waivers of legal requirements protecting students with disabilities. Advocates for disability rights oppose the idea, arguing that efforts should continue to be made. Others argue that students without disabilities should be able to resume their education as quickly as possible.