The Impact of COVID-19 on Students with Disabilities
While nearly everyone has been impacted by COVID-19 in some way, there are unique
challenges for students with disabilities. In the 2019-2020 school year, 10% of TU
students were registered with Accessibility and Disability Services (ADS) to receive
academic accommodations. According to an ADS student survey conducted at the end of
the Spring 2020 semester, 65% of students indicated that their disability symptoms
impacted them more after changing to the virtual learning environment than in the
classroom. When TU students with disabilities were asked to identify the biggest barrier
to remote learning, students most frequently gave the following responses:
- Difficulty focusing or paying attention to remote instructions or activities
- Keeping track of assignments and staying organized
- Needing instructors to be available to answer questions promptly
- Better understanding of course information and expectations face to face
- Need for longer time needed to complete assignments
- Exacerbation of mental health symptoms
- Personal motivation to complete coursework remotely
Disability is a broad term and covers many different types of physical and mental impairments.
Disabilities can include visual impairments, hearing impairments, dyslexia, ADHD,
anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, PTSD, mobility impairments, diabetes, HIV, and
several other medical conditions. Disability impacts each individual differently,
so there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to assisting and supporting students
with disabilities. However, it is important to be cognizant of the impacts of COVID-19
on students with disabilities in order to create a healthy and inclusive learning
environment for all students.
In addition to the challenges of remote learning for students with disabilities, medical
conditions and related concerns are also heightened. For students with medical conditions
requiring access to medical supplies and medications, COVID-19 can magnify concerns
about supply shortages and/or access to the necessary medications required for their
disability. In addition to access to medical care, being considered part of a high-risk
population due to an immunodeficiency during a pandemic can also amplify feelings
Given the physical distancing guidance for COVID-19, there also can be increased feelings
of loneliness and isolation. These feelings of isolation may be elevated for individuals
who are considered high risk and have to try to avoid being around the general public.
This too can cause additional anxiety, if, for instance, it prevents someone from
being able to work and earn a living. The mask requirement can also create feelings
of social isolation for individuals with disabilities. For instance, the Deaf community
or individuals with hearing impairments may rely on lip reading or facial expressions
to communicate. Similarly, individuals with PTSD may not feel comfortable in a space
where everyone is wearing a mask.
Certainly navigating a pandemic is anxiety-inducing for most people. However, as noted
above, there may be additional anxiety for students with disabilities. Prior to the
pandemic, the largest population of students seeking accommodations through ADS were
those with mental health related disabilities (anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive
disorder, etc.). Many of these students are likely experiencing increased symptoms
and may require additional flexibility and support during this time.
For some students with disabilities such as learning disabilities, ADHD, and autism
spectrum disorder, the virtual environment is not optimal for learning. Routines and
learning strategies that were previously effective for students, may no longer be
available when classes are held remotely. Given that navigating education remotely
is a new experience for many people, it may leave students with disabilities unclear
about what accommodations may help them succeed in the changed learning environment.
As there are numerous disabilities with varying symptoms, there is a wide range of
considerations to support our students with disabilities. However, it is important
to be mindful of these realities in order to create an inclusive and supportive environment
to best promote learning during this time.
Best Practices to Help
Although COVID-19 poses several unprecedented challenges, it also poses an opportunity
to improve accessibility overall. Towson University wants to empower its faculty and
staff to be prepared to support and assist students with disabilities through these
challenging times and in the future.
One of the best ways to help support students with disabilities is to be considerate
and approachable. It is important to exercise flexibility, be available for questions,
and allow reasonable leniency with due dates as it may take students longer to complete
assignments in online environment. Additionally, setting clear course expectations
and providing more assignment reminders than typically would be provided in the classroom
may alleviate some course anxiety and benefit all students.
Creating accessible course content will also benefit students with disabilities .
Things such as captions for audio or video recordings are necessary for students requiring
them as a disability. However, captions can benefit all students during this time.
For instance, if a student does not have a quiet environment to review audio content,
captions can help a student follow the material.
Finally, incorporating Universal Design for Learning (UDL) into your course planning
will benefit all learners. UDL is an educational approach that has three main principles:
- Multiple means of representation of information
- Multiple means of student action and expression
- Multiple means of student engagement (UDL in Higher Ed, 2017)
UDL is a useful framework to develop educational environments that given all individuals
an equal opportunity to learn (CAST, 2012). For more information on UDL and to connect
with the UDL-Professional Network at TU, connect with the Faculty Academic Center of Excellence at Towson (FACET).
Accessible Remote Teaching and Learning for Students with Disabilities
Please go to the main webpage for current information on Fall 2020 ADS office operations related to Covid-19.
Current information regarding testing can be found on the Testing Service Center webpage.
Barriers to accessibility and accommodation needs in a remote learning environment
may be different from those present in face-to-face instruction. Here are some suggested
guidelines and resources.
You can facilitate accessibility by creating digital materials that will benefit students
with a wide variety of learning needs. This can reduce the need for reactive accommodation
and improve access for all students. Please make your digital resources accessible
before posting or sharing them. To help make your courses more accessible and inclusive,
see Technology and Information Accessibility.
Do you know which students in your courses have accommodations?
Know who is eligible to receive accommodations so early arrangements can be made.
If you are unsure, it is appropriate to email the whole class, asking any student
who is approved for accommodations to follow up with you. Honor current accommodations
for students with disabilities, and encourage students to contact their ADS specialist
if different accommodations are needed.
ADS will issue an updated accommodation memo if new accommodations are approved. ADS
can email you digital copies of accommodation memos.
Who should you contact if you have questions about providing accommodations?
Each student works with an assigned ADS Specialist who is listed on the accommodation
memo. The specialist will be able to answer questions about student accommodations.
If you are unsure who the student’s specialist is, you can email tuads AT_TOWSON.
What are some of the biggest barriers students with disabilities face with remote
In a May 2020 survey of students registered with ADS, 65% said their disability symptoms
impacted them more in a remote environment as compared to the traditional classroom.
The barriers cited most often included difficulty sustaining attention and staying
organized in a remote environment, reduced access to instructors to answer questions,
taking longer to complete tasks/assignments, and greater difficulty understanding
course information than in a face-to-face setting.
How can recording class lectures benefit students with disabilities, as well as all
Recording class lectures promotes accessibility for students with disabilities and
can enhance the educational experience for all students (e.g., students with different
learning styles, non-native speakers of English and students struggling with the course
material). A recorded lecture allows students to refer back to the recording while
studying, fill in gaps in their notes, and revisit complex information to grasp challenging
concepts. Additionally, captioning recorded lectures ensures accessibility for students
with disabilities and fosters greater engagement and focus for all students through
both hearing and seeing the verbal information presented. Here is an additional resource
from the DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center with more suggestions for teaching accessible remote courses.
How will exams be handled?
As of August 3, the Testing Services Center is open Monday through Friday, 8:30 AM
to 5 PM, with a limited number of staff and a reduced number of testing spaces.
Students who are approved for testing accommodations should continue to receive these
accommodations in an online environment as appropriate. For fully online courses,
the expectation is that students will take their tests online as administered by the
instructor. Timed online exams will require the instructor to adjust the student’s
testing time in Blackboard prior to the test date.
For courses that offer face-to-face instruction and students have the opportunity
to take tests in the classroom, ADS students may request to take their test with accommodations
in the Testing Center. The Center will be available to administer and proctor exams
but at a significantly reduced capacity. Students should submit an Online Test Accommodation Request Form to schedule a test with the Testing Center at least five business days in advance
of the test date.
The Testing Center will close on November 24 when students leave campus and will not
be available for on-site testing for the rest of the semester.
For further information, please call the Testing Services Center line at 410-704-2304
or contact Patrick Chachulski, Testing Coordinator, at pchachulski AT_TOWSON.
What are some tips for working with students with disabilities in remote courses?
- Students with disabilities often need additional time, and some may take longer to
complete assignments when learning remotely. Being flexible with requests for a reasonable
extension on an assignment can be helpful.
- Keep the structure of your Blackboard page simple and organized.
- When changing course requirements, such as due dates, make them directly on the syllabus
in Blackboard rather than only communicating changes by email.
- Chat rooms can present challenges for some students, so offer an alternative or make
- Being available to answer questions is particularly important for students with disabilities.
Holding virtual office hours is very helpful, as is responding to questions in a timely
Information for Faculty and Staff with Disabilities
For more information please email adarequest AT_TOWSON or call the Office of Human Resources at 410-704-2162.
To request a job accommodation, faculty and staff should visit Current Employees in the Office of Human Resources.