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Experiences of STEM students with Disabilities During the Transition to Emergency Remote Instruction

How accessible is online education? Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students across the globe have had to adjust to a new normal as colleges and universities rapidly transitioned from in-person instruction to online and hybrid instruction. Though many applauded the newly found flexibility of online instruction, many undergraduate students found new challenges, specifically those students with disabilities. In a recent study published in the journal CBE Life Sciences Education, researchers interviewed science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) undergraduate students with disabilities (SWDs) from large-enrollment universities about the effects of the transition to emergency remote instruction.
Road Closed sign with detour sign indicating road is closed

The experiences of students with disabilities in STEM courses

Disability is often overlooked in education and in STEM education in particular, even though there are legal mandates for these students to be supported. Students with disabilities makeup about 5% of STEM undergraduate programs and are less likely to receive accommodations in STEM courses, in comparison to students with disabilities in non-STEM courses. Previous studies have shown that when STEM learning environments are altered, students with disabilities may not be properly accommodated because instructors and disability resource centers are not proactive in providing these accommodations. So, what happened when the learning environment changed with the transition online?

Students with disabilities were forgotten as courses transitioned online

Students with disabilities that were interviewed about their experiences after the transition online reported generally negative experiences. Neither disability resource centers nor instructors seemed to consider how standard accommodations would translate to the online environment. Most students reported that they were not contacted by the disability resource center or their STEM course instructors about their accommodations and whether they might need new or revised accommodations.

Students staring at their laptop feeling frustrated

Without the physical testing space available, many students were not able to have quiet, distraction-free testing environments. Some of the test proctoring systems online created more stressful testing situations for students with disabilities, particularly students with high anxiety. One student with disabilities talked about how the instructor ended the virtual testing session for the students in the class and even though they were supposed to get extra time for their testing, the instructor simply forgot. Beyond testing issues, the transition online prompted instructors to use more videos or recorded lectures, but these were typically not closed-captioned.

Students with disabilities had to self-advocate

Likely because of the chaotic nature of how quickly courses had to transition online, there seemed to be no recognition of the needs of students with disabilities. However, this continued to be a problem weeks to months after the transition online. Students with disabilities were required to self-advocate for what they needed. Notably, some instructors were resistant to providing them with the accommodations that they needed. In one case, a student was supposed to receive lecture slides before the class session and had to email the instructor repeatedly to get these slides. In another case, an instructor thought that a student did not need extended time on exams because all of the lectures were recorded, even though the student already had permission from the disability resource center to have extended time on exams.

So, how do we make online education more inclusive for students with disabilities?

Student with mask looking at their computer in class
Given the increase generally in online course offerings, it is surprising that there are not standard accommodations for students with disabilities for online education. If these had existed, then the emergency transition online would have likely been smoother for students with disabilities. It is important to listen to the challenges of students with disabilities taking online courses and standardize accommodations for online education. Previous research has shown the utility of having proactive accommodations, meaning that they are implemented before a problem arises, which saves students time and helps them receive the accommodation faster. Having standard accommodations for online education and quickly conveying this information to students and instructors would have resulted in a more positive experience for most students with disabilities taking courses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, students with disabilities were mostly forgotten, due to the ableist structure and assumptions of higher education. We argue that we must be proactive before a situation like this happens again.

Want to incorporate proactive and standard accommodations in your course but don't know where to start? The Teaching Innovation Center created a "Working with Student Accommodations" module in their Teaching Development canvas course. Click here to register for the course that includes many other strategies for teaching. In addition, email to work with an Instructional Designer to design your course for all types of learning! 


Danielle Pais is a senior undergraduate student in Sara Brownell's Biology Education Research Lab at ASU. She studies Biological Sciences (Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior) and French at ASU and desires to focus on researching the experiences of students with disabilities in undergraduate STEM education.


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