How Can Colleges Help Disabled Students?

Accessible Video and Audio Solutions for Online Learning

If you have students with vision impairments, it is important to be mindful of adding audio descriptions to videos.

Although Zoom is known for offering accessible hot keys and keyboard shortcuts that can help students navigate settings without using a mouse, its accessibility features are not all-encompassing.

Matthew Janusauskas, the director of technology and consulting services for the American Foundation for the Blind, brings up this common misconception in an AFB blog post: “Our clients may have chosen a good, accessible platform like Zoom, but don’t realize that there’s currently no technical way to render screen-sharing, such as a slideshow presentation, accessibly.”

So how can you tell if you need to add an audio description?

Before showing a video in class, try listening to it without watching it. Does the content still make sense without visuals? If not, you might need to describe the setting, actions and facial expressions in the video to viewers with visual impairments.

If you cannot add audio descriptions, make sure students have access to the video ahead of time so they can have a support person describe the video to them before class.

For students with vision and hearing impairments, accurate captioning is also crucial to their academic success.

Meryl Alper, an assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern University, advises faculty to be aware that most automatic captioning tools are not designed to be inclusive when it comes to picking up accents that deviate from the norm. These solutions are often biased against those whose speech falls outside the boundaries of the “average” speaker, as determined by the technology.

“If these tools were designed by a more inclusive group of people in the first place, then maybe these problems wouldn’t exist,” says Alper, who is also the author of Digital Youth with Disabilities. “You train algorithms based on a data set. And the data sets have historically been pretty narrow.”

Unfortunately, this means instructors whose lectures are not easily interpreted by speech recognition algorithms may need to edit their captions or have the captions corrected before sending the content to students.

If there is one captioning tool that educators recommend, it might be Google’s Recorder app. “It’s surprisingly accurate,” says Alexis Copeland, an adaptive technology specialist at Monterey Peninsula College. “Google’s speech recognition seems to be superior at this point,” although he acknowledges the app is not perfect. It’s always better to review the captions or transcripts before sending to students.

But what is convenient about Google’s Recorder app is that it transcribes audio in real time. Both the transcript and the audio are available offline. And the app uploads the audio and transcripts to Google Drive. Plus, it helps that the app doesn’t have as many features as popular transcription applications such as Otter.ai. “The simpler format is better for students with disabilities,” Copeland says.

How Are Students with Disabilities Meeting Remote Learning Challenges?

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only accelerated the development of new learning technologies that can better support students with disabilities, but it has also given students an opportunity to prove that they can handle more than anyone thought they could.

Many of Copeland’s students used to spend 12 hours a day studying at the campus library, where they received one-on-one support. “That’s what it takes for them to be successful,” he says. Copeland was initially worried that those students would fall behind in classes after losing their in-person support network.

But many of his students stuck it out through remote classes in the spring and continue to take online courses this fall. “Their resilience is pretty amazing,” Copeland says.

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