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Even During COVID-19, Gallaudet Ensures Education Is Accessible

April 2021
Gallaudet University Campus
Note: This article highlights the experiences of one United Educators (UE) member and doesn’t represent UE risk management or legal advice.

During COVID-19, students’ days revolve even more around technology. But even after the pandemic ends, it’s still crucial to ensure any remote education your K-12 school, college, or university offers is accessible to all. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, institutions are legally responsible for ensuring students with disabilities have access to electronic information technology (EIT).

At Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., accessibility always has been a focus. Gallaudet is the world’s only university where students learn in American Sign Language (ASL) and English. Most Gallaudet students are deaf or hard of hearing.

“We in the deaf community tend to think of sign only as accessible live, face to face,” says Lisa Fisher, Lead Instructional Designer for Gallaudet’s Center for Continuing and Online Education. “But we are transitioning to an online environment through Zoom and trying to figure out the best ways to communicate bilingually in this new environment.”

Before COVID-19, Gallaudet offered some online courses but about 90% of education provided was in person. When the pandemic began, everyone learned remotely and used Zoom. This presented a significant logistical challenge, especially considering Gallaudet’s student base.

Because the private university uses a visual signing environment, two main challenges arose immediately:

  1. Access to reliable internet. Students needed to have reliable internet so they could get online and use video to participate in class. Gallaudet’s executive team quickly mobilized to secure a bulk of equipment, including mobile Wi-Fi and laptops, and set up a loan program for those in need.
  2. How to best continue the visual signing environment remotely. Even though Gallaudet had access to Zoom, that didn’t mean the university could offer the best student learning. “We quickly introduced the concept of teaching using synchronous vs. asynchronous approaches and how to use them for courses,” Fisher says. “This also helped drive the importance of applying bilingual principles and strategies.”

Even when the pandemic ends, the university will continue to offer core online courses. The lessons learned and Gallaudet’s experiences during the pandemic will remain significant.

While ultimately most education will return to being in-person, Gallaudet faculty might take and post more videos online. And with online classes, “we are encouraging more learning activities, more bilingual approaches — not just typing up a paper, doing a quiz,” Fisher says. There will be more interactive experiences where students can see each other and sign.

Gallaudet’s vision is to create a bilingual learning environment that provides full access for its students. “So this meant we needed to ensure that we were offering truly bilingual courses online, using both ASL and English. This meant more ASL videos — both by the teacher and the students. Rather than a discussion board in English, a teacher may choose a tool such as Flipgrid where students can post signed videos of their responses.”

How Does Gallaudet Promote Accessibility Online?

Gallaudet’s primary mode of communication is ASL, but requests can be made with the Gallaudet Interpreting Service (GIS) to provide captioning. GIS provides a variety of services depending on students’ requests and needs. Instruction may start with ASL synchronously, but it also can be ASL with English captions (which then can be saved as a transcript). Sometimes instruction is asynchronous where ASL is added to a spoken English video, or transcripts/captioning could be added to a signed video, Fisher says.

The university uses Quality Matters to examine and improve course design standards when it comes to accessibility.

In addition, the university’s Faculty Online Training Team (FOTT) has met weekly since April 2020. The team has about 12 members including Fisher, a faculty senate chairperson, online directors, faculty, a Chief Bilingual Officer, a Faculty Administrator of Faculty Development, the Dean of Graduate Education, and representatives from the Equity Diversity Inclusion (EDI) office.

The team, Fisher says, “was born in a flurry. We were pulled together initially because the executive team wanted online pedagogy and bilingual pedagogy and technology support. EDI came in later as we began to see inequity in the pandemic. Our goal was to support the faculty in developing and offering courses that are inclusive, welcoming, accessible, bilingual, and engaging. Each person involved in this team had a role related to online pedagogy, bilingual pedagogy, technology support, and being culturally responsive and trauma-informed.”

Strategies to Improve Your Accessibility

Review efforts your institution takes to ensure information online is accessible to all. Among the strategies Fisher recommends:

Go Beyond Auto-Caption

To make courses — including those with live classes — accessible for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, use a tool to auto caption. Even YouTube has such an option, Fisher notes. But while these are great starter tools, “you have to go through it and make sure it’s transcribed accurately...We need to make sure deaf and hard-of-hearing students have access to all that information and [that we] make sure it’s accurate.” At Gallaudet, this strategy is used whether staff or students make videos for the institution, Fisher says. Note: Fisher says if classes are predominantly ASL without spoken English interpretation, auto-captioning won’t be successful.

Consider Those With Multiple Disabilities

Think about how you’ll make information accessible online for those with multiple disabilities. For example, Gallaudet has some students with deaf-blindness. The university works with students to ensure they have assistive technology to address all disabilities and can learn online.

Ensure Content Is Readable For Those With Disabilities

Examine fonts and color contrast, for example, to ensure online content is readable for students with disabilities. Use WAVE or a similar website to see if your institution’s webpages are truly accessible. Also examine the most recent web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) and ensure your university complies. WCAG 2.1 was published in June 2018, and WCAG 2.2 is scheduled to be published in 2021.

Consider Keeping Video Clips Short

Deaf and hard-of-hearing students need to keep their eyes trained on the screen to understand what’s happening in class. Since they can’t passively watch and learn, they experience worse Zoom fatigue than many other students, Fisher contends. Video might be posted in two- or three-minute chunks.

Repeat Information and Give it in Several Formats

Provide students with transcripts and chat logs for their later review. When your university shows images or videos via screen-share, provide those files for students to download. For students who have reading impediments, this will be particularly helpful.

Don’t Overload Slides With Content

Students online will read the slides first and listen second.

Gallaudet, founded in 1864, has about 1,500 students (about 1,075 undergraduate). It has been a UE member since January 1990.

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