Arthur News School of Fish
Illustration by Brazil Gaffney-Knox.

Accessible or Ableist? How Students Really Feel About Student Accessibility Services (or Lack Thereof) During the Pandemic

Written by
Elizabeth Mitton
and
January 7, 2021

This article is a follow-up to an earlier story on how Trent students have been coping with online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Article can be found here.

Names may have been changed to maintain anonymity for the students involved.


Accessible or Ableist? How Students Really Feel About Student Accessibility Services (or Lack Thereof) During the Pandemic
Illustration by Brazil Gaffney-Knox.

In the weeks following the publication of “The Virtual Void: How COVID-19 has  Affected the Delivery and Reception of Educational Instruction at Trent”, two undergraduate students came forward to Arthur stating that their experience with Student Accessibility Services (S.A.S.) is in stark contrast to the reassurances given by the Director of the Student Wellness Centre, Stewart Engelberg, and the Students with Disabilities Commissioner, Maximillian Setka. Both Engelberg and Setka had reiterated in the previous article that the university was prioritizing the wellness of students and accessibility during these unprecedented times. However, when Arthur had the opportunity to sit down with two such students, ‘Ginny’ and ‘Jane’, both expressed that they feel the transition they have experienced with S.A.S. can be described as abrupt, non-communicative, and non-collaborative, with one student going so far as to describe some of the services (or lack thereof) as ableist.

Communication and ease of applying were two of the main issues both of these students  expressed concerns with. Ginny and Jane have used S.A.S. in previous years and remember their experiences positively. “I was really happy with Accessibility Services pre COVID,” explained Ginny. “I went in for one appointment… had all my accommodations that had been recommended by my doctor and it was awesome.” Although Jane, who experiences a hearing disability, required less accommodation last year due to her ability to read lips in a physical setting, still remembers feeling supported by the university’s administration and their offering for her to use note-taking services and extended time for exams. However, Jane explained that receiving accommodations this year has been a much more trying experience - especially in  applying for and receiving captioning on her lecture videos. “The process was very difficult, you had to go to each individual class… [submit] different requests individually… it was a process to get the Zoom link, the date and time of the course, and say if it’s recurring.” Unfortunately, Jane was late in submitting her requests for captioning in some classes, and the result was no formal captioning for some of her lectures. Instead, Jane had a volunteer student note-taker caption the videos for her. However, as Jane points out, captioning is a complex profession which requires post-secondary training, and as she explains, “I appreciated the student captioner, but it was all the material summarized, not all of the content - but it was better than nothing.”

Yet, “nothing” is what plenty of students registered with Accessibility Services were left with in terms of lecture summaries when the university shut down volunteer note-taking  services for the Fall 2020 semester. The note-taking website explains this closure on their website; “As courses are currently online, the peer note-taking program is not running this Fall 2020 semester. SAS students are encouraged to connect with their SAS advisor for note-taking  support options with online learning.” The support that is being offered instead, is  captioning services on lecture videos. However, as both Ginny and Jane have expressed, the  execution of this service has experienced many pitfalls. Ginny explained, “[they’re] supposed to have closed captioning on all of the Zoom meetings that are auto-generated and you can go back and re-watch the recordings but that means I would have to watch every recording at least twice so I’m taking twice as long as any of my peers to get the same information...that’s just not viable for a full-time student - double the amount of lecture time. The subtitles/captions are not accurate whatsoever and not every class is getting the human-written subtitles.” Jane highlighted a similar experience in her synchronous lecture captions. “For all of my synchronous courses, but one especially ... the captions had so many errors that they were illegible. They were totally gibberish.”  

As a result of the poor captioning, both students feel they have fallen behind in their course content - with detrimental effects to their grades. Jane, a scholarship student, is constantly emailing back and forth with Accessibility Services. She is often falling behind on graded material due to delays in receiving the captioning - “by the time I get it captioned, I’ve already done the assignment that I had to do, or the quiz I had to do...I got a 37% on a quiz this week. Compared to being on the honour roll last year, I think it’s evident that my grades are being affected a lot.” In Ginny’s case, who normally relies  on note-taking services, was given the accommodation to record her lectures’ audio. “The idea that I think they were trying to go for...was that I could listen, hit record when I needed to start typing, and then hit pause when I was done typing so that I only recorded what I had missed. But that’s a whole new dynamic that I would have to learn and use on the spot during the middle of the pandemic, when I don’t have access to ask questions as well as I could in-person.”  She further elaborated that actually acquiring the device has been a long process that has yet to yield results. With the closure of the note-taking portal, Ginny was told to apply for the Bursary for Students with Disabilities (BSWD) for an audio recording device, so as not to pay out of pocket. Once the form was submitted, she was informed that it had been uploaded blank. Ginny subsequently fixed the form in late September/early October and over a month later, on November 16, received an email saying that her form had again been blank. “I haven’t been able to even use my audio recording accommodation yet because I need an actual audio recording  device that costs money...So I’ve gone an entire semester without the support that they’re supposed to be putting in.”  

However, it’s not only the lack of captioning that is affecting these two students - it’s the lack of adjustments regarding course materials. Referencing the frequent switching of classes from synchronous to asynchronous in her timetable, Ginny feels that the university is not respecting students’ desires and, in her case, need for stability in their week.

“When I registered, I had times in my timetable,” she explains. “For people with ADHD, like me, and depression, like me, having a set schedule is hugely important for learning. Having lecture times where I can  be in a room with a prof, ask questions to the prof in real time, is a huge requirement for me to be  able to learn at the pace of university.” In Ginny’s opinion, it seems that instructors are taking  advantage of working from home and are consequently not taking the time to adjust content or teach in real-time. “It feels a lot like ‘Hey, we’re working from home so we’re going to just slap together videos and send them in’ and we have to teach ourselves, but why am I paying $4000 a semester for Ted Talks?” Jane echoes these sentiments,  explaining how she feels the workload is heavy and expectations too high. “I’m managing the course work okay,” she explains.  “Struggling, yes...I’ve had to teach myself a lot of [material].”  

When asked if these two students felt supported by S.A.S., both responded with “no”. Both highlighted that instructors have not properly adjusted course work, that the captions on videos, if any, are oftentimes late and nonsensical, that they have not been communicated, consulted with, or involved in any of the decision making that directly impacts their quality of education. This last point in particular, is one Ginny finds especially frustrating - she only found out about the closure of the note-taking portal on her own while requesting accommodations. “It was really frustrating...I tried to see if there was any notification via email giving us a heads up about it, and there wasn’t...and I went through my email to double check before I brought it up...There was no ‘We want to  make sure things are still accessible, what do you guys need?’...I brought that up before I was  given the audio recording accommodation and I really didn’t get any feedback on that point. [My S.A.S. advisor] was like ‘So here’s what we’re doing’ instead of acknowledging [that they didn’t ask for any student input in determining different accommodations]. There was nothing.”

Lack of accountability and the stresses of accommodation are evidently affecting Trent students, but from both students’ experiences, it would appear that the frustrations are spreading  to S.A.S. advisors who seem overwhelmed. “It’s also really upsetting because pre-COVID, it was  amazing,” Ginny explains of her experience dealing with her S.A.S advisor. “I had everything I needed, I could make an appointment quickly if I had to check-in, and my advisor was really good at responding - and she’s lovely - but it feels very much right now when I [speak with her]  that she’s getting a lot of the same complaints.” Referencing the decision to close the note-taking portal for the Fall 2020 term, Ginny further elaborates that these complaints regarding the closure are unfair for both students as well as S.A.S. advisors who are “slowly losing energy” to repeat themselves without being able to reinstate the note-taking program - a decision which lies with the university’s administration. 

When asked how the university could respond to student accommodation needs and better  support students with disabilities, both students had clear suggestions. “I expect them to be more on top of getting captioning on videos,” Jane states. “I know it’s just not S.A.S., like captioning  services...is part of IT but I still think S.A.S. should be able to help manage that and ensure that  captioning and IT are doing the captioning on the video.” For Ginny, improvements include the return of the notetaker portal - which is set to return in the Winter 2021 semester due to student  demand. However, she argues this service should never have been removed - “it really makes no sense to me that they would take it away because the point of not being able to listen and take effective notes is still an issue and having to spend three times as long for some people who have serious slow writing issues is just ableist. Like it’s okay that they can take this much more time to do the exact same thing...this is the reason we have the note-taking so we can learn at the same  pace.” She also emphasizes Jane’s recommendation on improving the timeliness of captions, and adds that those captions must be human-written rather than auto generated. Ginny is mostly upset due to the lack of input students had on their accessibility options; 

“I am seriously upset that they didn’t send out a survey, like ‘Here’s what’s going to happen next semester. What do you think accommodations should change? What would be  an equivalent accommodation for this thing in an online environment?’... That’s just an  easy way to be like ‘This person has this accommodation so we need to make sure this is  covered’... Why didn’t this [survey] happen over the summer because we had a month and  a half of remote learning already for people to be like ‘This is what’s different, this is what  we need to change from what has changed already,’ and they had months over the summer to implement it, and they didn’t.” 

Upon being made aware of these students’ experiences, Arthur reached out to it’s two  earlier sources, Director of the Student Wellness Centre, Stewart Engelberg, and the Students  with Disabilities Commissioner, Maximillian Setka. Both had previously reiterated that the  university was working hard, and was optimistic in thinking they were succeeding in fulfilling the  accessibility needs of students. In relaying the experiences of these two students, it was made  clear that the university is in fact, not being successful. After having shared the above information, Stewart Engelberg wished to reiterate the university’s commitment. “Trent is certainly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities are supported in their academic success… so I’m very sorry to hear of students who are experiencing difficulties.” In speaking to the  issues surrounding captioning on videos, Engelberg offered the following explanation;  

“In our move to remote learning, Trent Accessibility Services and Information Technology contracted with an online captioning company to provide high level  captioning and transcription services for those students identifying as having hearing loss. The demand for captioning resources across the province had surged dramatically  as a result of COVID-19, and so the supply chain of captionists at the beginning of the semester was strained and the company was short-staffed. Captioning should now be working effectively.” 

Finally, Engelberg urged students to reach out to their S.A.S. advisor, or to him directly, should  they feel that their needs are not being met and if they require additional support.  

The Students with Disabilities Commissioner, Maximillian Setka, offered further  explanations and suppositions for the issues these students have been facing. Referencing his position as an upper year student, Setka acknowledged his position in being unaware of these issues. “I myself have not had any poor experiences in my classes,” he explains, “which may be  due to the fact that I'm an upper year history student and therefore the majority of my courses are seminar style and not lectures where captioning and the like is something I personally utilize or would be something I would notice lacking.” Speaking of the validation of suspending note taking services, Setka explained, “I was told that it was because all professors have been instructed to make their materials such as slides and the like available to all through the course Blackboard, if a particular professor is not doing that then that is definitely something personal as all profs were requested to.” However, this was not as easy an adjustment as some may think. Referencing Ginny’s argument that the university had ample time to prepare for an exclusively online learning experience, Setka explains; “yes we were online for a time last academic year but not all professors had set up to run virtually. I myself had several simply say ‘Okay, you have a final paper due x date, please submit it, other than that we will not be having class meetings going forward at this time’ because they too were put into a surprising position and didn't have the time to implement any alternative methods.”

Finally, in terms of the lack of communication surrounding the virtual learning and  accessibility services, Setka hypothesized that the silence students received was due to the uncertainty of the situation. “It can likely be drawn to the fact that even in the early months Trent  as a whole was still trying to find out if they would be able to open at all,” he explained, “so I  imagine that S.A.S. was waiting on direction from the wider administration before making  assumptions about the way courses would run and because of that did not reach out to students.”  However, with the announcement that most courses in the Winter 2021 semester will be offered  exclusively online, this should eliminate the level of uncertainty within the administration and  consequently, communication and accessibility services will hopefully be improved going forward.  

Stewart Engelberg, Director of the Student Wellness Centre can be reached at stewartengelberg@trentu.ca

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