Disability Services During COVID-19: Supporting Deaf Students and Preparing for an Uncertain Fall 2020

Published on July 7, 2020

This image is of a screen capture from a video conference happening between seven people. They appear to be having a sign language conversation.

From finding face masks to facing unknown details for fall semester, disability services professionals at hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities are finding unique ways to serve deaf college students, faculty, and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly 500 disability services specialists, interpreters, and faculty members attended two online events, Serving Deaf College Students: A Live Discussion on Navigating COVID-19 and Beyond, organized by the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes (NDC) on June 18 and 30. They gathered to learn from four experienced professionals who shared how they addressed pandemic challenges during the spring and summer semesters, and how they are preparing for Fall 2020. The panelists were:

“Disability services professionals are supporting more than 200,000 deaf and hard of hearing students at our nation’s colleges, many of whom are veterans,” said Stephanie W. Cawthon, PhD, NDC director and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Their commitment to providing deaf students with safe and equitable access to classrooms and all aspects of campus life during the pandemic is vital to ensuring academic success. The overwhelming response to these events shows that they are eager to connect, learn, and meet the needs of deaf students during very trying times.”

Successes and Setbacks in Spring 2020

For all the panelists, the sudden shutdown of college campuses last spring was a major challenge for students, faculty, and their disability offices alike, especially since none of their institutions did much online education prior to the pandemic.

“The sudden transition to remote required a lot of last minute training, putting supports and structures in place, and trying to figure everything out,” said Allen Sheffield of Rutgers University-Newark. “Communication was the key component to our success. We have a wonderful central team who made it their mission to communicate with students, communicate with faculty, communicate with IT services, and figure out what are the potential barriers and how can we address them. At an institution like Rutgers, where you have professional schools and medical schools, there are three or four different learning systems and too many different options to say this is one way to do it.”

Taking it on a class-by-class basis was a common theme. Depending on the subject, setting, and student needs, they had to decide which online meeting platforms, learning systems, and accommodations worked best — then quickly train faculty, interpreters, and other vendors to use them.

“Our faculty was so responsive. They were concerned right off the bat and asked which platform would be the best for each student,” said Maria Schiano of County College of Morris. “But testing was also an issue when it came to exams and using AI technology, especially for students who used interpreting for their exams.”

Accommodating deaf students with additional disabilities was also not one size fits all.

“My biggest challenge has been [accommodating] deafblind students who use tactile interpreters and how to manage that with remote interpreting,” said Daniel Nakaji of San Diego Community College District.

For Jana Mauldin of Madison Area Technical College, it was important to be flexible and let students know they still had choices.

“We reached out to deaf students, checked in with them more regularly, and told them they could change their mind if something didn’t work,” said Mauldin. “We also thought about their social and emotional needs, especially if they’re now in environments where sign language is not being used. So, we’ve been hosting remote social events for deaf students. We play games and let them talk about whatever may be frustrating them.”

But one of Mauldin’s biggest successes was working with the college president on a customized message to deaf students.

“The president was fantastic about messaging for us and we used very strategic English in that communication,” said Mauldin. “We hired a deaf interpreter to interpret that English text for our deaf students, to really help put their mind at ease, make them more comfortable, and understand what his response to the COVID-19 pandemic is and what school will look like in general.”

Now the challenge is the unknown of Fall 2020 — how the pandemic will progress (or recede), how educational institutions and governments will respond, and where deaf students will enroll.

“We don’t know what our enrollment will look like for the fall. We have a lot of students who I think are waiting to decide what to do,” said Schiano.

Poll Reveals Plans for Hybrid Learning

During the events, attendees were polled on their campus plans and experiences. When asked about which kind of instruction is anticipated for Fall 2020 on their campuses, they responded:

  • Hybrid of online and face-to-face learning: 74%

  • Unsure: 14%

  • All online learning: 9.5%

  • All face-to-face learning: 1.5%

The panelists were already dealing with access and accommodations for hybrid learning courses, as some classes — such as culinary arts and auto mechanics — cannot be taught entirely online and must meet in person. Once again, determining effective communication is on a case-by-case basis.

“We had discussions with deaf students in our summer culinary class,” said Nakaji. “Not all students have the same experience or needs, so we ask if they want the interpreter to be there in person or remote. One student was perfectly happy having a remote interpreter, so we provided an interpreter through VRI . But there are also safety concerns. How can a student pay attention quickly if something is happening in the kitchen and needs their attention while they are watching an interpreter on a laptop? So they developed a cue to alert the student. We also provided a wireless microphone to the instructor in order to stream audio and connect through Zoom.”

Mauldin agreed with Nakaji that the first place to start is with deaf students themselves.

“In my position I have the privilege to advocate for deaf students and give them a voice, because often decisions are made without their feedback and without their input whatsoever. I have been reaching out to each student asking them if they prefer an in person interpreter or if they want someone remote,” said Mauldin.

Integrating an interpreter into a face-to-face class also requires some planning and forethought.

“If you are looking at putting people in the classroom, you have to be thinking about working with facilities,” said Sheffield. “A lot of the Fall 2020 plans are for fifty percent capacity [in classrooms]. Where and how does the interpreter fit in that space?”

Overcoming Limited Technology Access

Students who lack technology access was a critical area of concern for disability services professionals on the panel and among attendees.

“Not all of our students have access to a laptop,” said Nakaji. “They may have to use a phone, and on a phone it is very difficult to find and pin the interpreter. Our university received a grant to provide laptops for students who needed one. We also have a truck that can be a mobile ‘hotspot’ for Internet access, which we take into parts of San Diego where we know our students live. I also recommend reaching out to vocational rehabilitation (VR), to find out how VR can provide the tools needed to close those gaps.”

For some students, the sudden shift to online learning in the spring left them unprepared, without the potential to participate in learning.

“They didn’t have the infrastructure, because they weren’t planning on remote or online instruction. Now they’re at home where they don’t have a space they can use, they don’t have Internet access that’s reliable enough, and they don’t have a computer,” said Sheffield. “Our university bought Chrome books for students, and I work with students who couldn’t use a Chrome book to get them a laptop or even printers. We worked with our care team to provide Internet access, to help them get grants to either pay for the access or eliminate outstanding debts that were preventing access. So that’s where we’re having to be creative in this situation.”

Concerns About Captions

A key issue for disability services professionals who support deaf students is captioned media, which means captions are on all course videos, podcasts, or audio tracks (or transcripts are provided). When polled about their top concerns about captioned media, event attendees voted for two and responded as follows:

  • Faculty or instructors captioning their own media: 46%

  • Turnaround time: 38.5%

  • Lack of policies and procedures: 35.5%

  • Outsourcing caption and vendor quality/accuracy: 27%

  • Budget: 26.5%

  • Locating existing captioned copies of videos: 13%

  • Copyright issues: 7.5%

“I am excited to talk about this,” said Mauldin. “We have three ways we deal with captioning. First, one of our interpreters on staff is also our designated captioning coordinator. What that means is that when we receive a captioning request and send it to an external captioning company, that interpreter is the mediator between those two entities. At the beginning of the semester, they reach out to instructors in one-on-one meetings to discuss how to provide services and ask them what types of videos they will use in class. They also let them know that auto-captions are not effective, and many teachers are surprised by that. Second, we have an online form, for quick captioning requests of videos, which the captioning coordinator manages. Third, we look at our budget. When COVID-19 came into play, the budget office reached out to us and said, ‘we thought that you may need more money during this time’.”

Budgeting for increased captioning is essential during a pandemic.

“We also saw an increase in captioning requests and its budget,” said Sheffield. “Our office and IT looked at how we could automate captioning requests. If there’s a student in a class who is deaf or hard of hearing, they click a button and that caption request is automatically sent through, approved, and is charged to the central budget, not a departmental budget. We found that this helps.”

A lack of policies and procedures are still a sticking point, as are the uncertainties of Fall 2020.

“I think faculty is being taught and is more mindful of captioning, but there is a lack of policy and procedure to really mandate that,” said Schiano. “You have a lot of faculty that have the willingness to go through it, but just don’t know where to start. I hope that for a lot of them over the summer that’s their intention: To make their classes more intentional and accessible. I think a struggle, too, in community colleges is we never know what our enrollment is going to look like. Some faculty are still under the impression that we know months in advance who is going to need what, and that’s not reality. We can have students that are going to register two days before classes start.”

Face Masks on Campus: An Issue That Transcends the Classroom

The June 30th event attendees were also polled about their top concerns with clear face masks and face shields. They responded:

  • Determining appropriate accommodations when masks or shields are a barrier: 37%

  • Requirements or policies for face masks or shields on campus: 19%

  • Addressing classroom acoustics and audio equipment needed for mask wearers: 16%

  • Availability of masks to purchase: 15%

  • Where to find clear masks and shields: 9%

  • Other: 4%

The panelists shared the attendees’ concerns with accommodating a barrier to necessary facial expressions and lip movements, sourcing enough masks for distribution to students, and adding expenses during times of tight budgets.

“Speaking for New Jersey as well as I guess New York, finding [that large amount of] clear masks or any type of masks right now is quite challenging,” said Schiano. “The other thing that has been challenging is to find Plexiglass, because faculty has also asked for shields around their platforms. It is a huge budgetary challenge.”

It’s an issue that transcends the classroom.

“How do we help students communicate across campus?” asked Sheffield. “I am hard-of-hearing and I speech-read in meetings. But it comes down to communication. We need to take the mask component, put that aside, and make sure that communication exists. It could be captioning. And as Jana pointed out earlier, talk to the students. We need to interact with them and let them give us the information we need to make decisions for us, them, and the university.”

The events concluded with gratitude from attendees (“Thanks to all for a great sharing and learning opportunity! Fabulous ideas!” commented one) and several requests to repeat the panels later in the summer, as college plans — and the pandemic — continue to evolve.

These panels are part of a series of online events hosted by NDC to address the needs of deaf young adults at school and work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Past events included two panels for deaf college students to connect and find ways to cope with unique struggles, a half-day session for state leaders in education and VR to strategize transition planning and services, as well as two panels that brought together people who are #DeafAtWork. Panels for VR professionals are scheduled on July 28 and August 6, and an upcoming event is being planned for parents and families of deaf youth.

Get More Information and Help

Disability services professionals can find more information and assistance on the NDC website:

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