January 13, 2021

Senators Hassan, Casey, Cassidy Request Review of Higher Education Resources and Access for Students with Disabilities

Bipartisan Government Accountability Office Request Focuses on Impact of COVID-19 on These Students

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Bill Cassidy, MD (R-LA) are requesting a Government Accountability Office review of how colleges and universities are working to ensure that students with disabilities can access the same learning opportunities as their peers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The three Senators serve on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

 

“Under normal circumstances, accessing the appropriate accommodations can prove challenging for students in higher education,” wrote the Senators. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, students face many of the same challenges in accessing appropriate accommodations as they did prior to the pandemic, but must now do so navigating remote and distanced learning.”

 

Dennis Green, Director of the Southern New Hampshire University Campus Accessibility Center stated, “Providing equal access to higher education during this crisis and period of remote learning requires teams of individuals using a variety of resources. Through universal design, new technologies, and formal accommodations, we can create an accessible and equitable experience for our students. We thank Senator Hassan for requesting this report that will look at how institutions of higher education are working to achieve that goal, and we look forward to the best practices that it will highlight for remote learning.”

 

The Senators are requesting that the Government Accountability Office conduct a review that details the challenges that students with disabilities are facing – including those related to the COVID-19 pandemic – and examples of how institutions of higher learning have succeeded in supporting these students.

 

You can read the Senators’ full letter here or below.

 

Dear Mr. Dodaro:

 

Every institution of higher education (IHE) serves current or incoming students with disabilities and who require accommodations to access the same opportunities as their peers. These accommodations are necessary for students to access the full range of academic programs and other services offered by their IHE, including classes, co-curricular activities, advising, registration, and counseling.

 

Under normal circumstances, accessing the appropriate accommodations can prove challenging for students in higher education. Common barriers to accessing accommodations in higher education include social stigma, financial costs incurred by students to document and prove a disability, and the lack of knowledge of available accommodations.[1] During the COVID-19 pandemic, students face many of the same challenges in accessing appropriate accommodations as they did prior to the pandemic, but must now do so navigating remote and distanced learning. Recent news reports indicate that the challenges in meeting these required accommodations have sharply increased during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the move to online or remote instruction[2] and increases in needed mental health supports.[3]

 

While online or remote instruction has accelerated due to the pandemic, colleges had already been increasingly reliant on technologies such as chat and videoconferencing, complex learning management systems, online collaboration tools, and instructional videos to deliver educational instruction. Even when students have access to adequate broadband and technology, these teaching modalities can, without forethought and planning, introduce particular challenges in meeting accessibility standards that are legally mandated through the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), resulting in potentially negative effects on the academic achievement and co-curricular learning of students with disabilities. Meanwhile, despite the requirement to make their products accessible, course developers may not be accustomed to providing the range and volume of accommodations needed by students with disabilities in the vast variety of learning environments students find themselves during the pandemic. Some examples of instructional modification include, videos that must be captioned to serve deaf and hard-of-hearing students; diagrams, charts, and illustrations that need alt-text and embedded descriptions to be accessible for blind and low-vision students and students with some other types of processing disabilities; the ability to choose the color, font, size, and dimension of text and charts and graphs characteristics to make them accessible to students with colorblindness or other type of visual and cognitive process disabilities; the availability of interpreters or CART services for students who are lip readers or are deaf for situations where instructors must use a mask to reduce the risk of transmittal or contracting COVID-19; the availability of online software that is accessible to students using alternative access devices because they have mobility disabilities; and the use of text-to-speech technologies, which allow students with a reading disability, such as dyslexia, to listen to and read along with the text.

 

Past Government Accountability Office (GAO) work in this area has focused on the accessibility of public K-12 facilities (GAO-20-448) and special education services received by Native American students with disabilities (GAO-20-358). We request that GAO conduct a review of accessibility services and accommodations in higher education. Specifically, we request that GAO examine the following questions:

 

1) What challenges, if any, do college students with disabilities face related to accessibility and accommodations at institutions of higher education, including any related to the COVID-19 pandemic?

 

2) How have some institutions of higher education supported students with disabilities, including during the COVID-19 pandemic?

 

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