Online classes pose positives and negatives for students with visual and hearing impairments

Monday, December 7, 2020 - 12:21pm

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Design by Michelle Fan

Students with hearing and visual impairments have always experienced accessibility concerns with their education. With most classes taught remotely this academic year, these students are experiencing both difficulties and unexpected benefits with the online format as they navigate technology and accommodations.

LSA senior Kyra Lyngklip has two eye conditions, making it difficult for her to focus her vision. Lyngklip said even though a lot of students have not enjoyed online learning, her experience has been mostly positive now because she can focus more on what is going on and since almost all classes have recordings.

“It’s really helpful for me to have an audio recording and lectures to be able to go back and listen and be able to actually see things,” Lyngklip said. “So it’s actually been kind of a lot better. For me, my academic performance has absolutely improved since the big changes have been made.”

Before the pandemic, Lyngklip said she would feel very anxious in the classroom because it can be difficult to navigate the classroom and understand who is talking even with the accommodations.

“I think one of the side effects of my condition is anxiety being in the classroom because you don't feel like you know what's going on,” Lyngklip said. “But to sit down and just focus on learning in my own space is in a way, actually perfect for me.”

In terms of difficulties, Lyngklip said the biggest and the most common issue has been miscommunication with her professors. Especially with the stress of online examinations and assignments, Lyngklip said she feels like she has to take more initiative to arrange her accommodations so she doesn’t run into a problem while taking an exam. 

“It’s really weird to have to manage that while also taking an exam,” Lyngklip said. “Exam anxiety is a big thing for lots of people with visual impairments, as well. And so it’s like I’m being my own secretary and taking an exam in real-time.”

Jill Rice is the coordinator of services for students who are deaf and hard of hearing at the University of Michigan. One of her responsibilities includes arranging note-takers for students. In terms of accommodations, Rice said there have not been many changes now that school is mostly online. 

With remote learning, Rice said students with hearing impairments are appearing to have more difficulty with lip-reading even though it may be easier to keep track of who is talking during class. 

Rice also said her students are having many of the same issues that most students are facing right now with the transition to remote classes, such as confusion and loneliness as a result of the pandemic. 

“The other thing that happens to all of our students — that’s happening, I think to everybody — is the sense of isolation,” Rice said. “The fatigue, the screen time, distress, the uncertainty. Getting into a routine, getting started on projects, staying focused in this virtual environment, for all our students, not just (those) hard of hearing.”

Megan Marshall is the coordinator of services for students with chronic health conditions, visual and mobility impairments at the University. Similar to Rice, Marshall said students with visual impairments face the same challenges as other students but with added barriers. 

“Just like with any other U of M student there is a feeling of a lack of community and connection with the rest of campus and their peers they are missing,” Marshall said. “The inherent nature of this virtual learning environment has also exponentially increased the amount of screen time usage and for this population of students, it can exacerbate the inherent difficulty with their condition of processing visually.”

Concerning accommodations, Marshall said Services for Students with Disabilities at the University is continuing to meet the needs of their students. Marshall said SSD’s biggest focus areas with online school are improving the lecture and test-taking environments. Some of the accommodations provided may include arranging note-takers, extended time for exams and employing different modes of accessing class materials such as text-to-speech software. 

Though there have not been many changes to accommodations and services, Marshall said there are still many students who are having difficulties with the accessibility of the online format because of technical issues when determining how a professor’s chosen platform works with the student’s accessibility software. 

“It is sometimes the implementation or mechanism for how these accommodations are put in place in a virtual setting that has required fine-tuning and teamwork with both faculty, the students and various University staff,” Marshall said.

Even with these complications, Marshall said a lot of students are actually finding it easier to use their assistive technology while classes are being taught virtually. Marshall said another positive of the online learning environment could be that the community is recognizing the lack of accessibility prior to the pandemic. 

“There seems to be an increase in awareness from faculty and staff in their realization of how important it is to work in making their courses more accessible and universally designed,” Marshall said. 

Business junior Nikki Farahanchi has a visual impairment due to a macular degenerative condition called Stargardt disease. Farahanchi is also the leader of a student organization on campus called Visually Impaired Students Association. 

Like Lyngklip, Farahanchi said online learning has not come with as many negative effects for visually impaired students as she expected. The biggest improvement according to Farahanchi is that she can now develop closer relationships with her classmates. Before the pandemic, students would have name tents during class which Farahanchi had difficulty seeing from far away. 

“I had no idea who anyone else was,” Farahanchi said. “As a result, I didn’t really feel close to my classmates, because I just didn't know what their names were. I didn’t really talk to many of them. But one of the nice things now that classes are on Zoom …  I can finally have all the Zoom functions and enlarging features and magnification that is necessary.” 

Other positive changes that Farahanchi noted were the ability to see the board more clearly thanks to lecture recordings. Additionally, since classes and recruiting are not in-person,  Farahanchi said she does not feel like it is necessary to make potential employers and peers  aware of her visual impairment. 

“It's almost like all those barriers left,” Farahanchi said. “That’s a good thing that came out of the pandemic — accessibility has never been better and it's at its peak right now. I feel like I’m on an equal playing field with my classmates.”

Daily Staff Reporter Lily Gooding can be reached at goodingl@umich.edu.


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