As UC Santa Cruz moves into an almost entirely online format for fall 2020, several campus resource centers have begun working to ensure that the needs of disabled students are accounted for. 

“Considering the needs of disabled students up front isn’t just easier for everyone but also shows that we [disabled students] are important to the campus community,” said Percy*, a student who receives DRC accommodations.

The switch to remote learning has inspired collaboration between the DRC, the Online Learning office, and the Center for Innovation, Teaching and Learning (CITL). These resource centers educate faculty on universal design as they restructure their courses for remote learning.

Universal design is a set of principles and practices that aim to provide more expansive learning resources for students with disabilities. Physical and mental barriers are taken into account during the design of a course, as opposed to making accommodations later. Examples include recording lectures for those who need absence flexibility and offering alternative participation options, as well as providing captions for audio and audible descriptions for visuals.

With increased need due to remote learning, new funding for captioning services has been made available from the UC Office of the President, said DRC director Rick Gubash. Captioning is a basic component of universal design that is often missing from class materials due to captioning services’ expensive fees, and the increase in audio materials used in remote learning has been challenging for many students with auditory disabilities. 

“A silver lining of remote learning and the new funding is that there’s more room for faculty to be involved in accessibility,” Gubash said.

Illustration by Ry X.

Jody Greene, the founding member of CITL and literature professor, has provided resources for instructors through CITL’s accessibility training since 2016. CITL now provides instructors with Canvas courses focused on accessibility in remote learning.

 “We are the one stop shop for [faculty asking] ‘how do I design a course for remote instruction,’” Greene said. “And so rather than specifically working with individual instructors to incorporate universal design we just incorporated universal design into all the materials we provided.” 

To further support faculty, the Online Education office created the Accessibility Corps, announced in June, to provide faculty with student disability educators and resources. Micheal Tassio, director of Online Education, has facilitated student self-advocacy for universal design through this program. 

“A challenge for each of us — and especially for students — is to lead by example and prioritize issues of access and equality that stand to improve all of our lives,” Tassio said in an email. “I’m personally excited about the Accessibility Corps because I think it will expand awareness and interest in issues of accessibility in course design and instruction at UCSC.”

Trained student employees in the Accessibility Corps work with instructors to improve course design. Faculty can seek support, including a full course review, through the Accessibility Corps’s request form.  

Student participation and initiative has been critical to improving accessibility for the upcoming quarter, said Rick Gubash, the director of the DRC. Gubash has been working with several students including Student Union Assembly (SUA) Vice President of Academic Affairs David Shevelev, to collect survey data from disabled students during spring quarter. 

“Online Education has long partnered with the Disability Resource Center, but this is our first and most meaningful collaboration to improve accessibility on campus,” said Tassio. “In our collaboration with the Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning, we’ve framed our current work to support remote instruction around three values: community, accessibility, and deep learning.”

These surveys showed the adaptations needed by students with disabilities in order to stay enrolled and to participate in their classes. They collected information on how students were coping with a more fluid structure, challenges with the increased use of audio and visuals, and any possible changes in their studying environment. 

“I’m really hoping that we can offer them something even better this fall quarter where we aren’t rushing trying to put together courses. It’s still quite a task to pull something like this off. We developed some resources that provide good, clear guidance on how to manage. Student feedback helped to shape some of those resources.”

Feedback from students has informed the student educators in the Accessibility Corps and the staff in the DRC. Both centers will continue to collaborate throughout the upcoming academic year. 

*Source’s name has been changed to protect their privacy.