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As U.S. college students grapple with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new poll reveals the crisis is taking a unique toll on deaf students.

Seventy-four percent of deaf college students consider online learning harder than traditional learning, and many are being denied American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, according to a poll by the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes at the University of Texas at Austin.

There are over 200,000 deaf and hard of hearing students enrolled in U.S. colleges, including more than 37,000 late-deafened military veterans.

Denied Accommodations, Social Isolation and Other Anxieties

In the poll, taken during a series of live panel discussions, 60% of deaf college students report being tired or anxious, and 73% are concerned about the increase in required reading and writing as a result of the transition to online learning. They also report:

  • Being denied ASL interpreters, frequently due to a university having an exclusive contract with an agency that is unable to provide remote services.

  • Not having access to all the content being shared online by their peers, such as podcasts and audio files.

  • Needing expanded tutoring services and more opportunities to connect with deaf peers to avoid social isolation.

“This is an urgent issue of inequality. Deaf students are not being considered valued members of the college learning community. They lack equitable access and necessary accommodations required by law,” said Stephanie W. Cawthon, Ph.D., director of the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes, a professor at The University of Texas at Austin College of Education, and an international expert on accessible learning environments. “Deaf students should be focusing their energy on learning, not using all of their energy to struggle for access. It is adding more stress to an already very stressful time, creating a mental health issue as well.”

Changing Needs for A Changing Environment

The sudden nationwide shift to online learning due to the pandemic has resulted in accessibility problems for deaf students, whose communication preferences can vary by setting and circumstances.

Live teleconferencing through Zoom or other online platforms has become standard in higher education, yet it proves especially problematic for deaf students, who may need an ASL interpreter or live captioning to understand lectures.

A deaf student who uses an assistive listening system in a small classroom on campus might need speech-to-text services in an online classroom. Automated captioning tends to be filled with errors.

“Online classrooms are not automatically accessible. There must be an intentional effort to provide access, accommodate needs, and adjust our new learning environments to serve all students equally,” said Dr. Cawthon.

Navigating Accommodations Alone

Another stressor is the expectation that the student will coordinate their own accommodations or access needs or will serve as an intermediary between their professors, themselves, and the disability services office.

One student told the National Deaf Center Help Desk that she was asked to pay for her own ASL interpreter, an unrealistic and illegal expectation that would not happen in a campus classroom.

“Deaf students should not have the burden of asking or reminding their professors/instructors to have things captioned. We should not have to feel like a burden,” said a graduate student at a large state university.

Requests for Help Spike

The access crisis is reflected in the sharp spike in inquiries to the National Deaf Center since March 1. Inquiries to the Help Desk in April 2020 were up 214% over April 2019. Website traffic is up 64%, with most visitors going to the COVID-19 Information page to find pandemic-related resources and tips for students, educators, families, employers, and service providers.

New multilingual resources include:

Access is More Than Accommodations

Only about half of deaf college students file documentation or request accommodations from their institutions and, when they do ask for access guaranteed by law, their needs are frequently unmet.

In the National Deaf Center’s 2018-2019 Deaf College Student National Accessibility Report released in February, ACCESS Is More Than Accommodations, deaf students reported a lack of access in a number of important areas on campus due to insufficient accommodations:

  • 54% do not participate in student activities.

  • 52% of students do not have a way to give formal feedback to their service providers.

  • 44% of emergency alerts and announcements are not accessible.

  • 52% of faculty members do not provide notes or slides ahead of time.

Forgotten Victims of the Pandemic

The deaf community has been called the forgotten victims of the pandemic. Experts fear they are facing communications barriers that make it harder for them and their families to navigate the crisis, whether they are trying to get essential disease information from inaccurately-captioned evening news programs or struggling to communicate in hospitals without ASL interpreters or family members by their sides.

Under federal law, the individual needs of people with disabilities are required to be met, including the provision of auxiliary aids and services that are necessary for equal opportunity.

The Americans With Disabilities Act protects “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”

In April, 106 deaf college students attended two online panels hosted by the National Deaf Center and were polled after the panels. The data is the percentage of poll respondents.

The National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes is a technical assistance and dissemination center federally funded by the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs and Rehabilitation Services Administration to provide evidence-based strategies at the local, state and national levels. The National Deaf Center is located at The University of Texas at Austin College of Education.