Recently, I received a question from a teacher who was nervous about having their student (who has an unidentified disability) taking virtual classes, as they do not know a lot about troubleshooting assistive technology or supporting students with technical issues. They were wondering what the best steps would be for getting accessibility support for virtual learning, and if there were people that they could reach out to if they had questions about how to support students with disabilities or that use assistive technology in the classroom. Here are my tips for ways to get effective accessibility support for virtual learning, and how students can self-advocate and troubleshoot issues on their own.
First, document the issue
So what exactly is the problem? This is the first step for troubleshooting accessibility issues with virtual learning, and it helps to be as specific as possible. Some examples of issues that may pop up include:
- Screen reader is not recognizing text or on-screen information
- Software does not work with screen magnification or a screen reader
- Text or images are too small/blurry
- Can’t select answers or input text
- Assignments are not uploading/files are corrupted
When documenting whatever issue is happening, it’s important to make note of what software is being used or what accessibility functions are enabled on the device. For example, I might mention that my math problems are not being recognized when I use NVDA on my computer, or that I can’t select the answer for my quiz when navigating the testing software with a keyboard. It also helps to know what operating system and version that a device has- for example, iOS 13.1 or Windows 10 running version 18362.
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Reach out to your Teacher of the Visually Impaired or Disability Services office
While I have become proficient in troubleshooting my own accessibility issues over the years, that hasn’t always been the case. For students experiencing accessibility issues related to accessing their course materials, I recommend contacting Disability Services, the Teacher of the Visually Impaired, or a case manager first, since they are likely easy to get in touch with and are trained in how to use assistive technology. It’s helpful to send a message stating the problem and any steps that have already been taken to fix it, i.e restarting the device or installing an update. They can also refer students to other resources or file a ticket to have a device looked at by IT services.
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Talk to an assistive technology specialist
I’m very lucky that my university has an entire department dedicated to assistive technology services, and I’ve worked with them many times when trying to resolve issues related to virtual classes or assignments- they are typically my first point of contact whenever I have an accessibility issue. Whenever possible, I try to include my professors in these conversations so that they can work with the assistive technology specialists to come up with a solution that will work well for everyone. For students attending public schools, they may be referred to an assistive technology specialist if their TVI or case manager cannot fix the issue.
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Contact the National Homework Hotline for Blind and Visually Impaired Students
An awesome free resource that is available for students in the United States is the National Homework Hotline for Blind and Visually Impaired Students. Students of all ages can send an email to the hotline and a volunteer will work with them to try and solve the issue, or refer them to another resource that can help. I’m a volunteer for the hotline and have been able to help students with troubleshooting various issues related to completing assignments for their classes.
Use dedicated accessibility support phone numbers and emails for major companies
Maybe the problem is with a mainstream device, such as a computer or tablet, and not necessarily with the course management software. In cases like this, it is helpful to contact the accessibility support phone numbers and/or emails for major companies so that the issue can be looked at in more detail. Almost all major technology companies have accessibility support phone numbers, including Apple, Microsoft, and Google, and many of them also support technical assistance with the free Be My Eyes app.
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Call assistive technology companies directly
In addition to mainstream technology companies, many assistive technology companies also have contact and support phone numbers/emails for issues related to their products, which can be found online or in the product information document. I recommend keeping these phone numbers in an easy-to-access place in case they are needed, as it can be frustrating to find them if there is an issue. In addition, users can provide valuable product feedback over the phone. Users can also use Aira for free to troubleshoot Vispero products, which include JAWS, ZoomText, and Magic.
There are lots of great options for getting accessibility support for virtual learning. By learning how to document issues and get help, students and teachers alike can ensure that all information and assignments are accessible for those who need them. I hope this list is helpful for others who are looking for accessibility support!