“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”

As I listen to students with disabilities share how they are coping with the unexpected change to all online education, I hear echoes of Charles Dickens’ famous opening line in A Tale of Two Cities. In the midst of challenges, there are opportunities for this current upheaval in our personal and professional lives to serve us well.

One student with ADHD told me how hard it is to have lost the predictability of meeting in class each week. Without those two-second reminders from professors and chat with classmates that are more likely to happen in the physical classroom, his ability to get tasks started and completed on time suffers from his lack of focus. The student and I developed a system of sticky notes for each task for each course to be displayed on a wall, literally in front of him as he works. The student recruited his wife to help him review the wall of notes to make sure upcoming tasks are pulled to his immediate work area and not overlooked. The change in class format forced this student to work toward a resolution he would not have considered otherwise, one that may work well for him beyond the classroom.

Then the next day, another student with ADHD told me of the freedom she feels in online classes, with less structured need to complete her work according to someone else’s timeline. She can work more productively when the fickle muse of her attention feels like working with fewer interruptions and external expectations of how to spend her time throughout the week. This student is hoping she can find a way to stay in online classes through the end of her degree.

Another student called me in despair over how to comprehend complicated assignment instructions given in video and detailed text in both paragraph and matrix format. But with little opportunity to interact with classmates or the instructor on the details of the assignment, the student was missing her usual comprehension checks for her learning disability. Fortunately, in the move to all online interactions, the Academic Success Center set up an online booking system for Zoom sessions with tutors from the regional campuses. The student booked an appointment with a tutor to brainstorm what she needs to do for her assignment and has found an additional compensation tool.

A student who is significantly hard of hearing told me how hard it is to fill in the blanks of her hearing when people’s faces are reduced to windows on a computer screen. She needs facial expressions and lip-reading to supplement her hearing. Even with her computer set to speaker view, the audio on a large group computer interaction is too variable to supply the quality of audio she needs to hear much of what is said. Thanks to collaboration with colleagues from COL and ITS, and patient experimentation on the part of the instructor and the student, we managed to contract a service that provides real-time captioning within the online platform so the student can see faces, hear voices and read captions for four-hour long, online class interactions once a week. She said class is fun again with this support tool in place and she may be getting more content than she did in the classroom.

In the process of that experimentation, we discovered that Microsoft Teams has an auto-caption option that can be turned on. What would have been a frustrating telephone call or back and forth emails with her advisor or instructor can now be a highly productive video call with high-quality audio, video and automatic captions on the screen.

Teams is an option instead of Zoom for any class or meeting that does not require break-out discussions. Please contact ITS Helpdesk (559-453-3410 or helpdesk@fresno.edu) if you want to explore using Teams.

My favorite kind of accommodation is the kind that requires very little effort but which meets multiple student needs. At least one academic program has a policy of recording online sessions and posting them for later access with computer-generated captioning through VidGrid. This practice can reduce accommodations needed for several types of students:

  1. A student who would normally have to make an audio recording of classroom lectures can now review material to fill in the blanks in notes when a learning disability is overworked with the multitasking demands of listening, processing and writing notes all at once.
  2. Students with high anxiety or ADHD can review material missed when focus was diverted.
  3. Students with debilitating recurring medical or mental health conditions or high-risk pregnancy can view lectures when symptoms have abated.
  4. A student with limited manual dexterity can fill in blanks in notes when handwritten or even typed notes could not keep up with the pace of the class.
  5. Students with auditory processing disorder or students for whom English is not a first language can review captioned and recorded class session to pick up meaning that was missed the first time.

Contact the Center for Online Learning (559-453-3460 or col@fresno.edu) for assistance with recording online classes and adding captions.

The common thread in these stories is that students need options to do things differently, to experiment with how they learn best. When we listen to the stories of students and colleagues facing circumstances and finding solutions that we haven’t tried before, we discover that doing things differently can create unexpected and wonderful outcomes. Let’s keep our ears open and let God do the work in unexpected ways of bringing his people more fully into the community of learners, for assuredly things that are impossible for humans are possible with God.


Melinda Gunning

Director, Disability Access and Education