UI Student Disability Services modify accommodations to help Hawkeyes with disabilities in virtual learning

University of Iowa Student Disability Services works to accommodate students with disabilities during online instruction, discovering positive outcomes in the process.


Emily Wangen

The outside of the UI Student Disability Services office is seen on Wednesday, June 5, 2019. The office is located in the basement of Burge Residence Hall.

Marissa Smith, News Reporter

Student Disability Services is in uncharted territory as it provides accommodations to students with disabilities and aims to assure equal access to education for all Hawkeyes in the transition to online instruction, but staff report benefits of more self-paced learning with the change.

When the university announced students would finish the spring semester online because of the spread of COVID-19, SDS began brainstorming how staff could transition its services to accommodate students from home. There were 1,293 individuals with disabilities enrolled at the UI in the fall of 2019, according to UI data shared in January.

None of the accommodations for students with disabilities will change, but the way in which some accommodations take form could be modifying, Student Disability Services Director Mark Harris said.

Students were initially curious and even overwhelmed at the idea of online instruction, as many students at the UI have never taken classes online, the service’s Assistant Director Michael Venzon said.

“From a teacher’s perspective, student’s perspective, staff perspective — everything can feel overwhelming,” Venzon said.

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Fortunately, Venzon said, SDS was able to quickly transition and continue to provide accommodations to students, using available technology and remaining flexible among other changes.

As for new accommodations, SDS has received accommodation applications for new students and is processing them daily, Harris said.

“I’ve been really pleased with the transition. It’s been a huge undertaking,” Harris said.

Most accommodations were easily transferable to an online format, including extended time for test taking, class notes, and a low-distraction environment, which are among the most common accommodations SDS provides, Harris said.

There are fewer logistical hurdles for some accommodations, he added, including extra test time and low-distraction environments.

Sam Rame, co-president of UI student organization Rays of REACH, believes the SDS accommodations have been extremely helpful in the transition to online learning. The accommodations help students with disabilities complete their work and stay in good standing in order to pursue a career after college, Rame said.

SDS provides accommodations to help students troubleshoot technology issues, small-group discussions, and Zoom features such as closed captioning and transcripts to help with notes, Rame said.

Rays of REACH works to increase awareness of the UI’s REACH program and students with disabilities, as well as boosting social interaction between students with disabilities, traditional students, and alums, Rame said.

“Disabled students want to be included in a collective experience with traditional students,” Rame said.

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SDS helps students with disabilities enjoy online learning, work independently and prepare for their career of choice. These students are extremely proud of the work SDS puts in, Rame said.

There are positives to online instruction, Harris said. The structure of online classes requires different academic skills and strategies to succeed, he said, and online instruction offers beneficial skills for UI students and faculty to obtain.

“It requires a different set of skills and the ability to be self-organized,” Harris said. “This shows instructors and students that there are alternative ways to teach content and assess student learning.”

Through the transition to online classes, teachers and students have gained new methods of presenting course content, assessing student learning, and communicating. It even seems odd to think the UI didn’t offer some of these methods before, Venzon said.

Many instructors are also recording their lectures, which allows students to go back and listen to them. This benefits all UI students and provides them with an option to pace themselves, Venzon said.

Harris believes the benefits of accommodating students during online instruction will continue long after UI students travel back to campus.

“These positives will continue after things go back to normal, or the new normal, because students and teachers have experience,” Harris said.

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