Diversity in Tech
6 min read
December 19, 2020

How Remote Learning Falls Short for Disabled Students in STEM


Aishwarya Jagani

With a shift to virtual learning, deaf and hard of hearing, students struggle with low sound quality and a lack of accurate captioning, particularly in jargon-heavy fields like STEM.

Madeleine Webster-Harris has been struggling to hear and understand her university lectures since March of 2020. She is a biology undergraduate at a UK university and has severe hearing loss in both ears. Low sound quality and muffled lectures are making it nearly impossible for Madeleine to follow the curriculum. The transcripts offered as a solution to this are often riddled with errors.

In a field like Biology, where the names of proteins tend to sound very similar, the accessibility obstacle severely impacts Madeleine’s ability to learn. Deaf and hard of hearing students often rely on interpreters or lip reading to communicate. For lectures that are conducted over video calls (or mandatory mask-wearing for face-to-face lectures), students like Madeleine are left in the lurch.

Worse, university-proposed alternatives like video captions and transcripts aren’t useful. Typically, auto-generated transcripts are only 60% to 70% accurate, which means that 1 in 3 words is incorrect. Eleanor Hassal, a final year student from the University of Warwick, tweeted about the futility of auto-generated captions earlier this year.  

tweet that reads: Auto-captions can't distinguish between 'Rawls' and 'rules' which makes for great fun when trying to watch a lecture on the 'Rules of Rawls'"
via Twitter.com/eleanor_hassall

In March, as educational institutions across the world downed their shutters and shifted entirely to virtual learning, students with learning disabilities grappled with poor infrastructure and technology, and many are falling behind in their coursework.

The shift to virtual learning has been a massive blow for Madeleine and thousands of other deaf or hard of hearing students like her, who already struggle with ableist policies at most universities.

Where Universities Fall Short

A report published in 2019 by the UK’s National Deaf Children’s Society found that 46% of deaf students who needed support at universities were still waiting for it when their course began. Of this number, 59% waited more than two months before finding adequate support. This lack of assistance starts early and can be devastating. According to The Guardian, 59% of deaf students fail to meet the government’s General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) benchmark, in contrast with 35.8% of hearing children.

STEM fields are already known to lack diversity and inclusivity for women, minorities, and people with disabilities. The ableism that crops up from time to time, with universities refusing to make accommodations for disabled students, intensifies this schism.

A paper by Life Science Org offers solutions for how universities can be inclusive of deaf students in STEM fields. The research addresses condescending and insulting statements like, “You are so brave to apply for an internship at an all-hearing program” and “It must have been difficult for you to lose your hearing like that.” Even instances where disabled students are questioned about the financial cost of the accommodations they require.

Seven months into the pandemic, universities have not been beneficial to disabled students who have requested additional accommodations due to the virtual learning shift. These requirements are often deemed ‘unsolvable problems,’ or students attend separate tutorials due to their ‘learning requirements.’

The struggle to get universities to make their content more inclusive isn’t necessarily unique to a pandemic year. Last year, both MIT and Harvard had high profile civil lawsuits filed against them for failing to make their video content, including guest lectures and open online courses, accessible to deaf and hard of hearing students. Much of the video content lacked captions, and the captions available were inaccurate and of low quality, rendering the content inaccessible for those with hearing disabilities. In 2017, after the University of California, Berkeley, was ordered to provide captions for educational content, management chose to remove thousands of videos from public view rather than adding captions.

But there’s hope still. Many universities around the world are taking special action to make virtual learning accessible to disabled students.

The University of Padua in Italy has extended specific support to make online learning more accessible for disabled students. Their resources include an online steno typing service for deaf students, making digital documents accessible to those with visual disabilities, and launching an ‘Inclusive Tutoring Service’ to provide online support while students prepare for exams.

Other universities taking proactive steps to accommodate disabled students include the University of Wolverhampton in the UK. Each deaf student has an interpreter and can participate in video calls via sign language. The University of Bath has made special software available to students to meet the demands of remote learning.

How Remote Work Created Awareness

The irony of the situation, of course, is that before the pandemic, some students who required virtual learning accommodation were denied the opportunity. Universities have long claimed that the transition to online learning would be difficult, expensive, time-consuming, and require special training for educators. Despite this, the same accommodations are being offered now that non-disabled students are in equal need.

Deanne Ferrante, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a disability awareness advocate, expressed her frustration with this inequity.

“It is painful to me and many others in the disability community that as soon as non-disabled people require the use of online classes to complete their education, the whole world scrambles to get everything running in a mere week.”

Her sentiments are shared among the disabled community, and it highlights a lesson every platform can benefit from. Both businesses and higher learning institutions can learn from this year by including accessibility at the core of the products, media, and services they provide from the beginning - instead of as an add-on later.

The Upside of Virtual Learning

Although virtual learning challenges cannot be overlooked, it also comes with its own set of advantages for students with disabilities. Motor impaired students and those on the autism spectrum can attend classes in a more comfortable environment. Visually impaired students benefit from the audio-focused format of video lectures. Those who may have to miss class due to a medical appointment or chronic pain now have the option to watch recorded lectures.

Allowing students the support they require to access learning increases inclusivity and diversity in STEM fields. The research that scientists perform is often shaped by their perspectives and experience, which means having a diverse group of people involved in STEM research impacts results and leads to new discoveries. For example, with the increase in women researchers in medicine, we saw that this led to more in-depth research for previously ignored women’s medical issues. Similarly, work by deaf scientists into American Sign Language has led to advances in neurolinguistics.  

Culturally diverse perspectives enrich science and tech, and the STEM industry would benefit from displaying greater inclusivity and providing support for the students who need it. In the same manner that we have ramps in buildings and braille menus at restaurants, we should have systems to enable students with sensory disabilities to participate equally in the virtual learning space.


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