Madison Allen, a second-year nuclear engineering student from Brevard, North Carolina, was looking for more than a strong academic experience when she chose to attend the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She wanted to know she’d be included and supported, just like any other student.
“I was the only student at my high school with a visual impairment, and the one teacher in our area trained to work with students like me was shared over many counties,” Allen said. “Disability services are so strong at UT.”
Allen is one of more than 1,900 students registered with UT’s Student Disability Services (SDS), which provides a wide range of services including sign language interpreters and transcribers, note takers, testing accommodations, and assistive learning devices and technology.
In order for Allen to follow along in classes, she receives PowerPoint files ahead of time from professors, has her handouts enlarged, and uses a technology called ZoomText to enlarge on-screen text.
Allen, a member of the Delta Alpha Pi International Honor Society for students with disabilities and a peer mentor for first-semester students with disabilities, was a little concerned about how her accommodations would transition when she heard the news that UT was shifting course delivery online for the remainder of the semester.
With this concern in mind, SDS director David Ndiaye and his staff spent their spring break sending hundreds of emails to students and professors.
“Our goal was to ensure our students would have a smooth transition from the classroom to online platforms,” Ndiaye said.
Sara Gaddis, a first-semester transfer student in communications studies, received one of these emails explaining that note taking, testing, transcribing, and other services would continue uninterrupted.
“It was straightforward and confident,” said Gaddis, who has bipolar and anxiety disorders. “It was reassuring for me. I love being in the classroom and learning face-to-face. But I know this is an adjustment for everyone.”
Gaddis, secretary for Delta Alpha Pi, requested tech support from the university and was notified soon afterward that she would receive a laptop in order to complete her classes online.
Disability services staff have been busy ensuring online lectures delivered in Zoom or Canvas are accessible to all students who require accommodations. The office’s captioning team is working with professors who have recorded lectures ahead of classes to add subtitles before they are uploaded.
“Faculty have been very proactive about providing the information and materials we need to support them,” Ndiaye said. “We need to be working together, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Some students who receive accommodations for testing, like both Allen and Gaddis, will still have access to those services. Canvas provides instructions for faculty to add time to exams for students who may need it.
“The testing center—where an increasing number of students have come to take class exams—is not proctoring exams at this moment,” Ndiaye said. “But we’ve encouraged students with accommodations that cannot be met online to contact the office as soon as possible.”
It’s all a matter of individualizing the evaluation of the request to make sure it works for the specific student.
“The first week back, I actually had all my classes on Zoom, which I had never used before,” Allen said. “Those have gone pretty well. I haven’t had any trouble seeing anything. And I don’t have to worry about paper copies now. I can do everything with my software.”
If a student did not require accommodations in the classroom but now does as a result of the change in course delivery, they are encouraged to contact Student Disability Services by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 865-974-6087.
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, email@example.com)