up2date. Das Onlinemagazin der Universtiät Bremen

Accessible Studies During the Pandemic

In this interview, Dr. Ingrid Zondervan tells us about the effect the corona pandemic is having on full accessibility during exams and in digital classes, as well as another issue that will accompany us for a while: long COVID.

The minutes seem to be passing by more quickly than usual. Nina starts to panic. During the online exam, she becomes increasingly aware that she will not manage to complete the task in the time allocated by the exam system. Nina is motor-impaired and needs longer than the other students to type her answers. Despite the fact that she prepared well, she now knows that her grade will be lower or that she might not pass the exam.

Nina and the scenario are fictive. However, many impaired students have felt this way or similar since digital exams have been introduced due to the pandemic. Dr. Ingrid Zondervan from the Office for Students with Disabilities or Chronic Diseases (KIS) at the University of Bremen can provide advice in such cases.

Ms. Zondervan, digital exam formats have become a big topic, especially during the pandemic. Which obstacles have appeared for students with impairments?

Many of the problems are similar to those prior to the pandemic: Term paper deadlines cannot be met due to an impairment or exams cannot be taken in the intended manner. Uncertainty has been added to this, as decisions need to be made quickly during the pandemic and depending on the pandemic situation, short-term switches from in-person to online exams need to take place. This requires the students to be flexible. However, people with a disability or chronic illness often need time to adapt to a new situation. In terms of online exam formats, the main problem at the beginning was that all students were assumed to be standard students, as quick solutions were needed. It was only over time that the obstacles for people with impairments became clear. For example, that the allocated time for a task is too short if someone with a visual impairment needs a screen reader. In my experience, the Center for Multimedia in Higher Education works quickly once such obstacles have been identified.

What can students who are affected by an impairment do in an exam situation if they are stuck?

I always advise them to abort the exam if it is not doable. The exam attempts were not counted in previous semesters. As soon as an exam is passed with a bad grade, it cannot be taken again. Alternatively, academic adjustment is possible if time is given to sort this out. However, this becomes problematic if short-notice changes are made to the exam format, as the application for academic adjustment must be submitted at exam registration at the latest. Naturally, students can speak with their lecturers when there are pandemic-related, short-notice changes to the exam format and it is usually the case that a good solution is found. However, I also know from my consultation sessions that many have inhibitions, as disabilities or chronic illnesses are still marked by shame. That is why, if possible, an application for academic adjustment should be submitted and unnecessary chats with individual lecturers can be avoided. The academic adjustment ensures that a legally binding framework is created for teaching staff and students. There is no standard solution or measure, as each case is different. I am happy to provide advice on this.

Are there positive effects of online classes or hybrid mode?

In several aspects, the pandemic has brought massive advantages with it. People who suffer from a weak immune system or a psychological illness, such as social anxiety for example, often feel safer and comfier in front of their laptop in their usual surroundings. Especially the digitalization of learning materials helps people with a mobility impairment or visually impaired students, who can watch a lecture repeatedly at a later point in time, for example with a support program. Every student with an impairment has his or her own individual experience of the restrictions or freedom that the pandemic has uncovered.

A chronic illness that was seen for the first time during the pandemic is long COVID - thus the long-term effect of coronavirus. How is this handled during studying?

If long COVID has been diagnosed and the symptoms impair the student’s ability to study, academic adjustment is available. Long COVID is treated as a chronic illness.

Which long-term changes in terms of fully accessible learning and teaching do you hope to see after the pandemic?

A diversification of the exam formats would be very beneficial to many people with a disability or chronic illness. If, for example, students were able to flexibly sit an exam either online or on campus, many academic adjustments would no longer be required. The aim would be to actively offer different examination formats instead of making them possible upon request. Admittedly, this is sometimes initially more complex but it is not impossible. And when the structures for this have been created, the work needed subsequently is manageable.

Consultation and Information Services for Students

The consultations offered by the Office for Students with Disabilities or Chronic Diseases (KIS) are free, confidential, independent, and can be carried out anonymously. Consultation appointments can arranged with Dr. Ingrid Zondervan by sending an email to kis@uni-bremen.de or via phone at +49 (0)421 218-61050.

The students’ Critical Initiative for Diversity and Inclusion (kivi) offers information for impaired students and advocates for fully accessible studying at the university. Appointment requests or inquiries can be sent via email to kivi@uni-bremen.de.

Consultation for Accessible Teaching

The Accessibility in E-Learning and Teaching - BALLON Project offers different services to support teaching staff in creating fully accessible classes and provides comments and tips for more accessibility on its website. Further queries and questions can be directed to ballon@uni-bremen.de. More information is available on the project page.

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