While many students around the country adapt to remote learning, the University of Maine’s student life departments and services are supporting members of the UMaine community by maintaining networks of communication and encouraging student engagement. Among these is Student Accessibility Services.
This department serves students with disabilities and challenges to traditional learning, and provides resources such as the student accessibility van in order to make higher education a more equitable and accessible environment during a traditional semester.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic caused the University of Maine System to close down on-campus courses, the staff at Student Accessibility Services have worked to connect with over 800 current UMaine students that have used their services, as well as any prospective students.
Sarah Henry, the director of Student Accessibility Services, noted that it is extremely important to her to continue supporting students as they adapt to online learning, self-isolation and shelter in place orders.
Henry noted that the department is offering online resources, such as videos and podcasts, in order to keep students engaged with the department and with each other. They also provide resources for professors to assist them in making materials accessible as their courses transition online.
A first-year psychology student who uses Student Accessibility Services, and wished to remain anonymous, noted that the department is supporting her in every way possible.
“I appreciate how much effort they put into making sure that everyone is comfortable and getting the help they need. I’ve received many emails regarding altering accommodations, extra support with schoolwork [and the opportunity to] have someone to talk to,” the student said. “Personally, someone in the office reached out to me asking if I had questions or needed help with anything. I ended up emailing her back and meeting on Zoom sessions and she helped me organize my time and broke down projects that I didn’t understand.”
However, the student also said that she has noticed that coursework accessibility has shifted in the online environment.
“There is definitely a difference in leniency and accessibility. For most of my classes, our workload is lighter and we have more access to notes and content [that the] professor provides,” the student said.
Abigail Martin, a prospective student who plans to attend UMaine in the fall of 2020, is currently taking college courses through the university. She has received support through the Student Accessibility Services department but says that her professors have not been as accommodating as she had hoped.
“I’ve struggled with the online format simply due to my poor internet connection and nothing being able to solve this issue. Professors haven’t been lenient on grading or class procedures even while considering the transition to complete remote learning,” Martin said. “This has posed major issues for me as a student.”
Even though the Student Accessibility Services have supported Martin in the transition to online courses, she feels as though it is important to discuss the accessibility of her courses in a way that is meaningful to her professors. She has experienced difficulties accessing online course materials such as online textbooks, which has made it more difficult for her to complete the course expectations.
Although these students have experienced challenges to online learning, they have also embraced the opportunity to hone new skills, take time to work on their own mental health and create opportunities to discuss how to further improve the accessibility and equity of online content.
“Professors have been more consistent in their communication with students,” Martin noted.
She hopes that this is something that professors will continue to practice in the future because it has made it easier for her to complete the course requirements and has allowed Martin to be a successful student.
“I think a positive aspect about the transition to online learning is that we know how quickly education systems can adapt in unprecedented situations like this one,” the anonymous student noted. “Going forward, I think people are going to realize we can still learn, even if it is online. Though this situation is not ideal, I also think it [creates an environment] where educators can be more understanding [of] students’ needs and concerns.”
Henry said that during this time of crisis, community members have shown themselves to be extremely supportive and accommodating in order to create a sense of unity in the UMaine community.
“Faculty are really doing the best they can to be compassionate and supportive,” Henry noted, “[They have] risen to the challenge and continue to engage virtually. I’m seeing so much of the best coming out in people, and noticing that being isolated doesn’t mean being alone.”