For some students, online law school sounds like a dream. What’s not to love about rolling in to class in your pajamas or the infamous Zoom mullet? Business on top, party (pajamas) on the bottom. But for many law students, the switch to online programs has been incredibly stressful. Suddenly having to deal with technology glitches on top of staying engaged with everything going on in class introduces a new layer of tension.
This can be compounded for students with disabilities who now have to figure out new accommodations. When schools switched over to online classes in the spring after the shelter in place orders began, many students found that the accommodations that had served them well for in-person classes were meaningless. Law schools were poorly equipped to manage this transition, and students are concerned about more of the same failures this fall. This is a reasonable concern, so it is important to start advocating for your needs now.
The pandemic is stressful under normal circumstances, but it has had tremendous mental health implications for many students. If you are struggling, you are not alone, and it is reasonable to seek accommodations if you need them. Don’t fall into a trap of thinking others have things worse, so you won’t seek them out – accommodations are not a zero sum game! You deserve to have the same quality of education as your classmates and if that means taking a semester to heal or taking a lighter course load, go for it. Work with your disability coordinator to get whatever documentation you need to make this happen. Powering through something that feels impossible is not worth sacrificing your mental well-being.
The steps you need to take will be slightly different if you are an incoming student rather than a returning student. Incoming students need to get in touch with their school’s disability services office as soon as possible, and if you are a returning student seeking accommodations, you will ideally have been in touch with the office all along.
First things first: the same disability laws apply to online learning as with in-person courses. Your needs will obviously vary based on the type of disability you have, but the process you go through to receive accommodations should be more or less the same as it would be during a normal year. You need to disclose your disability to the appropriate office, they will verify that you have a disability and need an accommodation, and then you will work together to ensure that the necessary accommodations are put in place.
One of the most frequently requested accommodations is extended test time. Taking a course online should not have any bearing on whether that is granted, but because more exams will likely be given away from campus, it will serve you well to get a plan in place. If the test is administered via electronic format, make sure the exam software is accessible for your particular needs. Ask the disability coordinator if you can download it early to make sure it works with your screen reader or other adaptive software. If you do this early in the semester, you’ll be able to come up with a solution that preserves your anonymous grade.
Tests are important, but so is your overall classroom experience. A shift to online learning does not excuse a school from providing the services they would have provided in a normal classroom environment.
Most virtual meeting software allows for closed captioning, and if your school’s doesn’t, different arrangements must be made. If CART services would have been part of your normal accommodation plan, make sure that the school arranges for captioners for your courses. Depending on the software in use, the captions may show up for the whole class, or just you. If you use ASL rather than CART, this is also something else that can and should be arranged for by the disability coordinator. There are many ways to ensure that you have equal access to the information, so don’t be afraid to try different things. This is experimental for everyone, and the priority needs to be your access, not your school’s convenience.
Students who are blind or visually impaired will generally have accommodations that are quite different from their classroom accommodations. It is critical that the school understands that everything made available online needs to be accessible – this includes (among many other things) PDFs, charts, and all the functions of the virtual classroom. Chat windows tend to not be accessible, so there need to be alternatives. Again, express all of these concerns with the appropriate office well ahead of the semester. This will give them more time to develop alternatives and provide the necessary training for professors.
Circumstances change – so can your accommodations
This doesn’t come close to covering all the permutations of accommodations or disabilities. You know your situation best, so familiarize yourself with your school’s request and appeals processes. Remember, your need for different accommodations can evolve throughout a school year. Maybe you have some anxiety that has arisen or maybe you’re recovering from COVID-19. You can request accommodations at any point! For known issues, however, do your best to ask early and stay in touch with the disability coordinator as your needs change. Requesting accommodations can be overwhelming, but remember, the first time is always the hardest. Having a blueprint to work from will make it easier each semester going forward, and will make asking for accommodations on the bar easier too.
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