The recent pandemic has forced change on a massive scale. Almost overnight, colleges and workplaces did what many thought was unthinkable and transferred their work from the lecture hall, the conference room, the library, and the office to Zoom, Skype, Google Docs, or Microsoft 365. For people with disabilities, the transition has been both good and bad. This article will discuss what the transition has meant for the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange (NCDE), what it has meant for access in the wider international education field, and how practitioners can make the long-term effects of the transition a net positive for all.
By mid-March, Mobility International USA (MIUSA) had moved all employees to remote work. Staff were instructed to take their work computers and other essentials home. The CFO made several deliveries of necessities like computer monitors and desk chairs. The organization purchased three Zoom business accounts – an upgrade to its previous Pro subscription.
As a blind person, I was astonished at how remote work opened up new ways for me to contribute. I conducted a few training sessions – first to onboard a new employee, and then to demonstrate to all staff how a screen reading program interacts with a website. I’m not very good with a pen, and if I had wanted to scribble out a couple examples of HTML markup on a board or discuss a list of ideas and actually be able to indicate an idea by pointing, I would have probably needed a coworker to help out or I would’ve had to depend on my audience being as good at audible learning as I am. Yet, when I wanted to do the HTML markup demonstration over Zoom, I simply shared my screen, opened a note, and started typing. To point at a piece of code, I simply highlighted the line. The virtual environment allowed me to interact with my coworkers in a new dimension that had never been an option before.
The virtual environment allowed me to interact with my coworkers in a new dimension that had never been an option before. The crisis also forced us to start thinking about different ways we might engage globally. International internships in language classes became available remotely. I wrote a blog about the ways people could stay globally engaged from home, such as reading literature, watching movies, or talking with international friends.
MIUSA staff observed how virtual exchanges expanded the scope of what we can do with the same resources. Our webinars have been better than ever, allowing us to reach individuals and professionals in places we would likely never visit in person. MIUSA counts 2,300 alumni around the world, with 250 from its Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability (WILD). A group of staff, including CEO Susan Sygall, was able to get several cohorts of WILD alumni with different disabilities on a single Zoom call to catch up with each other and discuss the urgent needs in their communities around COVID-19. To facilitate communication access, the call included interpreters of American Sign Language and Spanish, along with Certified Deaf Interpreters, to interpret foreign sign languages and real-time captioning in Spanish and English for hard of hearing individuals who don’t use sign language. Sygall noted, "Hearing their dedication, leadership, and insightful recommendations for the COVID-19 pandemic only reinforced for me how critically important it is to recognize and partner with disabled women leaders globally, now more than ever."
The crisis also caused NCDE staff to develop and implement fresh opportunities for aspiring professionals to work with our project while building their résumés. Our first Access to Exchange Externship will allow five individuals across the United States the chance to promote international exchange in their communities. Projects cover a wide array of formats, including webinars, country guides, blogging, and individual advisement. NCDE is reaching out farther than ever before with its message of inclusion through infiltration in international exchange programs.
The transition to remote life was not all smooth. As an article from Inside Higher Ed reported, students with disabilities were being left out as colleges shifted to online classes. Mailing lists like DSSHE and the Association on Higher Education and Disability forum, which are dedicated to supporting practitioners in the disability service field in higher education, filled with chatter about how colleges were to react to the onslaught of faculty questions, accommodation requests, and complaints.
Colleges should ensure their domestic and international exchange offerings are accessible to students with disabilities, allowing the education experience to reach all students who want to participate to enhance the educational experience for all by making the unique viewpoints of students with disabilities available to their nondisabled peers. This also allows students with disabilities to contribute to the economic and social productivity of their communities, because access to employment increases the financial and mental well-being of individuals while enriching societies that can benefit from the taxation and consumerism of a wider base of workers.
As virtual exchange programs expand, they can learn a great deal from the experience of universities providing access to students with disabilities taking online courses. Despite some of the access issues, the virtual world offers a great deal of promise in offering barrier-free experiences. Consult with organizations like MIUSA, the National Deaf Center and your campus’s disability resource center on how to provide the best virtual exchange experiences for all.