American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Summer 2021     RESEARCH

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Access and Engagement: The Effects of the Pandemic on the Education of Blind, Low-Vision, and Deafblind Students

by L. Penny Rosenblum

From the Editor: Early in March 2020, a team of researchers led by L. Penny Rosenblum at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) began to conduct research on the effects of the pandemic on the blind and visually impaired community. "Access and Engagement I" and "Access and Engagement II" collected data from family members, teachers of students with visual impairments, and O&M specialists to understand the challenges and successes inherent in the patchwork of education. The findings revealed challenges with digital learning tools, mental health concerns, and the needs of students with additional disabilities. They also pointed out successes that have occurred as the pandemic has impacted education during the 2020-2021 school year.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in the spring of 2020, blind and low-vision students across the United States and Canada shifted from in-person education to virtual education—and, in some cases, to no formal education at all. The American Foundation for the Blind brought together a team of researchers to explore the impact of these changes on blind and low-vision students, their families, and their teachers. In April 2020 the research team launched our first survey to gather information that could show us how students, families, and teachers were coping with these dramatic changes.

By the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, it was clear that the pandemic wasn't going away any time soon. We still had a lot of questions about how blind, low-vision, and deafblind students were receiving an education. We wanted to know whether the quality of virtual education was as high as the quality of the education these students received in person. Did the students have the materials and the support they needed in order to learn? What roles did teachers and family members play in supporting these students?

In an effort to answer these questions, the research team conducted a second survey in November 2020. At the end of the 2020-2021 school year, the researchers conducted focus groups and interviews to gather still more information, knowing that the pandemic continues to have an impact on our children's education.

The Importance of Data

Over the years many studies have been conducted about the education of blind and visually impaired students, but most of these studies had relatively small sample sizes. Each researcher looked at very specific questions. In contrast, the "Access and Engagement" studies were relatively large; we had 1,921 respondents in the first study and 662 in the second. Because we were interested in overarching issues, we looked at a wide range of variables. Certainly none of us wanted the pandemic! However, since we have been placed in this situation, we have had the opportunity to gather valuable information that can help us advocate for positive change in the future.

As we explored how COVID-19 affected blind, low-vision, and deafblind students, we found some issues that are related directly to the shift to virtual education. For example, our students need a lot of hands-on instruction in Braille, orientation and mobility (O&M), and independent living skills. It can be difficult for teachers to provide such instruction at a distance.

The studies also showed us that our students face some deeply rooted systemic issues in education. Some of these issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the shift to virtual learning platforms. The studies confirmed things that parents and teachers already know from personal experience. Now we have data to back up our anecdotal understanding. Parents no longer have to go to their school board and say, "This is our experience with our son, Joey." With data in hand families now can go to their school boards and say, "Look! We have data! Here are the voices of others from throughout the nation. Our district never should purchase any product unless it has been tested for accessibility and usability for screen reader users." 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) say that accessible tools need to be provided for education. However, the laws leave a lot of gray areas. Because blind and low-vision students make up a very small minority, school districts generally don't think about their needs when they plan programs or purchase hardware and software. If there are forty thousand students in a district and only twenty of them need nonvisual access, the district is not likely to make such access a priority!

Data can help parents and teachers raise awareness and press for the access our students need. A lot can be accomplished at the grassroots level. Parents can push to have a teacher of the visually impaired join the committee that evaluates products to be purchased by the school district. Parents and students can be very specific about the challenges they face with particular systems, sharing those concerns with the school district and with the manufacturer. Older students can volunteer to field test programs and equipment for usability. Teachers can invite administrators into the classroom so they can see for themselves the problems students encounter.

Both reports contain recommendations for creating an education that is more fully inclusive. The reports emphasize the important difference between accessibility and usability. A product may be accessible because it will read material that is on the screen. However, if the student is required to use ten extra keystrokes before the reading can take place, that product is not really usable. The student's productivity will be seriously limited. They will lose time because they're working to learn all the extra steps they have to take.

Comfort with Technology

Technology was here to stay long before the pandemic, but the pandemic showed us that students need to have a toolbox of technology options from a very early age. We need to recognize that a learning process is involved before technology can be used effectively. When devices came home during the pandemic and no one in the family knew how to use them, children were at a severe disadvantage. They didn't have the supports they were used to having at school. Even when the pandemic is behind us, we need to plan for other kinds of emergency situations, such as wildfires or severe weather, that may interfere with education in brick-and-mortar buildings. Building the student's technology toolbox needs to begin in preschool.

When it comes to technology for our students, we know that one size does not fit all. Data from our studies made this reality clearer than ever. In many districts all of the students were given Chromebooks at the beginning of the pandemic. Chromebooks are inexpensive, and they're readily available. However, they don't work for students who use screen readers, and their screen enlargement is limited. When districts give every student a Chromebook, they put students who need a combination of technologies at a disadvantage.

The lockdown added to the problems. TVIs spent a lot of time trying to get into computer labs that were locked in order to get a large monitor or some other critical piece of equipment for a struggling student. The teachers and parents of Braille readers struggled to make the district understand that the Chromebook wouldn't work, and that the laptop that was locked up at school needed to go home because it had NVDA or JAWS loaded on it.

Armed with the findings from our studies, teachers and parents can go to their districts and say, "Here are the recommendations. We must consider each child's individual needs. We can't expect a child to participate in education without the tools they need."

The same holds true for children who use communication devices. A child who has a communication device at school that allows them to make choices and put sentences together needs to have that device at home. With the help of the device the child can communicate with the family. If they don't have their communication device when they're expected to get online with their class, they literally don't have a voice.

Our studies also showed that parents and teachers need training on the devices the child uses. Parents need to understand how the child's communication device works, or how JAWS can be used to attach a document to an email. Sometimes parents need to understand aspects of technology that are specific to blindness and low vision, and sometimes they simply need to build their general knowledge about technology. Many TVIs themselves need technology training. When it comes to technology, everybody has a different comfort level and a different framework of knowledge.

Our first study was done in the spring of 2020, and our second study was done in November of 2020. The reports and executive summaries from both studies are available to the public. During the summer of 2021 we conducted a survey and focus groups with professionals, teens, and families. Currently we are wrapping up our data collection for a report that we hope to complete by the end of the year. Families are always welcome to share their thoughts and experiences with us at [email protected].

Surprises and Opportunities

During the pandemic many general education teachers and administrators gained a deeper understanding of the role of the teacher of students with visual impairments. TVIs reported that for many of their students they now have a much better understanding of what is happening in the child's home and what is important to the child's family. Families came to appreciate why it is important for their child to build skills in independent living, recognizing that school isn't only about academics. During the pandemic many children advanced in independent living skills such as cooking and dressing.

Our TVIs and O&M specialists are amazing people. They go above and beyond to reach and connect with their students' families. Throughout the school year they found creative ways to teach their students and support students' families. Most of them work in multiple schools, and some even see students in multiple school districts. The teachers had to work with the rules and policies of different districts and even within different schools in one district. We learned that many TVIs prepared materials such as Braille lessons and tactile graphics at home and delivered them to the students' doors.

The studies suggest that some good things have come out of the pandemic from the children's perspective. Children who experienced bullying at school were very happy to be at home, taking classes online. Some low-vision students were better able to access information on the computer than they could in the classroom because they had more control over lighting and font size. The ability to go back and watch a video over and over again to get information was helpful to some children.

Because they no longer had the constant support of a paraprofessional, some general education teachers learned to make adaptations for their blind and low-vision students. Furthermore, many students became better self-advocates, asking teachers to provide the adaptations they needed.

Holding onto the Gains

As students return to brick-and-mortar schools, how can we hold onto the things that worked well during the pandemic? How can we maximize the positives to promote the best education for our students? A new hybrid model of education offers encouraging possibilities.

When they cover rural communities such as the Navajo Nation in Arizona, it is not unusual for an O&M instructor or a TVI to travel two hours each way to see a single student. The ability to deliver services virtually allows professionals to see more students and to see them more frequently. With a new hybrid model professionals might visit a student in person once a month and see them three times a month virtually.

During the pandemic many TVIs and O&M instructors took part in professional development activities with colleagues across the country, accessing these programs virtually. These programs helped professionals build a stronger sense of community.

Students, too, have benefited from online opportunities. In 2020 and 2021 students from all over the US participated in the NFB BELL Academy® In-Home Edition. Other valuable resources include the Homework Hotline and APH’s Virtual Excel Academy. The Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired hosts an online coffee hour for professionals to get together. Can NFB and other organizations host learning activities throughout the year? Teachers and students could get together with peers all over the country. Now that we've all become more comfortable in the virtual world, perhaps we can leverage that within the blind community for greater opportunities. We hope that professionals will continue to have the flexibility to avail themselves of online resources.

Our research team very much appreciates our close working relationship with the NFB. The Federation has greatly helped us recruit subjects for the research we conduct.

You can learn more about the Access and Engagement studies by visiting https://www.afb.org/research-and-initiatives/education/covid19-education-research. You can find a town hall discussion about the impact of COVID-19 upon education at https://www.afb.org/research-and-intiatives/afb-town-halls/afb-townhall-03-education-across-lifes.

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