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A Lesson in Making Online Learning Accessible

UMD Takes Steps to Ensure Accommodations Continue as Classes Shift to Digital-Only

By Annie Krakower

Blue keyboard with keys showing symbols of accessibility, hearing loss and blindness

Illustration by iStock

As the University of Maryland prepares to shift all classes this semester online amid the coronavirus pandemic, it is seeking to ensure students have the tools they need to succeed by Monday’s starting date.

For some, the transition to an online-only environment to help limit the spread of COVID-19 might seem as easy as logging on to your PC in your PJs. But for students who have disabilities and rely on classroom accommodations, the change isn’t so simple. 

“Accommodations right now are crucial for students with disabilities in accessing content,” said Anna Kraemer Ph.D. ‘20, a member of the President’s Commission on Disability Issues’ (PCDI) student advisory committee that helps raise awareness about student accessibility concerns. “If you can't access the content, you can't study for the exam. It's as simple as that.”

As the University of Maryland prepares to shift all classes this semester online amid the coronavirus pandemic, UMD is seeking to ensure students have the tools they need to succeed by Monday’s starting date. Members of the Division of Information Technology, the Counseling Center, and Accessibility and Disability Service (ADS) collaborated to create a hub of resources and guidelines for both faculty and students, available at

“The situation is definitely unprecedented for all of us. It’s a big and quick shift for everyone,” said Ana Palla-Kane, senior IT accessibility and UX specialist and PCDI co-chair. “Some students have a disability where this abrupt change might cause even more challenges. We needed new strategies and to leverage our current resources to be successful.”

While the move to digital-only might be more seamless for some students—Kraemer, who is autistic, finds video meetings easier than in-person ones since she can better control the sensory experience—others rely on accommodations such as extra time for exams, note-takers or sign language interpreters that would need to be adapted to the new reality.

As the COVID-19 outbreak worsened early this month, leaders from different units began assessing those accommodations, said Chetan Joshi, director of the Counseling Center. For each, they asked, “How will this be implemented online? If it can’t be, what are some alternatives?”

For example, UMD’s Enterprise Learning Management System (ELMS) Canvas features built-in tools for instructors to give students extra time on exams. Peer note-taking can continue as usual, while lecture-recording tools like Panopto are available to expedite audio note-taking. ADS will provide remote sign language interpreters, as well as professional captioning for pre-recorded lectures. To support students who use screen readers, Microsoft Word or Google documents are preferable to PDFs, and all photos should include alternative text.

Those suggestions and more are laid out on the Keep Teaching website, with resources for both students and instructors. UMD has also created a central email address,, so that anyone who has accessibility/disability-related questions or concerns during this uncertain time can easily connect with staff to get those questions answered.

“Having this central email address will allow for a feedback loop between faculty, staff and students with accessibility/disability-related concerns and the staff at the university who can provide help and support,” Joshi said.

And although the shift online requires flexibility from all involved, it’s a good reminder of how creating accessible lessons can be beneficial for everyone, said Tessa DiPerri, disability specialist at ADS.

“I think the positive side of this is it’s going to show everyone that accommodating folks is actually not that difficult,” she said. “It helps strengthen the relationship with folks across campus.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.