Due to the University operating remotely for the Fall 2020 semester, the Rutgers Office of Disability Services, has learned to adapt its services accordingly.
The transition was aided by decisions made prior to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic to improve the organization and accessibility of its services, said Kathy Loder-Murphy, the assistant director of the Office of Disability Services. The office had already been working electronically and was exploring different methods to do so.
“We immediately went remote, and the interesting part is that because ... we planned to switch over to electronic files and systems, (and) we already met with (students) via Skype for meetings, it was actually a very seamless transition, which we are still very surprised about,” she said.
Carlie Andrews, senior director of the office, said that one change for the office involves test administration. She said the most common accommodations they have approved for students is a reduced distraction testing environment.
“When we are in person, that often means a student taking a test in a location separate from the rest of their class,” Andrews said. “Now that students are in their homes, they are responsible for setting up an environment that works for them which has sometimes been challenging!”
Loder-Murphy said now the Office of Disability Services has shifted focus to supporting professors because they are in charge of test administration, and due to remote instruction, it is mostly happening through learning platforms like Canvas and Sakai.
“We’ve learned from the spring that we’re a little more involved in that process now than before, we want to make sure that students, if they want to request support with the exam, can fill out exam request forms to help us connect to professors so we can really highlight what professors want training and what we can do to support the faculty,” she said.
Loder-Murphy has also found that the online transition helped level the playing field for students with disabilities because everyone is now benefiting and struggling with similar issues.
She said they have found that under the current circumstances, many things have adapted to where they help both students with disabilities and those without, such as being able to record a lecture. Students also have more access to professors due to the online shift.
The Office of Disability Services has increased its service offerings specifically for the online semester.
“We've utilized a variety of tools and resources offered to make the move to online operations possible ... from video conferencing tools to ensure we can still meet ‘face to face’ with students and campus partners, to hardware like loaner laptops to ensure staff can access (and) complete their work and tech support to make sure all these systems are working as expected,” said Kasey March, the office’s department administrator supervisor.
Andrews said the office has launched a new website to include specific information about receiving accommodations online for both students and faculty. She said these resources were selected due to the results they received from surveys.
There is also now a live chat available on their website and drop-in sessions are regularly provided, Loder-Murphy said. The chat feature can be accessed by students, faculty and other campus partners during normal business hours, March said.
Loder-Murphy said they have seen an increase in students coming forward to utilize their services.
“Particularly right now, because assignments are due and midterms are in full swing, an interesting trend we saw was that students are taking more classes than before,” Loder-Murphy said. “We’re seeing a ton of students come forward with persistent anxiety.”
The office works with Rutgers Counseling, Alcohol and Other Drug Assistance Programs and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) and similar services that focus on support, counseling and mindfulness, she said.
To reach the Office of Disability Services, March said students and faculty should complete a registration form on their website. Students and faculty can also receive more information about the office by submitting an inquiry form.
Even after the pandemic, Loder-Murphy said the online services provided by the office will continue to be available.
“What we might recognize is that we can continue an online presence at Rutgers, a much stronger online presence than we had before,” Loder-Murphy said.
“Students used to have trouble accessing (these) services physically (due to the) large campus, but now there’s no hesitation to have a Zoom/Skype meeting with them. Ability to access people in remote (environments) will continue being an option and a strength moving forward,” Loder-Murphy said.