COVID-19 and Accessibility in Higher Education

Posted by


By: Kate Fleming

The shift to online learning in higher education due to the COVID-19 pandemic raises accessibility concerns for students adapting to new modes of instruction. While navigating these challenging times has been a learning curve for many higher ed students, experts have shown that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted students with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities at work, in school, on transportation, and in all spaces open to the public to ensure the same accessibility and availability of resources. Disabilities are not limited to visible physical impairments. They include invisible disabilities, such as Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, eating disorders, learning issues, anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and more. As National Public Radio has reported, people with such disabilities face particular challenges in everyday life, and these challenges have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. For example, some students have increased mental health concerns, while others have issues accessing online course material.

From a higher education perspective, online learning is not optimal for some students with disabilities. The sudden shift online due to COVID-19 in Spring 2020 caused problems for these students due to changes in their learning environment, difficulties with electronic materials, and other unique stressors. For example, students with mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder; may not have had the same access to Campus Health due to remote learning and temporary changes in the provision of services; this can increase medical worries. Additionally, the pandemic has strained healthcare systems and led to shortages in medical supplies. Health-care supply chains are based on efficiency, so hospitals did not have stockpiles of supplies handy this Spring. Fears of medical rationing have added to the stress of the pandemic for people with disabilities who may be prevented from getting life-saving treatment. Moreover, as the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have explained, online learning can be isolating in addition to the stress of the pandemic. Having a disability is already an isolating experience for some, and people with disabilities are more vulnerable to loneliness.

Although much of the delivery of higher education has shifted online, institutions must still meet the requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (Title II), and other Federal disability statutes. Generally, postsecondary institutions must provide academic adjustments, auxiliary aids and services, and reasonable modifications in policies, practices, and procedures, where doing so would not impose an undue burden nor cause a fundamental alteration to the service, program, or activity. Examples of accommodations include the use of captioning or transcripts for audio clips for individuals with hearing impairments, and the use of keyboard alternatives for individuals with visual impairments.

The COVID Response Legal Clinic at the University at Buffalo was created in response to new and urgent legal needs arising from the disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Student attorneys in this clinic will help provide legal assistance in multiple legal areas and strive to provide “helpful help” to lessen the burden on existing legal services providers. The COVID Response Legal Clinic is committed to ensuring students know how to report any accessibility concerns and are aware of their legal rights.

Enrolled students with accessibility concerns can contact the University at Buffalo to report issues, suggest improvements, or share information about the steps their department is taking to ensure equal access. Students can also contact their professors with questions and concerns. For further information about accessibility or to file a formal report of discrimination, students can contact the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. If you or someone you know would like to speak with someone about mental wellness, the University at Buffalo provides free counseling.

The situation regarding mental health is similar at many other institutions of higher learning, according to Inside Higher Ed. As one scholar has noted, however, “[w]ith the experience attained supporting students in this pandemic, universities will be well positioned to help college students stay well in mind, body, and spirit during other challenging times.”

Resources from the University at Buffalo:

Additional resources:

  • Webinars by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) addressing accessible online content can be found here and here.
  • The U.S. Department of Education’s questions and answers for postsecondary education institutions regarding COVID-19.
  • The Department of Education’s OCR guidance on the law regarding the ADA and higher education and a fact sheet on the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s information on emotional well-being during the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • A list of tips available from the University of Washington for teaching an accessible online class.


Katherine Fleming, Student Attorney

COVID Response Legal Clinic

JD, Class of 2021