When my law school announced its transition to remote learning in mid-March due to COVID-19, I was relieved that my school was taking safety seriously, while simultaneously concerned about whether remote learning would be accessible to me. I spent the last few days of spring break going through a process that I know is all too familiar to disabled students: thinking through what the accessibility challenges might be, and researching what I would need to handle them. With help from friends in the disability community, I was able to find resources that made the switch to remote learning manageable for me. As I know that many students are continuing with remote learning this fall, I have put together a list of the resources that I have found most useful for navigating online learning as a disabled law student.
Note: I have used nearly all of these resources myself, and have found them to be accessible with the JAWS screen reader. However, there may still be accessibility issues with these resources. Please feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org if you find that one of these resources doesn’t work for you, or if you have a suggestion for another resource that should be on this list.
Accessing Textbooks and Other Study Materials
As it can be difficult to get a hold of hard copies of textbooks safely these days, you may find that getting textbooks in e-book formats is a better option for you. I have used e-books for years and found that Vital Source had nearly all of the textbooks I needed for 1L in accessible formats. Their e-book reader took some getting used to for me, so I would recommend taking some time to familiarize yourself with it if you can. If a book does not show up on the search engine for Vital Source, you may need to search for it on West Academic. Once you purchase the digital book from West, you will be linked to Vital Source to read it. Also, check with your campus bookstore to find out if they have any e-book options available.
For study aids, check your law school library’s website to find out what materials they have available online. Many schools have made more content available in digital formats recently, sometimes including materials like practice exams that were traditionally only available to reserve in person. If there is a study aid you need and aren’t able to find, check with a law librarian at your school to see if there is a way to obtain an electronic copy of it.
Accessing Virtual Meeting Platforms
At most law schools, virtual classes take place on video conferencing software. Unfortunately, the accessibility of this software varies widely. It can be helpful to read about what accessibility features your school’s chosen platform has, and to take time to learn to use these features. Once you have done this, it can also be useful to have a video call with a friend or family member on the platform, to test out how accessible it is to you and to determine what accommodations you may need to access class virtually.
Here are some links to articles and guides outlining the accessibility features of specific video conferencing platforms:
Accessing Class Materials and Assignments
I have noticed that one advantage to the virtual classroom environment is that professors tend to share more material electronically, instead of writing it on a chalkboard or handing it out. However, oftentimes this material comes in the form of a PDF that is an image of text, which can pose problems for students with visual disabilities. Though OCR software like Abbyy Reader can convert these images into text that is easier to read, this software is usually expensive. One free resource that I have used is Robo Braille, which uses OCR to convert files into accessible documents. You can choose from a few different formats, and usually get your document emailed to you within a half an hour (but it’s always good to allow for delays). There are also other OCR converters out there, but often the ones that are free have page limits.
Online learning can differ from in-person learning in some significant ways, and you may find that you need new or different accommodations to be able to access your legal education in this environment. As this is so new for many of us, it can be difficult to know where to start or what exactly you should request as an accommodation. It may be helpful to schedule a meeting with your school’s Disability Services office to discuss your concerns and options. Also, remember that NDLSA is here to support you, and our Accommodations Committee is happy to answer questions about this process.
This webinar with the American Bar Association gives some valuable insights into the institutional barriers that disabled students may face in virtual classrooms. Plus, it features a few of our NDLSA board members!
One concern that some disabled students have about remote learning is whether online learning management systems will allow for extra time on take-home tests and quizzes. Most systems, including Blackboard and Canvas, do provide this option. Here are links to information that may be useful for requesting testing accommodations:
(in the “Test Availability Exceptions” section)
Time Management and Self-Care
Dealing with the added accessibility challenges of remote learning can take up a large amount of time and energy for disabled students. Personally, I discovered that having a system for managing my time was even more important than usual for mental health and avoiding burnout. I relied mostly on the Pomodoro Method, a system that involves setting a timer for the length of time you want to focus, followed by a timer for a break. I also used the Forest App and the Self-Control Chrome Extension, which assist with staying focused and minimizing distractions from social media or news sites. It is important to remember not to be hard on yourself about productivity and focus during these unprecedented times, and to set realistic and attainable goals for each day.
This Coronavirus Survival Guide, written by NDLSA executive board member Tara Roslin and published in the National Jurist, offers many valuable tips for self-care and study habits for students attending law school remotely.
As cliché as it may sound, one of the most valuable resources we can have during these times is community. Friends, family members, and classmates can all serve as incredible sources of support as we navigate this new way of learning. If your school has an organization for disabled students, this may be a great time to connect with them and for members to share ideas and strategies for remote learning. Also, NDLSA is here to be a resource for disabled law students! If you have questions or concerns about making online learning accessible to you, don’t hesitate to contact NDLSA at email@example.com.