4 Keys to Building a New Beginning for Schools and Workplaces

By Trynia Kaufman

While the coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly caused extreme hardship and trauma for many people, we also have been forced to find new ways to work together, to collaborate, and to accommodate. Much of what we’ve learned could actually put us in a unique position to vastly improve our schools and workplaces going forward.

Instead of going back to “normal”, society has the opportunity for a restart with an eye toward inclusion for all. When we plan with the margins in mind, we create flexible environments where everyone can thrive, including those with learning and thinking differences.

For some, the new ways of working and learning during this coronavirus shutdown have allowed them to shine in ways they never could before. The employee who struggled to follow along and share insights in a meeting can now provide feedback after going back to watch a recording. The student who struggled to sit still in a classroom can now take breaks when needed or even dance around while watching a video lesson.

Now is the time to leverage the discoveries that individuals, workplaces, schools, and families made during coronavirus shutdown so that everyoneregardless of difference or disabilitywill be able to learn, grow, and thrive in a forever-changed world.

Here are four key areas of growth that were born out of this crisis and should be built into the new normal:

Accessibility Is More Than Getting in the Door

The coronavirus shutdown has pushed all of us to confront accessibility at a whole new level. People often think of accessibility on a surface level, something that can be solved by adding ramps and automatic doors to public buildings. But accessibility also means having equitable access to information, like having a sign language interpreter for deaf individuals or audiobooks for students with dyslexia.

Now that much of our work and schooling has moved online, employers and educators have had to think carefully about how they’re delivering information to ensure they’re meeting legally required services and accommodations. Many school districts and employers had to provide devices and secure internet access for individuals who previously lacked access. Employers also had to look for accessible work-from-home tools, and teachers had to think through best practices for online assignments. We have the opportunity to harness these new skills going forward and ensure that information is accessible to everyone, whether remotely or in person.

New ways of working highlight what people with disabilities, including those who learn and think differently, have been telling society all along: accommodations and accessibility don’t have to be expensive or cumbersome, and can actually benefit everyone. There’s an entire population of people who are able and willing to contribute to society, but who have too often struggled to have their needs met.

Kate McWilliams, a Canadian disability rights advocate, started the hashtag #AccessibilityForAbleds to encourage people with disabilities to share their past struggles, to capture the history, and to also highlight why these changes need to stick. That knowledge can help society understand why accommodations, support, and outside-the-box thinking is needed, not just helpful.

Accessibility is just one step in leveling the playing field. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted areas where society has been ineffective, inequitable, and unfair. We now have the momentum to pave the road for the future. In order for everyone to thrive, we need to ensure:

  • Universal internet access (since this is how most learning and information sharing occurs in today’s world)
  • Digital materials that are designed to be accessible
  • Assistive technology supports for individuals, as needed

Putting Universal Design Into Practice

Remote work and distance learning have pushed managers and teachers to think carefully about how to create effective communication tools and work structures. Directions on a worksheet need to be accessible and easy to understand if students are expected to work on it independently at home. In this new working environment, virtual meetings require additional planning from what platform to use to how to create norms for effective communication during the meeting.

Ensuring accessibility and meeting people’s diverse needs can seem like a monumental task, especially since not everyone feels comfortable asking for the accommodations they need. That’s where Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can help. UDL is a framework for teaching that can be effective for workplaces too. Learning doesn’t stop at the classroom doors; it’s a lifelong endeavor. We’re always learning, whether it be life skills or job skills.

Following the three main principles of UDL can help everyone thrive, including people with disabilities:

  1. Provide multiple means for engagement: Share opportunities for employees to work on projects that interest them and match their strengths, while also clearly stating the end objective.
  2. Represent information in multiple formats: Provide information in text, audio, and video, so people can access it whichever way is most accessible to them.
  3. Allow multiple means of expressing knowledge: Give different ways for others to present information, be it an oral presentation, a written report, or other means.

Workplaces and schools haveperhaps unknowinglyadded a few tools to their toolkit that meet these principles. Here are just a few examples that we should carry with us as part of a rebuild:

Using closed captioning for videos and video conferences. This provides the necessary accessibility for deaf people. But it can also:

  • Help when people are in a noisy environment, such as when multiple individuals are working from home at the same time.
  • Help people stay focused or better understand what was said.
  • Supplement live transcription services that can also be used to transcribe meetings.

Recording virtual meetings and lessons. Before the coronavirus, most school lessons and work meetings were not recorded. Although schools and employers will need to ensure they work with their legal teams to find and use a secure platform that adheres to applicable privacy laws, we’d be remiss to not continue using it. Having a recording:

  • Allows people to watch when they’re able and rewind or pause as needed.
  • Allows equal access to information for those who were absent or who have a hard time keeping up.

Planning for continued remote engagement. Many schools and workplaces will likely continue to have a remote component or remote options well into the future. We need to continue planning for how to engage people across varied environments. That may include things like utilizing the chat feature on video conferences or collaborating on shared online workspaces. That allows for:

  • More people’s voices to be heard simultaneously.
  • New contributing voices, such as those of people with anxiety, who are more likely to contribute in writing rather than speaking up in a large meeting.

Strategy Instruction and Development

New strategies and structures of support have been essential for remote work and distance learning during the coronavirus shutdown. While for some people the opportunity for self-directed work can be highly motivating, many struggle with it. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t motivated.

For some, spending all of their time at home may make them feel lonely, under-stimulated, and unmotivated. Others are having to learn how to use new devices and platforms, which increases the amount of time and energy they have to spend on each task. Students and adults with executive functioning issues may also be struggling to manage their time, remember due dates, and maintain focus. Even those of us who typically don’t struggle in these areas can find it hard to focus and learn new information due to the stress of the coronavirus.

Even before distance learning became the norm, teachers often dedicated class time to teaching students strategies and skills for how to use new technology, organize assignments and manage their time; but the need for this type of strategy instruction has increased with distance learning. This is especially true for students who already have executive function challenges, like students with ADHD. Also, many managers may have found themselves needing to check-in with employees more frequently to help them develop new strategies for managing their workload while at home.

These needs will continue to exist after the coronavirus. But the truth is, they existed well before the coronavirus. They’ve just been brought to the forefront and become more acceptable to talk about. As we look ahead, we need to keep these conversations at the center, as many of these strategies could lead to even greater outcomes if continued in the long run. Strategies like:

  • Scheduling regular check-ins.
  • Checking for understanding.
  • Helping with goal-setting.
  • Reflecting on strategies that have worked, as well as new strategies to try.
  • Asking: “What can I do to help you thrive?”

Flexibility, Adaptability, and Empathy

Many teachers have shared how valuable it has been to see their students’ home environments while video conferencing. The cramped spaces, distractions, background noise, as well as the stuffed animals, family pictures, and pets, helped teachers to better understand their students.

Knowing the challenges and motivations that others are experiencing can help us be empathetic because we understand them better. And this heightened empathy makes us more apt to adapt and be flexible enough to meet their needs.

The coronavirus has revealed and exacerbated the differences in all of us, but in some ways, our capacity for empathy has sky-rocketed. Since we’re all impacted in one way or another, many of us have been more likely to check-in with each other about how things are really going. We’re more willing to allow employees and co-workers to shift responsibilities as needed to tend to family or health needs or to allow extended deadlines for students.

Similarly, workplaces and schools have updated their policies to allow for more flexibility and support to meet people’s physical, familial, and emotional needs. Many employers have expanded paid sick leave policies and allowed employees to flex their schedules and duties to deal with family obligations. Schools have done away with attendance rewards and have sought out new ways to support students’ social, emotional, and physical needs.

We need this empathy and flexibility all the time, not just now. The hard truth is that while many families are in crisis right now, there will always be families and individuals struggling at any given moment. And even without a crisis, some people will always have learning and thinking differences. Kids and adults develop different skills at different rates. We have different strengths, challenges, and motivations. And the differences in individual needs will very likely continue to increase as unemployment rates rise and learning gaps widen due to the coronavirus shutdown. Meanwhile, the impact of financial instability, trauma, and stress is likely to cause long-term repercussions for employees and students alike.

As we start planning what our new normal should look like, we need to lead with empathy and plan with the margins in mind. Our success will depend on our willingness to address inequities and create a world where everyone truly has the opportunity to thrive.

Trynia Kaufman, MS, senior manager of editorial research, former special education teacher, neuroscience nerd, and speaker at education conferences across the nation.

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