COVID-19 shapes future of accessibility services at WVU

While ensuring that students received equal access to courses and lectures during the COVID-19 pandemic, West Virginia University’s Office of Accessibility Services developed a new Transcriber Mentorship Program to meet the nearly-doubled increase in demand for those services. Combined with the closed Work-Study Captioning Program, which saw a 900% increase in requests during the pandemic, the Office of Accessibility Services reduced outside expenses by nearly a quarter of a million dollars over the last two years.

“Some students who are hard of hearing do not request services —in face-to-face classes, they may feel they can sit close enough or read lips,” said Jason Kapcala, OAS Assistant Director of Captioning and Interpreting. “When classes moved online during the pandemic or required everyone to wear facemasks, we saw more students requesting transcribing because it became difficult for them to hear everything that was happening in the classroom.”

As the pandemic increased need for the office’s services, students in the mentorship program, launched in the fall of 2019, began to do more of the work, reducing the need for third-party vendors, which is now cut in half, Kapcala said.

“We also noticed an increase in overall quality, as well,” he said. “The mentees are highly committed, and with our tutelage, do a more accurate and thorough job than most third-party vendors.”

Since the program’s launch, the Office of Accessibility Services has mentored 15 beginner transcribers, providing them with an opportunity to build occupational networks and hone their skills in real college classes, working alongside WVU’s team of seasoned professionals for a semester. The effect on the profession has been significant with mentees, on average, reporting a 53% increase in confidence and a 20% increase in skill after just one semester. The program has received a 100% satisfaction rating from participants.

The first of its kind to offer hands-on professional development for recent transcribers who are new to the profession, the program’s in-house team of seven professional transcribers and sign language interpreters work to make the classroom more accessible for students who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Kapcala said the OAS saw a significant increase in the number of classroom videos shown, which called for more closed captioning, as well. The OAS’ new Work-Study Captioning Program provides WVU students with the opportunity to earn financial aid while providing caption editing services for videos shown in WVU courses. Over the course of three semesters, 21 students have earned almost $30,000 in federal financial aid while learning practical skills toward developing their résumés.

“Like many units, we got hit hard,” said Kelly Barnard, OAS Captioning Coordinator. “Our full-time staff never once balked at the challenge, but when you’re looking at over 25,000 minutes of video in need of captioning, you’re definitely happy for the help. At the end of the day, it’s about serving students and ensuring that they have the services they need to be successful.”