How students with disabilities navigate online courses
By: Kianni Reynolds-Lewis
The fall semester has begun, and students are settling into their new classes. But rather than sitting in a classroom, many are sitting at computer screens. As universities across the city are taking coronavirus prevention precautions, with many opting for fully or partially online classes, many students have been left uncertain about the structure of their courses.
These uncertainties are only elevated for students with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, and/or mental illnesses.
Professors at MacEwan University are using platforms such as Zoom and Blackboard Collaborate to deliver course material, each of which includes accessibility features such as external text-to-speech software compatibility, screen reader support and closed captioning.
However, adhering to accessibility standards doesn’t necessarily mean that students with disabilities have enough support to manage the many challenges associated with remote learning.
For example, with learning disabilities, many students are simply unable to focus in spaces that aren’t for schoolwork. Courtney Yarmuch, a second-year English major at MacEwan with ADHD, says online courses have harmed her ability to focus.
“They aren’t conducive for me,” said Yarmuch, who was diagnosed in high school. “In-person classes physically gets me up and forces me to pay attention, so my brain clicks in that it’s ‘learning time.’ While at home, it’s easier to click off and think I can do this anytime during the day.”
According to Statistics Canada, more than 5.3 million Canadians (approximately 16 per cent of the population) live with some form of disability, and over 200,000 of them are under the age of 18.
Yarmuch specified that, although her learning disability has always made focusing difficult, she uses a reward system to keep her mind from wandering. “I’ll cut my readings into chunks and read for a half-hour then do what I want for another half hour.” This technique—known to help students study more effectively and assist those with learning disabilities like ADHD—makes it easier for the brain to focus on a task at hand, knowing that it will receive a reward afterward.
To address the learning needs of disabled students, MacEwan relies on the help of learning specialists at its Access and Disability Resources (ADR) centre, formerly Services to Students with Disabilities (SSD).
“When I first heard the news [about online delivery], I thought that maybe challenging,” said Heidi Andersen, a learning specialist at ADR. “I thought there’s going to be some students that will prefer the online learning environment and other students who would find that to be challenging.”
Andersen, who worked for ADR from 2017-2018 before rejoining July 1 of this year, works one-on-one with students and helps arrange learning accommodations. She also develops Individual Support Plans (ISP), which combine the information given explicitly to ADR by a student, the documentation they’ve shared, information on the university environment and the layout of courses and programs.
The ADR team is currently working remotely but continues helping students through phone and video chats. “For those that like the face-to-face experience, we’re still able to have that interaction,” said Andersen. As for the accommodations themselves, they are “very similar.” Students who are allowed extra time on campus are still given extra time online, and the length of exams is changed on their Blackboard.
While the switch to online learning has been difficult for students, especially those with disabilities, some have found benefits that in-person classes didn’t offer.
Alex Mutch, a fourth-year biology major at MacEwan with colourblindness, is more open to online learning since he previously wasn’t
allowed to do in-person titration labs – he couldn’t tell when the colours changed.
“I’m kind of infamous in the biology department,” laughed Mutch. “Everyone in the department essentially knows [I’m colourblind] and how to accommodate me. It’s a very minor disability. It’s one of the easiest to overcome; you just have to work a little harder. I email a prof, and they either recolour a diagram or explain it a little better.”
In other efforts to address the learning needs of disabled students, ADR employs accessibility assistants like Birgit Doering.
Part of Doering’s job during the pandemic is making sure all students can participate safely in face-to-face classes. This involves taking a computer into any in-person classes of students who are immunocompromised, allowing them to actively participate in the class. “It’s a great way to keep the student involved and feel like they’re there and learning,” said Doering.
It’s examples like this that show just how crucial it will be that, during the switch to online classes, the needs of disabled students are continuously considered in order for everyone to achieve their full academic potential.