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How Online Courses Are Affecting Students With Disabilities

Erin Peter

Are students with disabilities adjusting smoothly to online learning?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020-21 school year is proving to be very different from past years, especially for students with disabilities. As many return to classes for the fall semester, the majority are doing so through their computer screens rather than sitting in a classroom.

Yet, the shift to remote learning has left students with uncertainty regarding the structure of their courses – and these uncertainties are only elevated for students with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, and/or mental illnesses.

University of Ottawa professors are using platforms such as Zoom, Brightspace, and TopHat to post course material, each of which includes accessibility features such as external text-to-speech software compatibility, screen reader support, closed captioning, and accessibility checkers.

However, adhering to accessibility standards does not necessarily ensure that disabled students have enough support to cope with the many challenges associated with distance learning.

When it comes to learning disabilities, many students are simply unable to focus in spaces that are not specified for schoolwork.

Elizabeth Warner, a first-year psychology student at the U of O with learning disabilities says online learning has had a negative impact on her ability to focus. “At home, there are just too many distractions.”

These sentiments echo the thoughts of students throughout the province dealing with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities, for whom online classes can be nearly impossible. According to Statistics Canada, more than 5.3 million Canadians (approximately 16 per cent of the population) are living with some form of disability. Of that number, over 200,000 are under the age of 18.

The Learning Disability Association of Canada estimates that one in ten Canadians has a learning disability caused by genetic or neurobiological factors that alter the way the brain functions, and in turn the cognitive processes related to learning.

These changes can interfere with a person’s ability to learn basic reading, writing, or math, and later on, can interfere with higher-level organizational and time management skills. Without the need to wake up, arrive at a physical classroom, and leave at specific times it can be difficult for students with learning disabilities to strike a balance between being at home and completing schoolwork.

Warner specified that although her learning disability has always made focusing difficult, “it is easier to understand a subject when a teacher is explaining it in front of you”. The opportunity to engage with a teacher allows for variation in a classroom and having a teacher answer a specific question, or just a change in speaker for a short time can help students with learning disabilities better focus.

This is why allowing for frequent breaks, blocking specific times for studying, and avoiding television and cell phones are all important strategies to help students, disabled or not, stay focused.

However, the transition to remote learning can make days feel monotonous and lacking in variety, which has had a severe impact on disabled student’s ability to stay focused.

As educators attempt to address the learning needs of disabled students, it is also important to discuss the impact that remote learning is having on all students’ mental health. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), 7 out of 10 Ontarians believe that there will be a serious mental health crisis as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In July 2020, CAMH reported that most Canadians have seen their stress levels double as they struggle with fears regarding their own health, loved one’s health, financial issues, and increased feelings of isolation ” all as a result of the pandemic. As students not only attempt to cope with the mental health ramifications of a global pandemic, the idea of keeping up with schoolwork can seem unbearable.

Without a predetermined schedule to follow, the only way to keep up with an overwhelming workload is to stay organized. Many resources that students previously had access to, such as libraries are not readily available and the inability to speak with teachers face-to-face makes many students feel as though they have nowhere to turn for help.

Students from different countries and/or time zones are faced with other stressors, such as a lack of reliable internet connection, access to smart devices, and having to attend lectures and evaluations at inconvenient times of the day and night. It is also common for both Canadian and international students to no longer have healthy sleep schedules, because many students will wake up for specific classes only to return to sleep right after.

This combined with not seeing other students and faculty in person is generally contributing to increased feelings of anxiety, nervousness, isolation, fatigue, headaches, and a lack of motivation, all of which are only compounded by added screen-time.

That being said, there are indeed students who welcome online classes, and in some cases, remote learning has proven to be beneficial to students with mental illnesses and physical disabilities. For many students with physical disabilities, the inconvenience of a commute has always proven to be a struggle.

Matthew Affleck is a first-year physics/mathematics student at the University of Ottawa that identifies as someone with a mental illness. When asked about his online learning experience Affleck said he believes online learning is easier for him.

“Oddly enough I think that going online will be easier for me. I get really anxious on campus. I have had a class or two online before and they were fine. I prefer online learning. Like I said it was sometimes rough going to school and being in an actual classroom. I am actually able to focus more on school and treat it like a 9-5 job without having to bus.”

Once a physically disabled person has arrived at school they must also ensure that ramps for mobile-impaired students and special handicap spaces are available if required. Online classes have completely eliminated any physical barriers that previously existed.

Carly Fox, a first-year student in international development and globalization at U of O, described her experiences attending physical classes.

“As someone who is physically disabled, physically attending my classes used to be my main barrier. Now, with everything online, the fear of falling behind due to my physical absence is gone, and I don’t have to worry about my disability inhibiting my education.”

Many courses use asynchronous lectures, allowing for a more flexible schedule. Rather than spending a full six-hour school day on campus, which can often trigger symptoms of mental health disorders, students can structure their days in ways that allow them to complete their studies and help their mental health. The aspect of working from home can also allow for a safe learning environment that is free from social drama and allows some students to better thrive when it comes to their academics.

Interacting with teachers using phones and computers can help mentally ill students feel more comfortable asking questions or sharing their ideas and opinions. This is due to the fact that they have the option to turn their cameras and microphones on and off as they please.

Anxiety about how questions and comments will be received by professors and peers is often lessened by the knowledge that others can only see your face and/or hear your voice when you are comfortable with it.

While the switch to remote learning has proven difficult for all students, especially disabled students, some of the positive aspects of remote learning could help those who did not previously benefit from in-person classes. As schools transition back to in-person classes, it will be imperative that the needs of disabled students are accommodated, so that in the future every student can achieve their full academic potential.

Any students with questions about services and accommodations for disabled students can contact the University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) by using their website contact page.

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