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Navigating an Online Education for Students with Disabilities

Last updated on May 4, 2020

Due to the current Covid-19 global pandemic, all schools have been moved to online for the spring semester. This has affected every single person, whether it be academically, financially, or mentally. As a student who has accommodations through the Office of Student Disabilities, the shift to online learning has been a huge challenge and an adjustment. When the news broke that Saint Joseph’s was moved to online, the first thing that came to my mind was, “how is this going to affect my accomodations?” and “I am so worried that not having in person classes will lead me to fall behind in my work.” Thanks to the school’s continued resources, myself and others have not felt so alone. 

I spoke with Dr. Christine Mecke, from the Office of Student Disability, at SJU to further discuss what it is like for students with disabilities during the Covid-19 pandemic:

O:What is your role in the Office of Student Disability?

C: “I am the director of Student Disability Services here at SJU.”

O:How has the switch to online classes impacted how best to navigate helping students with disabilities and their accommodations? 

C: “The switch has been hard for many of us who are used to meeting and working with students in person.  I have learned way more about Zoom than I ever thought I would need!  I am also surprised by the number of students who would prefer to zoom than to talk on the phone or communicate via email. I think that is great!”

O:Has there been an increase or decrease of students needing accommodations during the switch from in person classes to online? 

C: “There has definitely been an increase in the number of students seeking accommodations since we went online.  Many students are struggling with anxiety and depression.  They are worried about their family and friends getting sick or have been impacted by COVID-19 in their families. Students with ADHD have also been inquiring about accommodations because they are so distracted by being at home, not being able to find a suitable spot to be online for their courses or to find a place that is conducive to studying.”

O:How do you think this is affecting the students overall? 

C: “I think all of us are having a hard time adjusting so quickly to such a big change that is impacting every part of our lives as well as all of our friends and families.  Most of us like the structure and security of knowing what is happening and trust what the sequence of events is, especially related to your classes. Now, we have been so quickly asked to change things all around. Our world is topsy-turvy right now.  This has been especially hard for students who are now home, may have to help out with childcare, or work due to family financial changes, or just such a change in living environments.”

O:When it comes to extended time for exams, what does that look like? 

C: “We are still asking students to submit their requests for extended time through Accommodate just so professors know that they may need to set the parameters differently for the student, compared to other students in the class. It also documents that the student did make the request.  All exams are now online and being proctored by their professors (except for a very few exams) which are being proctored by Pat Gregg via zoom.”

Even though the current state of the world is out of our hands, it has shed a light to the world of disabilities in a way that never has been before. Since the beginning of the pandemic, everyone’s world has completely turned upside down and the changes we have made are becoming our new norms. Growth and learning are two main areas of focus during these times and are also two foundational traits of accessibility.

Since this all came at us so quickly and without much time to plan, I am sure most schools and universities did not have much time to properly educate teachers on how best to support students with disabilities.Through my own personal experience and from the thoughts of others, here are a few ways on how teachers can best to support during this time: 

  • Consider universal design for learning (UDL)
  • Check for accessibility features and compliance

Thankfully, the most commonly used online platforms, such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Skype have clearly provided which tools they have. 

  • Teach the layout of the specific online programs

Take one class or offer out of class time to walk through how the program of use works. 

  • Verbally let students know that they are here for them and acknowledge the difficulties present. 

All anyone wants is to know what they are seen, heard, and not forgotten during these trying times. 

Aimie Hamaraie, author of Building Access Universal Design and the Politics of Disability, explores the idea of friction. Fiction is “the relationship between one’s body and the environment, and the degree in which struggles take place.” In short, friction is the difficulties between bodies and environments. Friction is heavily present in today’s world for people with disabilities on every level. When it comes to accommodations and navigating through these difficult times, reducing friction is the primary goal. 

By: Olivia Schargel, 2021

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