Students with disabilities share the ups and downs of online classes
“I was incapable of performing at the level I usually am,” one student says
Uprooted from campus in a matter of days, American University students faced an unprecedented amount of stress when classes transitioned online, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But for students with disabilities, the switch posed a threat to their usual accomodations and learning habits that have been moulded for an in-person setting.
The Academic Support and Access Center, which serves about 6,000 students a year, provides support for all students and more extensive accommodations for students with disabilities. When the University transitioned online in the spring, they had to adapt a virtual setting.
For students with disabilities, ASAC serves as a resource they can rely on for testing accommodations, assistive technology, like text-to-speech support, and priority registration for courses.
Sami Pye, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, has been using ASAC accommodations since the first semester of her freshman year. When the University announced in March that classes would be moved online, she was concerned about what that meant for her accommodations.
“Suddenly I went from taking my finals in a really controlled environment, to taking them in my childhood bedroom,” Pye said. “I was incapable of performing at the level I usually am.”
While ASAC did quickly transition most of their services online, according to Associate Director of Disability Support Nicole Nowinski, some of their services, such as the testing center, can no longer be physically utilized by students.
Nowinski said one of the biggest changes has been that, while they still provide testing accommodations, ASAC no longer manages the logistics of administering the tests. With professors now managing test administration, students have to notify them about using their accommodations at least seven days prior to an assessment.
“But with that shift, our staff, we've intentionally provided information to students, to let them know that if they need support with this change, we're available and how to talk with faculty about that change,” Nowinski said, noting that professors are legally required to allow those accommodations to be used if they are notified in advance.
Pye is one of many students struggling with the challenges posed by an online modality. Alida Austin, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Public Affairs, said she is having a hard time paying attention in online classes. Austin is diagnosed with ADHD.
In person, Austin, like Pye, had accommodations to take structured, physical breaks during class. Now, she said there is no distinction between breaks and online learning, especially if professors don’t require students to turn their cameras on.
“In a physical setting, if I'm sitting on my phone, professors can tell,” Austin said. “[Now] I can get up and go make myself coffee, I can do cooking. I can basically do whatever.”
Austin also discussed how asynchronous classes can be particularly challenging, and she's unsure if she is learning as much as she used to. She said it is easy to skim slides and miss information when the lectures are completed individually.
“I worry a little bit about if any of this is actually cemented in my brain,” Austin said.
Pye previously went to the ASAC office weekly to organize her notes and set up a schedule for her week that helped her with time management. She said when the office had to transition all of their services online, she felt like AU ignored the accommodations that students with disabilities already had.
“I feel like students with disabilities were definitely thrown under the rug when all of this went down and so many accommodations were made for other people,” Pye said. “I feel like I'm just floating around trying to figure out my academics on my own now in a way that I'm not really used to.”
Dean of Undergraduate Education Jessica Waters said ASAC expanded many of their services to the whole AU community, which led them to invest more in assistive technology and software and increase the staff in some academic support offices.
However, for senior Victoria Vena, not having to physically attend in-person classes has improved her mental health and her ability to better manage her grades. She said she found many attendance policies for in-person classes to be “super ableist.”
“There are definitely days where I wake up and I don’t have the energy to get out of bed or just the thought of having to – and I lived off-campus – get up, bring myself all the way to campus and get there was so overwhelming,” Vena said. “I just wouldn’t go to class and now that’s mitigated by being able to take classes from the comfort of my own bed.”
Dealing with depression throughout college, Vena said she stopped requesting ASAC accomodations after her sophomore year because she couldn’t actively see a doctor each semester to receive a note. She said it seemed like a waste of time and energy to restart the process for the accommodations to be renewed just as they began.
Nowinski said since the transition to online classes, new registrations for accommodations have decreased. She said this could be due to the fact that some students’ needs are met through the online learning environment, but there is no data or evidence to prove that.
As a result of this transition, Waters said she and other administrators were challenged to think about new ways to engage students who may have had trouble participating in-person.
“Maybe [students] are, verbally speaking, maybe they are engaging in the chat function, maybe it is in breakout rooms,” Waters said. “So, I think it has really forced us to grapple with, how do we create meaningful student engagement versus just attendance and participation.”
She said that online classes, while challenging for many, have also presented an opportunity for the University to consider how to expand more inclusive options for all students in the future.
“I think it also advances the conversation around inclusive pedagogy as well,” Waters said. “Making sure that the learning in our classes is fully available to[students] in an inclusive way. I think in some ways those conversations have advanced.”
Inclusive pedagogy refers to a student-centered approach to teaching that focuses on varied learning styles and abilities and prioritizes equity in the classroom.
The University is already exploring new ways they can adapt to challenges students face.
AU made adjustments to the “Freshman Forgiveness” policy, which previously allowed students within their first 30 credits at the University to repeat two classes for a grade replacement. Waters said the University renamed it “Course Repetition and Grade Replacement,” since any undergraduate can now use it at any point during their academic career.
Vena said she would like to see some of the current aspects of online school maintained when AU transitions back to in-person classes.
“Even if I am having a bad day and for whatever reason I’m not in class, the fact that I can go onto Blackboard and watch a recording of class, making sure that I’m literally not missing a single thing that the professor says is super reassuring,” Vena said. “I would love to see that somehow be continued even when in-person classes are resumed.”