by John Loeppky
November 15, 2022

With the shift to online learning, students with disabilities face new barriers

They may not have to navigate campus, but online learning has brought new challenges

Students attend a lecture at the University of Calgary (Courtesy of the University of Calgary)

Shae Sackman is a University of Regina student who uses the school’s Centre for Student Accessibility to arrange the accommodations that they require for their studies (Sackman uses the they/them pronouns), including a quiet space for exams and the provision of occasional absences. The system Sackman navigates has always expected a lot of students with disabilities. For example, to receive accommodations at most Canadian universities, a student has to have a letter from a doctor and go through a lengthy intake process. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to online learning, the availability of disability support—as well as the needs of those with disabilities—has radically changed and, on balance, become even more challenging.

“Previous to COVID, I spent a lot of time chasing forms, submitting forms, signing paperwork, having conversations and navigating exam-time stuff with accommodation services,” Sackman says. “All of that [support] has gone away for the most part, and you’re just on your own, which is a lot of work.”

Students with disabilities call Canadian universities and colleges their educational homes now more than ever. The National Educational Association of Disabled Students’ (NEADS) analysis of Statistics Canada’s 2012 Survey on Disability found that 207,180 students with disabilities were or had recently been enrolled at a post-secondary institution. (In its 1998 analysis, NEADS estimated that only 96,000 were enrolled during that school year.) There is still ground to make up, but the gains that have been made are largely the result of the creation of more supports for disabled students, more funding streams through programs such as Canada Student Loans and an acknowledgement that education is a human right.

But ableism—discrimination based on disability—remains a problem in the academy. As a student with cerebral palsy, I have repeatedly had to fight for my right to be in university spaces and to have my accommodations—such as the use of a computer during an exam—met. There is a constant assumption that disability supports are nice-to-haves rather than absolute requirements. And while support office staff have proved to be helpful on the whole, they are still working within a system that distrusts disabled students. The pandemic has also had an impact: although students may no longer be required to be on campus in many cases, barriers to access related to technology and online learning have only increased. This is a problem that Sackman and I, who share an advocacy and community space at the University of Regina, run into repeatedly. And it’s a problem common to students at other Canadian universities. According to Frank Smith, national coordinator of NEADS, a lack of access to quick and reliable internet service and conducting accessibility office procedures online are among the biggest challenges that students with disabilities face in Canadian educational institutions. “There are issues of cost, and there are issues of availability,” he says.

Sara Wysman is a graduate student at the University of Guelph who says the effects of COVID on her health have been stark. “It’s hard enough to [set up accommodations] when things are normal, and you can just go in and book an appointment and see somebody and work it out,” she says. “But it’s a lot harder when you, all of a sudden, have to go through email or video chat, especially when you’re on the autism spectrum and you have social anxieties. That all sort of spirals into your mental health.” Wysman says her needs for accommodations and supports around counselling and time-management skill development could be addressed if there were less bureaucracy. “Disability life is like, ‘We have all of these things that are going to help you navigate society and life in general, but you need to jump through these flaming six-foot-high hoops. Meanwhile you’re on the ground going, ‘But I can’t jump.’ ”

Sackman, who has a persistent dissociative disorder, describes the shift to online learning as “fraught.” They list accommodations such as a required quiet space for test-taking as an impossibility in the now-online environment, but also argue that accommodations as currently written often overly focus on physical space. One accommodation that Sackman has been repeatedly denied is for unexcused absences; the professor believes being at home should resolve the barriers that preclude a student from attending. In reality, as Sackman puts it, “Just because it’s online doesn’t mean I don’t still have dissociative episodes.”

Sackman, a University of Regina student, encounters obstacles to education at home and school (Photograph by Danielle Tocker)

“Barriers have changed,” says Teri Phillips, director of McGill’s Office for Students with Disabilities. While online learning and assessment have reduced certain barriers (for example, the time it takes to get to and from campus), Phillips’s office is hearing from students who need more support to manage stress and to reduce procrastination at home. She says universities would do well to learn how to incorporate universal design learning (UDL) principles, a methodology that prioritizes accessibility in course design, including flexibility during test-taking.

When contacted for this story, the University of Regina sent a statement that read, in part: “Students registered with the Centre for Student Accessibility (CSA) may have a diagnosis or condition (either temporary or permanent) that may make the adaptation to remotely delivered classes more difficult, and as a result, the establishment of a new routine may be a more difficult transition. However, the CSA has not seen an increase in requests for accommodations from students living with a disability since the current COVID-19 pandemic measures have been implemented by the university.”

The Higher Education Quality Control Council of Ontario recently released a report entitled “Improving the Accessibility of Remote Higher Education: Lessons from the Pandemic and Recommendations,” which included a survey of 600 students, a third of whom identified as having a disability. Among the report’s recommendations is the implementation of UDL principles in all courses. Educators may “lean on” those they work with to make courses more accessible and inclusive.

Seanna Takacs is a faculty member in Kwantlen Polytechnic’s Accessibility Services department. She is a universal design consultant for the campus’s learning commons and co-chair of the Accessibility and Inclusion Community of Practice for the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services. She says UDL is particularly useful during this pandemic. “COVID has been helpful in [showing] that barriers can be present for everybody,” she says. “The UDL framework helps us sort of zoom out and say, ‘What does accessibility look like for everybody in the first place?’ ”

Takacs says many of the touchstone aspects of UDL focus on the connection between students and their work. “The pieces around engagement are really, really key,” she says. “What does communication look like? What does it mean to belong to a community? What does it mean for there to be a threat to engagement? What is it that’s going to keep students more inhibited and possibly unwilling or unable to engage in the material or engage in their learning community?”

Yet other inhibiting factors exist. Shae Sackman has been refused extended time to complete exams. The heightened concern over proctoring exams has been common to many campuses and has affected all students, both those with and without disabilities. Some schools have introduced anti-cheating software, raising concerns among students about privacy and surveillance. Sackman says their needs could be better met if instructors focused instead on helping students.

Takacs agrees. When academics come to her with concerns about the recording of lectures for accessibility or the possibility of cheating, Takacs says that she points to the needs of the students and the requirements of teaching collaboratively in a public institution. “It is an issue of human rights,” she says. “It’s an issue of access.”

This article appears in print in the 2021 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “‘Barriers have changed.’”