Disabled Students Already Faced Learning Barriers. Then Coronavirus Forced an Abrupt Shift to Online Classes
Five years ago Christina Beck suffered a workplace injury to her head. What doctors initially advised would be alleviated with rest turned out to be a traumatic brain injury. Warned that she might spend the rest of her life mostly bedridden, Beck resolved to do what she thought would prove most neurologically difficult: enroll in New York University’s School of Professional Studies.
“What’s the hardest thing I could do for my memory and for my brain?” she thought. “Probably going to a school that’s pretty hard.” Doctors told her it would be the most expensive mistake she ever made.
“When things are disorganized ... they spend the entire class trying to make sense of what's happening.”
Brain trauma affects Beck’s sense of time, impedes her short-term memory, and often has her in pain from being upright throughout the day, with excruciating migraines. She has trouble focusing on two things at once, so she records classes and sometimes relies on classmates for notes.
Students with disabilities face significant challenges under the best of circumstances. Now that the coronavirus pandemic has forced a mass, abrupt shift to online learning, disabled students and their advocates are finding they must sometimes fight to ensure access needs aren’t overlooked by faculty members who are struggling to adapt to a whole new arena of teaching.
Some professors will officially sign off on accommodations with their college’s center for disabilities but won’t follow through, says Beck. “They feel like you’re getting an advantage that other people don’t have, so they shouldn’t be giving it to you.”
Organization is key in classroom teaching, and for students with learning disabilities or brain injuries, that significance is amplified in a virtual setting. According to the National Center for College Students With Disabilities, about one-fifth of undergraduates and 12 percent of graduate students have some kind of disability. For many of those students, the nationwide shift to online learning brings additional accessibility problems.