Online instruction has been liberating, and vexing, for students with disabilities

By Carol Polsky | Newsday, April 11, 2021

College administrators say they hope to bring back in-person classes by the fall, setting aside much of the remote online instruction that defined the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. And most undergraduates can’t wait. Just not Jessica Karim.

Karim is a blind 20-year-old from the Bronx who is studying to become a social worker at Adelphi College in Garden City. She is happy to take classes in her dorm room all day rather than navigate between buildings worrying, “Could I be late? How do I get there?”

Close up picture of Jessica Karim holding her white cane.

“It’s taken a lot of anxiety off the table,” Karim said. “The struggle of navigation and transportation has been lessened tremendously. It really has made things so much more accessible.”

The shift to online instruction has been liberating for many students with mobility issues, allowing them easier access to classes, extracurriculars and appointments. However, for others — those with a complex array of disabilities — it has posed new obstacles and a need for new accommodations.

Some obstacles were obvious; others were more subtle. Microphones and receptors to amplify and filter sound, normally used in classrooms by the hearing impaired, were of little use online. Students on the autism spectrum struggled to read the facial cues on Zoom they needed to provide crucial contexts. Others with attention deficit disorders could falter with the lack of personal connection and structure.

Katie Blumenthal, director of the Office for Academic Tutoring, Development and Accessibility Services at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue, observed, “It is so individualized — what works for one student doesn’t work for another.”

COVID-19 forced rapid changes, said Wendi Mathews, director of Stony Brook University’s Student Accessibility Support Center, which arranges accommodations for about 1,700 students registered with the center, up from about 1,500 pre-pandemic. “It took away some barriers for some of our students, but for other students it created an increase in barriers,” she said. “It required us to rethink, revamp and do it very quickly.”

Technology created, and solved, problems

The digital technology that created some barriers also offered some of the solutions.

Universal design features in digital programs can transcribe audio to text and create captions for the hearing impaired. Screen readers make content audible for the visually impaired or help a dyslexic student whose reading ability lags with screen fatigue. Recorded lectures allow for repeated listening. Extra time on tests can be accommodated remotely with some adjustments with real or virtual proctors. Students unable to attend lab classes in person can direct the actions of an assistant via Zoom.

When digital solutions don’t work for, say, a visually impaired student, “We tell professors they’ll need to have a paper copy or a scribe,” Mathews said. Sign language interpreters relied on in class by a deaf student can go online as well. “It’s all about creativity,” she said.

Picture of Jessica Karim walking down a sidewalk using her white cane.

Students also must advocate for themselves, said Karim, who will sometimes remind a professor to describe a graphic or something written on a shared screen. “I can go into a room with a cane and people can look at me and just know instantaneously that I am disabled,” she said. “If you are only seeing the top half of me, you would have no way of knowing, and it has forced me to advocate for myself in a way that I don’t have to in person.”

COVID-19 also has left new disabilities in its wake, several college disability administrators said.

Kelsey Russell, interim director of disabilities services at Farmingdale State College, said her office is newly registering students whose bout with COVID-19 left them with medical ailments or neurological effects on concentration and focus, a feeling of “brain fog, or feeling unwell,” she said. “We try to be understanding with these students and give them the accommodations they need.”

At New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been an increase in students who have inquired about mental health counseling and academic accommodations based on mental issues, said Michael Schneider, director of counseling and wellness there. Students seeking counseling nearly tripled, he said.

“If someone has anxiety, there is a good chance it will increase based on what is going on around them,” he said. But students could newly experience “sadness, anxiety and depression that grow out of the circumstances of the pandemic, the isolation.”

The stress of isolation and disrupted routines affect most students, but in particular the disabled, said Lauren Kneessy, 25, of St. James, who is in a graduate health sciences certificate program at Farmingdale State College.

“Having a disability in general already makes you feel isolated, and then having that literal isolation really takes a toll,” said Kneessy, who has multiple sclerosis. “One hundred percent I think this has definitely knocked people off their routines, and most people with disabilities rely on their routines to get through every day.”

At Molloy College in Rockville Centre, the disability office makes frequent Zoom calls to students struggling to stay motivated or organized, and holds daily informal Zoom discussion groups to combat the isolation. Katherine Brunet, assistant coordinator of disability support services, observed, “For people who are socially anxious, sometimes the isolation was better. For those who are outgoing, those are the people who struggle.”

More participating in extracurricular activities

On technology’s plus side, said Charmian Smith, dean of students at Nassau Community College, “We see that more students with disabilities are participating in our extracurriculars over Zoom. It’s a safe space for them. They feel comfortable.”

That’s true for Angela Sutton, 21, of Mastic, a double major in math and philosophy at St. Joseph’s College whose three genetic disorders have left her with limited mobility and a feeding tube.

“There are events I can access that wouldn’t have been so easy before, events at nights,” she said. “It’s not so easy to go back and forth when you have the amount of medical issues and equipment as I do. Walking outside on ice in a walker, worrying about equipment freezing, those are genuine concerns.”

She added, “I actually had a procedure and was in bed post-surgically and still able to connect and be in class whereas before I would have been out for a few days.”

Responses to the demands of online learning are highly individual, even if the disabilities are similar.

Cochlear implants restored hearing to Pamela Osman, 60, of Glen Head, but online classes at SUNY Old Westbury don’t transmit distracting background noise, “and I do better,” she said.

Picture of Maria Marks using her laptop in her home sitting down.

Both Nicole Tencic, 27, of Huntington, and Maria Marks, 19, of Shirley, depend on hearing aids for hearing impairments after chemotherapy for childhood cancer but rely on different adaptations.

Tencic, who is in a graduate clinical health studies program at Molloy, prefers online classes, where she can read lips. “Online, they do not wear a face mask and online I can adjust the volume,” she said. “Sometimes transcriptions are too fast for me, so I usually don’t use them. The teachers usually provide PowerPoints, and I use that as my notes.”

On the other hand, Marks, a sophomore at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue, said if she enlarges the professor’s face to read lips, she can’t see fellow students. She instead relies on transcriptions, professor study notes, her FM unit to amplify sound, and help from fellow students.

Marks said her grades have dropped from A’s to some B’s during the pandemic, but she has learned to be less hesitant to ask for help.

“My embarrassment kind of went down knowing I wasn’t the only one struggling with this,” she said. “One of my friends told me, ‘I have the same problem, thank you for helping me out.’ She wasn’t hard of hearing. She has something different. I’m not embarrassed to ask for help because I know everyone is struggling with something of their own.”

Mathews, of Stony Brook University, said that once the pandemic ends, “We’re going to have to think about how we all learn differently. I think this has caused faculty to be more understanding and flexible. This has caused everyone in the university community to think how can we adapt to make things work for everyone.”

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