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Move to online learning has positives and negatives for students with disabilities

Students with disabilities face unique challenges adjusting to online education. In a few ways, however, the change has made things easier.(Daily Bruin file photo)

By Kaitlin Browne

May 7, 2020 2:52 p.m.

The transition to online classes has been a mixed bag for Will Higbie, a third-year aerospace engineering student.

Higbie has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulty regulating attention.

He has had some trouble attending classes remotely – by week three, Higbie had only watched one online lecture for his philosophy class – but he also feels that it is easier to focus in his apartment.

“Everything’s at home – my bed is right there and I just have to get up and sit down and do work,” Higbie said. “I’ve been surprisingly on top of things just because I’m never out of the ‘get to work’ mode.”

Many students with disabilities have faced challenges related to online learning.

The Center for Accessible Education, an office that provides accommodations to students with disabilities at UCLA, has received more accommodation requests than before the transition to online learning, said Norma Kehdi, the CAE associate director of counseling services, in an emailed statement.

Students have reported difficulties handling distractions and procrastination, have struggled to adjust to the new learning system or have seen their conditions worsened by pandemic-related stressors, Kehdi said. However, some students enrolled in CAE have requested fewer of their usual accommodations this quarter.

Elizabeth Laugeson, the creator of the UCLA PEERS program, which provides social skills intervention to those with an autism spectrum disorder said remote classes may present new social challenges for those with ASD. She said some adults on the autism spectrum have preferred learning online over learning in person, however.

“Communicating over web-based video conferencing platforms removes the need for interpreting many of the nonverbal social cues that are required for in-person interactions,” Laugeson said.

The move online has made things easier for Yanning Zuo, a graduate neuroscience teaching assistant with ASD.

“I would be drained every time after I had to attend a meeting or seminar or go to class physically,” Zuo said. “It’s saving me commute time and the stress from social interaction.”

Online classes are less cumbersome than physical classes for Zuo because she does not have a high drive for social interaction. However, Zuo recognizes this is not the case for everyone with ASD.

Other students have been unable to find distraction-free environments. This has been the case for Izzy, a student with ADHD who asked for her last name to not be published.

Izzy, a third-year anthropology student, said she was concerned when she found out that classes were going to be moved online. To manage her ADHD, she spent time at school developing routines and making behavioral modifications, such as distinguishing her “play” and “learning” areas, to help her stay focused on schoolwork.

But since the move online, she has lost some of that. For one, she has had to turn her bed into a makeshift desk to stay away from distracting family living spaces.

“I had in place a system that worked for me after such a long time of trial and error,” Izzy said. “I guess I have to figure out new study habits.”

Test-taking under these circumstances may also pose problems for some students with disabilities. Because everything is being conducted remotely, the CAE cannot provide distraction-reduced exam environments, Kehdi said.

The CAE has implemented procedures to provide students who are blind, low vision, deaf or have partial hearing loss with access to proper adaptive equipment and assistive technology to allow them to access online classes.

Nicole Taboada, a fourth-year sociology student who is deaf without hearing aids, said she has to have her laptop, iPad and a transcription app out to watch her online classes. And individual virtual meetings, such as office hours, are a bigger challenge.

“I have to rely on Otter, (a voice transcribing app), which is pretty difficult because it can glitch,” Taboada said.

The biggest change for her, she said, was losing the on-campus presence of CAE accommodations, which has left her much more on her own as she figures out how to adjust.

The pandemic has also caused problems for students outside academics and the guidance of CAE.

Higbie has had difficulty obtaining his ADHD medication because he lives further from the pharmacy at home than when on campus. It has become a big and frightening task to leave the house and travel, so he has resorted to rationing his medication, Higbie said.

Students living in California can have medication mailed to them from the Bruin Health Pharmacy.

The move to online classes has been easier in some ways for students with disabilities, more difficult in others. However, Izzy and Taboada agree that it is not the same as in-person classes.

“The transition to online education has taught me just how much I value physical schooling,” Izzy said.

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Kaitlin Browne
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