Virtual learning brings advantages and drawbacks for students with disabilities

Grace Ford Salvatori Hall, where DSP offices are located, is a large brick building with tall windows and impressive columns.
The Disability Services and Programs at USC now integrate assistive technology training, captionists and large font settings into their services to break down disability-related barriers to distance learning. However, students with auditory impairments face particular challenges in engaging with recorded lectures with limited transcription accuracy. (Celine Vazquez | Daily Trojan)

During a typical on-campus semester, students with disabilities can face numerous learning barriers such as commutes between classes, medically and psychologically related absences and lack of accommodations outside the classroom. 

The virtual setting of online classes has helped with some of these issues as students find many learning barriers eliminated.

“People with disabilities may miss a lecture due to [personal] reasons,” said Kimi Zamora, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering and assistant director of the Student Assembly for Accessibility. “Now they can watch [class recordings] and get the same content that they would normally miss with an in-person semester. So, I’ve honestly heard a lot of great feedback about the online semester from people with disabilities.” 

Some students with disabilities said remote learning has allowed them to attend class in a more comfortable environment. Alternatively, other students with disabilities have found that online instruction has led to auditory, visual and kinesthetic difficulties. Despite the helpful effects the switch to remote learning has created for some students, others may encounter newfound troubles.

While the mission of Disability Services and Programs is to eliminate disability-related obstacles, this department within USC has begun to offer online services for students who have a wide range of medical conditions, injuries and learning disabilities. Some of these services include online proctoring in a small personal group, exam practice sessions, assistive technology training, reading scribes, large font settings, extended testing time, interpreters and live captionists.

Another component DSP has recently added is a “best practice” resource, which details how students could partake in good ergonomics while adjusting to remote learning. DSP’s services are also open to students who find themselves struggling under certain circumstances in class and seek a higher level of support, even if they have not been formally diagnosed with a disability.

“Ultimately, we’re working to ensure that the students get their accommodations and that they’re going through the most similar experience as their peers in the class,” said Lisa Toft, director of DSP.

Through many committees, discussions and collaborations with different departments ranging from technological support and housing to external service providers, DSP has been working to ensure that remote learning will not pose a barrier to those with disabilities. After a thorough analysis over the summer, DSP found that they were able to provide a larger quantity of services on a broader, faster and more flexible scale to students online without concerns of social distancing or a limited schedule. 

“We have a great team of problem-solvers who put a plan together very quickly,” Toft said. “There’s been very little impact on students. There’s been some uncertainty because everything changed … but we’ve gotten great feedback on the services we’ve been able to provide students.”

Despite its efforts, DSP cannot physically assist students with some aspects of learning. While they can provide resources, an online setting may leave students with disabilities to navigate accommodations, such as acquiring a private room or concentration methods, on their own.

“I feel like there’s a lot that’s on the students for us to do instead — we have to provide [accomodations] for ourselves because there’s really not much that they can do,” said an anonymous transfer student who wanted to keep her learning disability private. “One accommodation I have for testing is having a private room and having natural lighting and [DSP] usually does that, but now I have to figure it out myself. I feel they’re doing the best that they can, but not as much as they usually can just given the circumstances.”

In lieu of face-to-face assistance, DSP specialists have begun to provide individual Zoom meetings so that students can connect and share their troubles and triumphs.

Some students with disabilities seem to be supported at a higher level as most classes are recorded, mute and video off options are available and students can message their professors confidentially. Like students, professors must adapt to the online format and search for new ways to make their learning approaches accessible to all students online.

In addition to the new components of remote learning, Julie Van Dam, an associate professor of French who teaches a class on global narratives of disability, promotes accessible learning for all students since there may be instances where students face difficulty documenting their disability. 

Van Dam believes that through virtual learning, professors are able to more clearly see and address what needs their students have and provide support accordingly. 

“I feel that professors are definitely more able to see why accessibility matters,” Van Dam said. “I think that there can be an assumption that a student is trying to get away with something, and now, it’s been a very clear reminder or just an awakening to the broad kinds of accessible learning modalities that we have to embrace.” 

For some students with disabilities, remote learning may be preferable to taking courses on campus. According to the Student Accessibility Assembly, students with disabilities have pushed for the option of online courses during in-person semesters. Student representatives in the assembly work with DSP and the greater Undergraduate Student Government to create more resources, policies and community for students with disabilities on campus. 

“If you think about having to miss class for health reasons, like having to go to doctor’s appointments or doing lab blood work, [those are] usually some things that I have to do where I have to miss class,” said Lana Bridi, a co-director of SAA. “I’m no longer worried about missing something because classes are recorded. I can have that be online as a resource. So I think in some ways, this virtual learning environment is like an opportunity to reevaluate how we usually do things especially in terms of accessibility for students like the learning environment.” 

Javin D’Souza, a co-director of SAA, said that for some students with disabilities, this semester has been the first time they can attend class without feeling like their disability may be perceived as a distraction. Now, students who have verbal tics, physical illnesses or other disabilities that would cause them to draw back from participation can mute themselves while still present in class. Some students cannot be mentally or physically present in class, and remote learning still allows them to listen to a lecture in real time. 

“If I’m ill that day of class and I can’t come in,” D’Souza said, “There’s a lot of power to being able to mute your microphone and turn off your video while still being able to listen in because otherwise, I just lose that educational time.”

Still, other students with disabilities have found that the transition to remote learning has been challenging. People with auditory disabilities, for instance, may have difficulty hearing through their computer speakers. 

“Students can’t really hear with the online platform,” Zamora said. “They will have to look at transcripts, but the transcripts on Zoom don’t necessarily transcribe as well as they can or as accurately as they should.”

An anonymous junior who has an auditory disability does not wish to be identified due to her claim about DSP’s frequent instances of miscommunication, including one when DSP misscheduled her captioner on her first week of school because they were understaffed at the time. According to the student, the process of communicating and getting accommodations could be very disheartening.

“I think it’s such a large university, so all of the departments in schools are removed from each other,” the student said. “There’s kind of a mix of synchronization that can make it very difficult to get accommodation.”

While Toft wrote in an email that they could not confirm the incident without knowing who the student was, she said DSP services are considered to be a partnership between the University, student, vendor and the department itself with reliance on students to get in touch regarding any changes to their class schedule.

“The University has supported the growth and expansion of DSP resources, including staff, to reflect the growing number of students registering with our office,” Toft wrote. “We are certainly very busy at the start of a semester, as all offices at the University are. However, I don’t see understaffing as a root concern.”

The anonymous junior also says that students with disabilities and their accommodations should be met with decency, preparation, communication and respect.

“People are constantly typing, which is nice for deaf and hard of hearing people,” the student said. “But also I wouldn’t say it’s preferable because the online experience is super taxing, and it’s difficult to communicate regardless of whether you’re disabled.”

On the other hand, Zamora said remote learning has helped her and other students with physical or mobile disabilities. 

“I’m able to just hop into an online meeting and say ‘hi’ and don’t have to worry about it being in a non-accessible classroom,” Zamora said. “I can interact with whoever I want to because it’s not like lecture style seating where everybody sits in the middle, and if you’re in a wheelchair, you’re off to the side … I don’t have to worry about my disability for the first time in education.” 

While the University takes multiple measures to provide accessibility for all students, there are still a number of accessibility issues on campus that pose as a barrier for students with disabilities. Zamora said that most public transportation available aside from the bus is not wheelchair accessible. While the Disabled Access to Road Transportation Program was created to serve as transportation for students with disabilities, a wheelchair-accessible vehicle is only provided given a request ahead of time. Also, Ubers, taxis and friends’ cars are also often wheelchair inaccessible, and Zamora said some students with disabilities could be left out of pre-coronavirus social gatherings and extracurricular activities. 

There are some students that find online learning challenging, as it is a new territory all USC students must endeavor. Remote learning may bring about technological difficulties and lack of social interaction; however, for students with physical disabilities, it may bring the ease of not having to worry about class commutes and navigating poorly accessible classrooms.

“Technical difficulties can be solved through learning, but people with disabilities can’t be solved independently and it’s a systemic issue,” Zamora said. “Technical difficulties can be solved with a day, a week rate if proper research is done, however, with a disability, this is lifelong. This affects as long as it takes to graduate. This isn’t like a one time short issue. This is people’s lives and their lifestyles that are non optional.” 

As SAA remains strong and knowledgeable of their Americans with Disabilities Act rights, they have also demonstrated that they will continue to hold the University accountable to make sure its needs are met. 

“My parents told me from a young age that if I don’t learn to speak up, nobody will look down to talk to me,” Zamora said. “As shocking as that may seem to say to a 6-year-old, I did have to really speak up and learn how to talk to people. I had to yell, I’m usually very soft spoken — I used to not really talk to anyone. For the sake of my career and for the sake of my education and for the sake of my social interaction, I have learned to be outspoken and independent, and that is something I fight for every day.” 

One in five college students across the nation has some type of disability, whether all students with disabilities at USC are registered with DSP or not. Many students that learn they have a disability find out later in their education. 

Students who have benefitted from online learning so far hope the platform remains as an option to help make USC classes more accessible for everyone on campus. 

“I hope that there’s more training on that too, for professors to understand that these accommodations also aren’t … dropping your standards,” D’Souza said. “It’s just that people need more time to do things or they need basically more access to resources to be on the same playing field as everybody else.”