How COVID-19 Impacts Students with Disabilities

Online learning can have its challenges for any student. However, having a disability may pose its own unique advantages and disadvantages to this transition.

When Paula Possenti-Perez, director of the Office of Disability Services, which will soon be called the Center for Disability Resources (CDR), began working at Syracuse University in 2014, there were only about 1,200 students registered with a disability on campus. Currently, Possenti-Perez estimates that there are over 2,700. 

Possenti-Perez says, “Students with mental health issues are the top demographic; this isn’t unique to Syracuse. It’s across the board.” Students with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, better known as ADHD, comprise the next highest number of students registered with CDR.  Overall, she says that about 11% of undergraduates use the CDR.

For almost 25 years, Johan Wiklund, Al Berg Chair and Professor of Entrepreneurship at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management, has been studying entrepreneurship more recently with a focus on people who have ADHD. 

Wiklund explains, “No human characteristic is generally good or bad. It matters what context you are in. If you are differently abled, you can find contexts where it is advantageous.” 

However, the shift to online learning holds different challenges for students who have ADHD. “Online learning is hard because you lose a lot of structure and you need structure day to day. That is a big challenge if you have ADHD,” shares Wiklund.

Wiklund encourages professors to pre-record lectures to give students with ADHD the ability to watch them when they feel more focused. Possenti-Perez also supports recording lectures, she believes “embracing the new technology can enhance courses going forward.”

Wiklund also states, “I think it’s important to help students with ADHD with structure. Have very frequent check-ins and cut large assignments into smaller chunks. People are doing more individual work, so it is up to themselves and how they plan their time, which is hard for students with ADHD. Professors can help students with that. Frequent reminders help.”

Syracuse University and the Center for Disability Resources have responded to the difficulties of learning online in various ways. The University has permitted students extra time to decide if they want to take a course pass-fail instead of for a letter grade.

“The pass-fail option was a very positive thing to implement students. It allowed space for students to think about and consider options that were available to them regarding academic performance and grades,” explains Possenti-Perez.

The CDR has taken initiative to make all content accessible for students. They have assisted faculty for whom this is new, with how to allot extended time for exams on Blackboard. The center is also able to assist faculty in learning how to make other platforms such as Zoom accessible.

CDR has been helping students adapt to online learning in various ways. For example, they have purchased printers for students who have difficulty with extended amounts of screen time.

Possenti-Perez explains, “CDR is a single point of contact for students because we are centralized. I have different access counselors for each college. These counselors learn about the different colleges so when students get overwhelmed, they can address or redirect their questions to the appropriate campus resource.”

Possenti-Perez also encourages students who were not previously affiliated with the CDR to contact them if they believe they need support. 

Possenti- Perez explains, “We adopt the social justice model. We do not make third party documentation a necessary requirement to register. It is not a barrier to access support because it’s the student’s experience that is important to us. Our interactive process engages with students in a meaningful way that helps us determine the most appropriate accommodations and supports.”

Faculty can refer students as well. They may also call the CDR to brainstorm ideas for making  their particular courses more accessible and conducive to students with disabilities. 

Possenti-Perez states, “We want to disrupt disability stigma. What’s nice about Syracuse University is that we see disability included within the diversity framework. Students need to know that the university as a place and space for them too.”  

How Students Can Register with the Center for Disability Resources

Current and prospective students can register with CDR by going to the website, clicking the student tab and following the instructions. Within about two business days of contacting CDR online, students will receive an email with the name and contact information of the access counselor with whom they will be working.

Although the transition to online learning can have challenging impacts on people with different abilities, there may be good consequences too. Wiklund admits, “It’s really hard to speculate; it’s hard to see what the long-term implications will be.” However, he believes that after the coronavirus pandemic there may be a greater acceptance of people working from home, which can be good for people with different abilities such as physical disabilities who cannot easily commute to work or people who have disorders such as agoraphobia and autism that may not enjoy social situations.

Possenti-Perez echoes Wiklund’s thoughts, “Some of our population are benefiting from online learning and some are having the impact of their disabilities exacerbated by the environment. It is very individualized. There are students who deal with social anxiety or other social issues that may do better at home. There may also be better support at home depending on the disability. At the same time, there could be isolation and access to resources in the household. Finding time to be a student can be very challenging.”

Those most susceptible to the impacts of COVID-19 are members of already more vulnerable populations and this often includes people with disabilities. These conversations may make people more cognizant of the ways people with disabilities have had limited access all along and this, Wiklund believes, may promote diversity and inclusion.

Wiklund says, “It’s going to be a new normal. It won’t be exactly like it was.”

To learn more about CDR, visit its website

Maya Bingaman
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