Locked out or looped in? Navigating online learning with a disability

Sophie Finn investigates how the switch to distanced learning has impacted UCD students with disabilities

Online learning has presented obstacles to all university students, however, students with a disability have had to face more complex challenges caused by the disruption to college. These challenges are experienced in different ways and every student needs a different level of assistance. Third level institutions in Ireland vary regarding the level of support offered to students with a disability, and Covid-19 has put the dedication and resources of colleges to the test.

The University Observer spoke to Dara Ryder, Chief Executive Officer of AHEAD, a non-profit organisation aiming to promote access to third-level education for people with disabilities. When asked what challenges are faced by those students who have disabilities studying remotely, Ryder said that “every student’s experience has been different – some have found big positives in the move to online learning while others are struggling to cope”. He further commented that major challenges, including inconsistent levels of accessibility of learning materials, inconsistent captions and recordings of online lectures, unfamiliar and sometimes inaccessible online exam practices, and a lack of motivation to learn. Ryder also emphasised the difficulty of isolation and increased continuous assessment on top of the ordinary factors at play when studying at home. 

Research conducted by AHEAD in the early phase of the pandemic indicated that students with disabilities face “significant challenges” learning from home and adapting to changing teaching and learning practices, however, Ryder stressed that “it’s important not to generalise and to highlight that the experience has been different for everyone”. He points out that for some students moving online has made their learning experience more accessible, for example, “students with physical disabilities represented in that research were twice as likely to say they are coping well with learning from home than those with a mental health condition.”

Ryder commented that in the experience of AHEAD staff, Irish universities have made “huge efforts” to adapt and “really worked hard to try and give students the best possible experience”. He particularly emphasised the efforts of those in disability services, describing the endeavours made across the country as “awe-inspiring”, but notes that “there’s still so much more to do to improve accessibility and inclusion”. Ryder says that organisations such as AHEAD have supported students with initiatives such as the “introduction of a Students with Disabilities Advisory Group, the building of a new assistive technology resource to help students find technologies to support their digital learning, and development of national platforms to raise issues such as the AHEAD/USI Power of Disability conference.” 

Regarding what more could be done to support students, Ryder stated that there must be “much more significant attention paid by institutions to mandating disability awareness and digital accessibility training”. He outlined that efforts need to be made for the recording of all live lectures and provision of captions, as well as reducing the assessment burden, and banning “inequitable and inaccessible assessment practices like the use of proctoring”. Ryder also emphasised that institutions must check in with students “on a one-to-one basis”, and stressed that “one clear message” he would give is to “ensure students with disabilities are consulted in decisions made about key issues that affect them adversely”. Ryder believes it is important to “learn from this pandemic and hold on to the many positive things that came out of our response in order to build a more inclusive education system,” such as the flexibility of online learning and “the sense that anything can be achieved if the collective will is there to do it.”

The University Observer also spoke to Julia Tonge, Disability Officer at UCD Access & Lifelong Learning Centre (ALL). Tonge reported that, throughout the pandemic, ALL has “worked with students with disabilities and faculty on an individual basis to assist them with challenges that they have experienced with remote learning,” and reported that “student engagement with the supports that are being offered online has increased by over 18% relative to the same trimester the year before.”

ALL has created a variety of different supports for students with disabilities. They replaced the standard ALL Welcome Programme with an online alternative which allows students to hear about available supports and meet other students in their course, they also developed a Brightspace module to support students in their learning, and have hosted a series of live academic skills and well-being workshops. Tonge described how the online Brightspace module “contains a section on learning online which was developed to help students with the move to remote learning.. and addresses some of the most common challenges: staying motivated, juggling demands and feeling disconnected.” ALL also moved all the services for students with disabilities online, including occupational therapy and one-to-one learning support.

Tonge emphasised that ALL provided students with additional assistive technology tools to assist with remote learning, for example, note-taking and read-aloud software, as well as providing training to faculty to ensure online content is accessible and facilitating the Covid grant scheme and distributing devices to eligible students. ALL has also facilitated the Digital Ambassador programme, which aims “to help all students in UCD gain the skills they need with technology to succeed.” Tonge outlined that the Access Centre is hosting “ALL in Common” online sessions to help students to meet and get to know others in their programme in response to the social isolation that some students have reported.”

Tonge highlighted that students with disabilities have experienced many of the same challenges as all students, but drew attention to the “increase in students with disabilities reporting challenges with managing time”. Tonge described the overall online learning experience of students with disabilities as “varied,” with some students feeling it has benefitted their studies, and others finding the experience isolating and difficult to stay motivated throughout. “Some students with disabilities have noted that they understand that the situation is challenging for everyone but for them, it is even more challenging.” She reveals that that “students have reported that they do not feel part of UCD and have yet to make friends with other UCD students” and emphasised that “support will need to be provided for students when there is an opportunity to return to campus,” as “many students will be very apprehensive about this and all students will need support in making social connections and orienting the campus.”

“Students have reported that they do not feel part of UCD and have yet to make friends

with other UCD students.”

Since the University Observer’s conversation with Julia Tonge, UCD has been allocated an additional €400,000 funding from a €5.4 million grant aimed at assisting students with disabilities in higher education.