Academic accessibility amidst the pandemic

Looking into the benefits and barriers to students with learning disabilities, ADHD, and mental illness

Students share the relationship between online learning and mental health.
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“Having to be my own advocate kind of sucks sometimes.”

Eliza Wallace, CompSci ’21, has found this year’s remote learning comes with its challenges—many of them centring on academic accessibility. Despite being registered with Queen’s Student Accessibility Services (QSAS), she feels she’s had to take on much of the work advocating for accessibility accommodations herself.

Wallace isn’t the only student for whom remote learning has been an adjustment; every student at Queen’s has been affected, in one way or another, by a semester and a half of entirely virtual academics. But for students with learning disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and mental illness, online learning has had unique impacts.

One of the largest byproducts of remote learning has been asynchronous content. Students who are accustomed to on-campus lectures, labs, and tutorials are left to adjust to a teaching model relying heavily on the student to move through course material on their own.

“Because there's no immediate reward or immediate consequence, it's just really hard to get yourself to do things,” Alinah Charania, ArtSci ’23, told The Journal. Charania is a student with ADHD.

Charania described a lack of face-to-face attendance in classes as a detriment to her academics this year. Since many of her lectures are asynchronous, she said she feels as if no one is checking if she’s keeping up with her learning, whether that’s attending classes or submitting coursework, something she believes many students with ADHD are struggling with.

“When there's nothing tangible to say, ‘you've done this,’ there's really nothing to hold you to account, nothing to motivate you,” she said. “I have a lot of discussion posts that I have to do, and if I don't do them, it's not like going to a class and someone calls on you and you have nothing to say. It's like I just don't do them, and then nothing happens, and it's only later that I’ll lose the mark for it.”

Alexander Barber, ArtSci ’22, echoed a similar experience. He’s also a student with ADHD.

“One of the things that I struggle with quite a lot is time management, and before [remote learning] I didn't really notice it was that bad because it was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got a class to go to, so I’ll just go to that class,’” he explained. “But now that everything's online, I have to keep [all of my coursework] on my own time schedule. It's been hard, showing up to class and getting all the work done for it.”

Wallace told The Journal that asynchronous learning also presents barriers for students with anxiety and depression like herself, because they place an extra burden of self-motivation on the student.

“Part of the reason why online courses are so difficult is they require more executive function from an individual, so they require staying on top of your deadlines and sometimes, like, teaching yourself and just really an extra level of organization,” Wallace said. In her experience, that increased level of executive function isn’t always possible.

The Journal spoke with Beth Pollock, a private clinical psychologist/neuropsychologist whose work includes the Kingston community. She agreed the structure of remote learning isn’t ideal for students who struggle with attention, organization, and time management.

“Remote learning causes so many more demands on independent work habits: you have to organize yourself to watch the lectures every week, there's less structure in terms of your day,” Pollock said. Additionally, without peers to talk to, she said it can become easier for students to lose track of coursework and deadlines.

According to Pollock, these effects are only compounded by the monotonous pressures of learning from home.

“Whenever you're sitting in the same room day in and day out, trying to stay on top of all your tasks […] I think typically when you're getting up and you're going to classes, and there's a certain rhythm to it, and whenever you have to do that all on your own in your own room, it's a little bit harder to self-motivate and stay on top of things and see how the term is progressing.”

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Not every student experienced the changes brought about by remote learning the same way.

Victoria*, a student with a learning disability and ADHD, said she’s benefited from this year’s unprecedented academic structure.

“It's been a lot easier for me to do school because I don't have the pressure of having to go to class and having to be in person. I also suffer from social anxiety, so sometimes going to class or a lab just feels impossible.”

“Also, the timing, like being able to do [class] whatever time of day I want to, being able to watch a lecture whenever I want, really helps me keep on track,” Victoria said. “Especially with the ADHD, I get hyper-focused sometimes, and then can't focus at all on school other times, so it helps me to be able to choose when [I’m learning].”

Victoria acknowledged there are some drawbacks to online instruction, such as not being able to meet her professors and peers in-person, but finds asynchronous learning has been helpful overall.

According to Pollock, Victoria’s experience is not uncommon among students with accessibility needs.

“I think in some ways, remote learning has been helpful for individuals with disabilities, and in some ways, it has created increased challenges,” Pollock said. “In terms of that helpful side of things, […] the majority of the students I'm speaking with are learning in an asynchronous format, which means they're able to access the lectures whenever they are most alert and they have the attention span to watch the lecture.”

Alan Jeans, manager of QSAS, noted in a written statement to The Journal that QSAS has observed a decrease in students’ need for note-takers as a result of recorded lectures.

Pollock said pre-recorded lectures grant students the ability to pause and catch up in their notes, rewind back to something they missed, and review information as many times as they like. She said this unlimited access to material can be helpful to students with processing challenges.

“The fact that they can take a break, turn [a lecture] off and walk away, and come back to it when they're feeling fresher helps students, whether their challenges are more on the mental health side or attention side [...] Obviously, having more control over the pacing and the timing of instruction, it can be really helpful.”

***

Queen’s offers formal accessibility support for students through QSAS, a branch of Student Wellness Services (SWS). According to its website, QSAS “supports more than 2,000 Queen’s students each year who have various types of disabilities and access needs ranging from mild to complex.”

Students who are registered with QSAS are issued a Letter of Accommodation (LoA), which communicates to the student and faculty the academic accommodations that have been approved for the student by QSAS to support them in equitable access to learning. The LoA doesn’t disclose information about the underlying cause or causes for the accommodation.

Wallace receives academic accommodations through QSAS. Amidst the pandemic, however, her experience with QSAS has taken a turn.

In the fall semester, Wallace was relying on her accommodations more than she had before, taking two separate weeks off school. Despite being registered with QSAS, she felt she had to make it through the semester on her own.

Wallace had an over-the-phone appointment scheduled with QSAS in the fall to discuss the challenges of the upcoming semester. When the time of the appointment rolled around, no one called. When she followed up via email asking to reschedule, she said she didn’t receive a response.

Despite feeling a disconnect with QSAS, Wallace made it through the fall with self-advocacy and her LoA. However, not every student is equipped to navigate accessibility without that additional support.

“I'm in fourth year, I've been doing this for a couple years. I can't imagine having this be my first year of university or my first year navigating QSAS [...] Through necessity, I've become very good at asking for what I want, self-advocacy, and all those things,” Wallace said. “But for a lot of students, having an advisor and having a liaison is super, super crucial for them.”

When describing QSAS’s role in her academics this year, Wallace opted for “negligent.”

“I think if you can't offer a service as important as this one, you should be upfront about it. I understand it's a pandemic, I understand that more students are having issues than before. And I understand it's taking its toll on everyone. But saying you support someone and then not supporting them is worse than being upfront.”

Jeans wrote that QSAS has remained consistent in its commitment to remove barriers to students’ equitable access to education amidst the pandemic.

“Over the past year of this pandemic, QSAS has worked to create increased flexibility into its service, especially around documentation requirements, to ensure that we are meeting students where they are, when they are there.”

***

Professors also have a vital role to play in making learning accessible for students—particularly this year, as students and educators adjust to remote academics. However, openness to accommodations tend to vary between professors.

Grace*, ArtSci ’23, said she wishes professors would have simple accommodations readily available, such as closed captioning and copies of slides, instead of putting the onus on the students to pursue them. In some cases, professors are hesitant to make those adjustments because they’re focused on hypothetical implications.

“I have a bit of what I guess you could call a processing disorder, auditory-wise, so I find closed captioning or PowerPoints and stuff really helpful,” Grace said. “But [professors] have stopped giving those out because they think we're going to cheat or download them and keep them [...] I'm sure that’s happened […] but it's made it really difficult to be able to, like, get the same experience you would get sitting in a lecture hall with the PowerPoint slides going.”

With some professors, Grace has found that a lack of empathy for students’ circumstances has evoked a sense of guilt over needing to use accommodations, such as extra time.

“The way I've been made to feel is, ‘Oh, you already have extra time: you’re at home, you don't have any responsibilities,’ even though that's not true. But that's been the attitude I’ve encountered.”

Wallace, too, said she’s been met with resistance from professors when pursuing accommodations.

“I make a joke that I'm in 18 different disputes with the School of Computing at any given time.”

Grace said she’s also experienced prying requests from professors who want to know exactly why she requires accommodation. As her academics are impacted by a traumatic event she experienced this past summer, this puts her in an uncomfortable position.

“That's been a big issue for me, in terms of feeling like I have to disclose stuff.”

“They just expect you to disclose to them and talk to them and tell them what's going on in order to justify giving you the extension that the University has said you have. “

***

For Grace, empathy is essential.

“I think that the main thing is just to remember that [remote learning] isn't a break for students: this is stressful.”

Grace said students “really shouldn't feel guilty for needing time, space, and help,” especially those who require accommodations.

To Wallace, that help is essential to prevent the burden of advocating for accessibility from falling exclusively on the student, who might be doing poorly and not have the energy to advocate for themselves. Students should have someone in their corner.

“Nobody wants to be resilient—it's kind of a backhanded compliment. It's like, ‘Oh, you've had to do this, and it's made you stronger.’ But it wasn’t really a choice [...] you had to do that because you were the one in your corner.”

*Names changed for anonymity due to safety reasons.

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