Researcher encourages support for students with disabilities in online learning

The transition to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic has affected many people in the Brock community, but a new survey conducted by Laura Mullins (MA ’09) suggests students with disabilities — who already face challenges in pursuing their education — have felt the impact with greater consequences.

Mullins, Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Disability Studies, collaborated with Student Accessibility Services (SAS) in the fall to conduct a survey of students with disabilities at Brock to gain an understanding of the impact the transition to online education has had on them.

The results, based on responses from more than 200 students at Brock, suggest that any benefits accrued, such as not having to overcome physical barriers on campus or being able to turn on closed-captioning during lectures, have been heavily outweighed by many new challenges presented by the online context.

Laura Mullins, Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Disability Studies, and Student Accessibility Services conducted a survey regarding the impact of the transition to online education for students with disabilities this fall.

Further, the additional challenges have led to serious mental health impacts such as “increased stress, anxiety, fear, worry, being overwhelmed, isolation, and exacerbating depression,” Mullins says.

Judith Brooder, Manager of Student Accessibility Services, echoes her concerns.

“Unfortunately, the survey confirmed what students have been identifying to the SAS office throughout and even more significantly in recent weeks — the increased pressures and workload associated with online work, combined with the current change in life in general,” says Brooder. “In addition, faculty are also facing additional pressures as they strive to design and adapt to online course formats, limiting their time and ability to provide additional support that students may need.”

The survey was conducted in two phases, with an online survey followed by either a more in-depth survey or virtual in-person interview. Although the results of the interviews won’t be available until the summer, the initial survey responses paint a stark picture of students whose needs are often not being met and whose learning is adversely affected as a result.

Students reported that forms of online instruction, challenges communicating with professors, inability to find a place to study effectively at home and technical issues were among the biggest challenges they faced.

The survey data also shows that only about half of students with disabilities are choosing to disclose their accommodation needs to both their instructors and Student Accessibility Services.

A fourth-year student respondent in the Faculty of Social Sciences described the issue of disclosure.

“The problem with going online is that now, these discussions become a lot more formal. I normally feel comfortable discussing my mental health, because discussing them casually helps to normalize them. However, if I formally email a professor to discuss these topics, it does not feel normal or casual; it makes it seem like a problem. Thus, I am unsure of whether I will inform my professors or thesis supervisors about my disabilities this year … I don’t feel as comfortable.”

Mullins says that “even though students aren’t disclosing as often, they are still in your classroom and really, really need supports and services.”

The desire for personal conversations came up frequently in the survey and is something that both Brooder and Scott Stevens, Operations Supervisor in Student Wellness and Accessibility Services (SWAC) have heard repeatedly from students.

Stevens also says that workload has become a major issue.

“Each instructor may be assigning just a little bit more in terms of reading or individual assignments and that workload is compounded across the board, so with a slight increase in workload for one course, which may be manageable is now increased exponentially and students are feeling the crunch,” Stevens says.

Mullins says that a few simple adjustments moving into the Winter Term could help students with disabilities, as well as other students who may be struggling:

  • Build in flexibility with deadlines and extensions to due dates when setting up the course schedule.
  • Record lectures, either in advance or during live delivery, and make the recordings available to students for future review.
  • Create opportunities for students to meet virtually for personal disclosure conversations.
  • Make modes of assessment clear and assignments easy to keep track of so that students managing multiple courses are at lower risk of missing a deadline or a smaller course component.

“Given that students aren’t comfortable or have struggled with having to disclose accommodation needs, it’s important for instructors to consider structure that’s more consistent with that universal instructional design,” Mullins says. “That’s just going to be more accessible to everyone.”

Mullins says the research is something of a passion project for her, and that it grew out of her own attempts to manage the challenge of transitioning her courses to effective online delivery over the summer.

“As an academic and as a person with a disability going through the academic process, I feel like there’s a unique area that often gets overlooked,” says Mullins. “I think if we are more empathetic from the get-go and believe the students are trying their hardest and doing their best, then that’s a better starting point.”

Anyone interested in taking a closer look at the survey results can review a summary on the Mullins Lab web site.

For Mullins, the last key takeaway was the level of appreciation the students expressed for having the opportunity to make their voices heard on such an important issue.

“The students really wanted to be heard and they appreciated the chance to be heard,” says Mullins. “They are trying really hard and want to be successful, but they’re struggling and so they appreciate that we’re going to highlight their unique needs.”

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