COVID-19 has made education more accessible for university students with reduced mobility
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a struggle for Alicia-Ann Pauld, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, to get to the Concordia University campus in downtown Montreal, especially during the winter.
“If I fall I can hurt myself very badly and I can’t go back [up] on my own, “said Pauld.” I’ve been in situations in the past where there’s a snowstorm on exam day and I have to go out and literally put my life on the line.
She recalled an incident last year when she fell on the ice on her way to one of her exams. “I hurt myself a lot and had to wait for someone to come and get me – a stranger.”
When the pandemic hit last March, universities quickly connected. The lectures were given via Zoom or were recorded online when the campuses closed.
For Pauld, it was a gift. She no longer had to choose between her health and her education.
While the transition to the virtual world has been a source of distress for university students in general, this has been an eye-opener for many students living with disabilities and chronic illnesses.
But as universities say they’re gearing up for some form of classroom instruction in the fall, many students with disabilities are wondering what the future holds.
‘I can’t always go to class’
Concordia told the CBC that “public health conditions permitting, we are considering a hybrid distance and in-person education model” for fall 2021.
McGill University has already announced that it will return to in-person teaching at that time, but will make accommodations for students who need it.
“Students with weakened immune systems or chronic illness who may be at risk for developing complications from COVID-19 should work or study from home if possible,” McGill said in a statement. If the activities require students to be on campus, they are expected to contact their faculty’s student affairs office to find a solution.
Students with disabilities and chronically ill fear losing the progress the pandemic has made, in terms of providing more accessible education.
“I can’t always go to class, due to a combination of the building not always being super accessible and the classroom not accessible,” said Aaron Ansuini, a student in arts education at Concordia who has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a multi-system connective tissue disorder that often affects her mobility.
Improve academic success
As an outpatient wheelchair user, it is often difficult for Ansuini to attend classes, so significant class content is missing.
“I have been encouraged to drop out of classes when I cannot physically access them, despite maintaining a 4.0 GPA,” Ansuini told CBC Montreal. Dawn.
Before the pandemic, Ansuini and Pauld sometimes had to miss classes and drop out of classes, which affected their academic success. This is why distance learning has been so beneficial to them.
“My only chance to graduate on time is [online learning], because that’s the only way I could actually do all the lessons, the five lessons that I know I can do, ”Ansuini said.
“My classes are going really well,” said Pauld, “I had such a GPA last semester and I know that’s what I’m capable of.”
While many students eagerly await a return to normalcy, a return to the way things were before the pandemic is not ideal for students with limited mobility.
“Which is normal for most people [is] … not exactly fair to students with disabilities, ”Ansuini said.
“So I’m concerned that people are going back to normal and not realizing that what they are going back to is just inequitable access to education.”
The pressure in the world
A 2018 report of the National Association for the Education of Students with Disabilities, in collaboration with Canadian researchers, concluded that accessibility and inclusion lag behind technological advances.
Canadian students aren’t the only ones feeling it.
University of Washington students, for example, are pushing their administration to continue making class recordings available online even though the school has already opened its campus to students.
They argue that the current lack of access creates an unequal education system between able-bodied students and those with disabilities.
Students with disabilities from Trinity College Dublin in Ireland presented their case to the administration documenting their distance learning experiences.
Now, with the reopening of its campus, Trinity College Dublin has implemented a hybrid model of distance learning and in-person teaching.
For Pauld, the fact that Concordia claims to consider a hybrid education model is promising, but she would like every class to be part of such a model.
“So that students who have to attend remotely for different reasons can access it, without exception,” she said.
Pauld and Ansuini hope the pandemic is proof that accommodations at school, as well as in the workplace, are possible for people with disabilities.
“We are not some sort of other or some kind of anomaly,” Ansuini said. “We are only part of the student body and our access to education should matter.”