Virtual learning for students with disabilities creates new problems, exacerbates old ones


Harriet Rovniak

The Disability Resource Center office, located at 20 Dodge Hall, currently has limited capacity due to COVID-19.

Mohamed Abanoor, a second-year criminal justice and political science combined major, attends class with two laptops. One laptop shows the other students and his professor. The second laptop shows his American Sign Language, or ASL, interpreter.

Abanoor is hard of hearing and is registered with Northeastern University’s Disability Resource Center, or DRC. His interpreters are typically stationed near the professor so the student doesn’t have to look in a different direction. Ever since the COVID-19 outbreak, however, Abanoor’s ASL interpreters have chosen to work with him virtually to avoid in-person risks.

Abanoor worked with a remote interpreter for the first time last fall.

“It hurts my eyes a lot because I have to always look at the screen during classes, even in person, when I’m supposed to be like, ‘I don’t have to worry about looking at this laptop,’” he said. “I feel like I’m not learning anything.”

COVID-19 restrictions have transformed universities nationwide. Many students are glued to their screens for hours, physically and emotionally distanced from their peers. But while some are just uncomfortable, students with disabilities are further challenged by a virtual environment that doesn’t always meet their needs.

“[In March,] my first thought was definitely, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be a huge shift in learning,’” said Quannah Parker-McGowan, an assistant teaching professor in the Graduate School of Education’s special education program. “Both from the student side as well as the instructor side, because it happened so quickly.”

It hurts my eyes a lot because I have to always look at the screen during classes, even in person, when I’m supposed to be like, ‘I don’t have to worry about looking at this laptop.’ I feel like I’m not learning anything.

— Mohamed Abanoor

According to a 2015 survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, 19% of undergraduate students in the United States reported having a disability. The study defines “disability” to include visual and hearing impairments as well as mobility, speech, learning, mental, emotional and psychiatric conditions. All universities in the United States must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires the provision of services that allow equal access and opportunity.

The DRC is responsible for facilitating those services. For students who aren’t in Boston or who are enrolled in online programs, DRC services have always been virtual. At the onset of the pandemic, the DRC had to implement those same methods for all Northeastern students.

Madeleine Estabrook, senior vice chancellor for student affairs, acknowledged the rapid increase of virtual learning. “[The pandemic] has just put it on steroids,” she said.  “It has made it as the ordinary way that a much larger population of students can, and do, access their accommodations.”

Toward the end of March last year, the DRC published the “Learn from Home Strategies” guide, intended to help students adapt. Their website states that students still have access to designated accommodations and specialists. Nevertheless, some students say that social-distancing rules make it difficult to benefit from DRC services.

“My accommodation with the [DRC] is essentially having time and a half on exams and having reduced distractions,” said a student who recieves accomodations from the DRC who wishes to remain anonymous.

The student has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, which makes it hard for her to focus on certain things. In the fall, she said the extra time on tests transitioned smoothly into the virtual format, but the reduced distraction component was difficult.

“[Typically,] you get put into a room, and there’s just a white desk and white walls. They give you 10 minute and five minute warnings, and there’s virtually nothing else to distract you,” she said. The student used to take all her tests in a reduced distraction room at the DRC. The DRC’s office is currently limited in capacity which makes for reduced availability. 

Their website states, “It will be up to you to create a test setting at home that suits your needs.” The DRC provided tips on how students could set up distraction-free zones in their own spaces, but the student said, “Being in your room is in itself a distraction. There really isn’t a solution for that.”

Some professors use tools like LockDown Browser, which monitors students during online tests. Although the tests that the student took with LockDown Browser were short, the system was less than ideal.

“It’s hard for me because if you look away from the screen, it reports suspicious activity, and [as] someone with ADHD, it’s hard not to do that,” she said.

Attentivity is only one example of the challenges faced by students with ADHD. David Scanlon, a Boston College professor who holds a doctorate in special education and rehabilitation, said some students with ADHD may also have organizational challenges, which is also true for many students who have autism. New educational environments force students to adapt to new methods of organization.

“Over time, [they have] come up with good organizational systems that have worked for them,”  Scanlon said. “Suddenly now, they have to create file systems on their hard drives, which are different systems of organization. To somebody without a disability, that may not sound like a very taxing thing. But to someone who has memory challenges, organizational challenges, at a time of heightened confusion, that can be a really big setback.”

Students can meet with their DRC specialists to discuss challenges. But with virtual meetings, some students may be less likely to reach out. Specialists often check in with students when they haven’t heard from them in a while. This year, Estabrook said “there was a little more energy” behind those check-ins to counter the transition to an all-online format.

Even when students receive additional help, other circumstances in the class may make it hard for them to focus. In the fall, Abanoor’s studies were impacted both by issues with his virtual ASL interpreters and with other students in his class.

“One of my classes [was] this very big class and we have a lot of students in the classroom. They’re talking all the way in the back, so the interpreter cannot hear them,” Abanoor said. “The interpreter would unmute themselves and speak up, like, ‘I can’t hear anything,’ constantly during the first couple of weeks. I think my professor got fed up with it, the professor asked the interpreter not to speak up in class.”

This hybrid is going to be part of our lives probably for a very good long time. So, [asking ourselves] how we make sure that we can provide the same level of service, support, resource and humanity is really what we’re trying to do every day.

— Madeleine Estabrook

Just as students must adapt to pandemic-era learning, so must professors.

Melissa Ferrick, a professor of the practice in the department of music, acknowledged that certain issues are exacerbated by the virtual format. After hearing about a student with body dysmorphia who struggled with looking at themselves on Zoom, Ferrick wondered how they would teach a student with similar challenges, something they never considered before.

“Teachers were saying, ‘How can I make my students turn their video on? I don’t know if they’re paying attention,’” Ferrick said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ You’ve got to come from the standpoint of not that the student is trying to get away with something, but that the student may be taking care of themselves.”

With no real end in sight, professors and students alike must learn how to cope with a virtual world.

“This hybrid is going to be part of our lives probably for a very good long time,” Estabrook said. “So, [asking ourselves] how we make sure that we can provide the same level of service, support, resource and humanity is really what we’re trying to do every day.”


This story was updated on Jan. 26 at 8:38 p.m. to protect the identity of one of the students.