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Tuesday, September 27, 2022
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More than 30 percent of UW-Madison students took a summer class in 2019 — and 60 percent of these classes were online.

University, faculty address COVID-19 learning effects on accessibility

The COVID-19 pandemic introduced a multitude of changes into the lives of students across the globe. From daily zoom classes to constant masking and social distancing in dormitories, nothing about college or learning felt the same. 

Those with disabilities, mental and physical alike, had to adjust their learning accommodations and routines as the pandemic altered major aspects of their lives. 

For students like Morgan Stieber, a UW-Madison junior who suffers from sensitivity to light and chronic headaches, online learning was especially challenging.

"Moving online was difficult because I didn't have any in-person classes," Stieber said. "It was all on my screens, which was really hard for me to do most of the time. [The] lights are really bad for headaches and screen time is just not great for that." 

Many classes at UW-Madison operated with an open-note testing system during the pandemic because instructors could not prevent students from using their resources at home, Stieber said. 

"I think the concept of open notes for exams is also really helpful because the idea that we should be doing everything based on memorization [is a] flawed system," Stieber said. "Anxiety wise, that's definitely helpful knowing you have notes. I think a majority of my classes all of last year had open notes."

These shifts have also opened students' eyes to the possibilities of making campuses accessible regardless of a pandemic atmosphere.

"[It's comforting] knowing that [UW-Madison] is capable of being accessible because it had to be accessible for everybody to move online," Stieber said. "[It] was good that they had all of the equipment and everything was ready." 

For UW-Madison faculty, the rapid shift to online learning increased the number of clients the McBurney Disability Resource Center received, Access Consultant Leslie Stilson said. 

Students with attention deficit disorder and other learning disabilities started asking for accessibility help, Stilson said. Moreover, virtual learning access benefitted clients with chronic mental health issues that flared up during the pandemic.

While the pandemic has offered individuals who have a disability more flexibility when it comes to learning, trying to comprehend complex subjects at home can introduce troubles with distractions for those individuals, Applied Life Studies Librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign JJ Pionke said. 

"Think about the students who are taking courses remotely via online learning," Pionke said. "Many of them are trying to do their full course load along with household chores, interacting with whoever they are living with, including perhaps taking care of and homeschooling children. For the student who has dish duty, is cutting the grass, commuting to an essential job or even going out for a morning run, having a PDF of homework being read to them on their phone or by a laptop can help them keep up with and complete their learning." 

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According to University of Washington student Grady Thompson, individuals who have a disability have benefited from these monumental changes in learning at several universities in America.

"I know a lot of folks with disabilities, myself included, who hope that after the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still opportunities to engage in learning and work more remotely — even if not all the time," Thompson said. 

For students like Elise Fjelstad, a UW-Madison sophomore with cerebral palsy, commuting to in-person classes had been a struggle. 

"I don't think people realize that I can't just walk up the stairs to get to Bascom Hill," Fjelstad said. "There is no ramp. There's nothing there."

According to Fjelstad, another positive aspect of COVID-19 hybrid and online learning for people with disabilities is the fact that they have the option to attend virtually if they need to. 

"A lot of classes right now have the option of online or in-person," Fjelstad said. "I have been going in-person because I pay attention better, but it's reassuring to know that if it is snowing, or if my chair isn't charged ... or I can't get to [class], I can still make sure that I'm attending in some way."

The fact that able-bodied students are also figuring out the complications and pitfalls that come with COVID-19 hybrid learning has created a more accepting environment for those with disabilities, Stilson said. 

"One of the real benefits has been more acceptance and understanding for limitations that people might experience," Stilson explained. "On a macro level, my work is completely impacted by how the world views disability and COVID has been kind of a neutralizer. Everyone is at risk of being too sick to do something or needing to quarantine. Everyone over the past two years has experienced a need for access." 

The pandemic has cultivated both positive and negative aspects in learning environments for abled-bodied and disabled communities, and it's important to recognize the potential that accessibility has for each student on campus, Stilson said. 

"Access for one person is access for all people," Stilson concluded. "It doesn't need to be something othered. We know that belonging and feeling included matters. One day that might be you who needs the access."

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