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Virtual learning creates new challenges for students with learning accommodations

Kathleen Forrest

Managing Editor

There has been a shift to online interaction for school, work and even socializing, as a direct result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. For Willamette University, some classes are entirely online while others offer the option to participate in distance learning. While this has generally been regarded as a move that will make classes more accessible, but for those with disabilities and people that need accommodations, online learning introduces a host of new challenges.

Disability Advocacy Club President Landry Ferguson talked about the different issues students have encountered during the switch to online learning while acknowledging some of the benefits. While some of the problems were applicable to most students, such as access to technology and unequal participation in hybrid classes, he also brought up issues for those that need accommodations: “Online testing was difficult because professors weren’t always remembering that their students had testing extensions or they wouldn’t remember to put that extension into the WISE test and quizzes section which meant problems occurred.” He also referenced a student he knew of last semester who required a distraction free testing space. But because the campus was closed, the administration did not provide that to the student. Ferguson added, “I think during the pandemic a lot of people’s accommodations were not being met, especially once we started doing online classes last semester.”

Ferguson acknowledged that the conversation and awareness surrounding accommodations, and the accommodations themselves, improved before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also said that accommodations brought about as a result of the pandemic, namely virtual attendance, would certainly be worth keeping after it has passed. However, when it comes to solving student issues during the pandemic, he favored accommodations that come from professors and students rather than the administration. “I think that in the vein of Universal Design, that it’s something that professors themselves should do, rather than the AES [Accessible Education Services] office, because there are barriers to get AES accommodations,” Ferguson said. The concept of ‘Universal Design’ is defined by the National Disability Authority as, “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.” Ferguson generally believes in an approach that tries to make accommodations unnecessary by making learning environments broadly accessible to begin with. This can include a wide variety of things, such as using closed captions on videos in class, having information presented in multiple formats and allowing for different modes of participation.

Ferguson’s suggestions include allowing multiple modes of participation instead of just synchronous, virtual attendance. This can include in-class discussion, but also forum discussions or short reflection papers so that students can more easily engage with each other. Regarding the challenges many students face during the pandemic, he said that, “We’re all running on empty, and some days you just don’t have the motivation to engage synchronously because that takes a lot of energy and a lot of focus.” He said that communication between students and professors is important, but that it should be initiated by professors and students should have the option of anonymity. He said that many professors have tried to be approachable for student concerns, “...but that puts a lot of onus on the students to bring up their needs with their professors… it can be really difficult.”

Willamette's AES office detailed its perspective on accommodation given since the pandemic began. Director of AES Sue Jin Hee Minder says that, “The option for students to attend classes remotely has been a positive impact.” She said that this is true for students that need more flexibility, and that online learning removes the need for some accommodations that arise with in-person classes. As far as general need for accommodations, Minder said that the number of requests have stayed steady, even with the switch to virtual learning. While the current pandemic can make it difficult for students to see a doctor to get documentation for a disability accommodation, Minder emphasized that documentation is not always necessary. “My process has always been to work with a student whether they have documentation or not. By saying that I work with them, that doesn’t mean everything that’s requested I provide. But it does mean I work with students on a case by case basis,” she said.

Students needing accommodations or other resources surrounding disabilities and barriers to learning can contact AES at or call (503) 370-6737 to set up an appointment. Disability Advocacy Club also offers resources and support, as well as advocacy opportunities. They meet over Zoom every Monday from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.

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