LOSING MOMENTUM: Many students (with and without disabilities) are grieving not only a "lost semester" on campus, but a loss of independence as well — an independence they have worked hard to achieve.

"It's like a move into a new house. `Where's my stuff? I don't know what I'm doing!' There's just an overall adjustment for everyone involved, but for students with disabilities, it's even more difficult. It's a longer adjustment period for figuring out what they need to do."

COVID-19 and College Students with Special Needs


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a drastic impact on U.S. higher education. College students are still reeling from the sudden move from in-person classes to remote teaching and learning. Many colleges and universities have already committed to remote learning for summer classes, and discussions continue as to the viability of resuming in-person classes in the fall.

Certainly, most U.S. college students have been impacted in some way by COVID-19, but how are students with disabilities faring? Reports are that some are struggling, some love remote learning, and for others it's a mixed bag. This move to a different teaching format presents new obstacles to educational accessibility. But there are things that students, parents and university faculty and staff can do to ease this transition and increase the odds of student success during this difficult time. And for some students with additional challenges, past experiences in overcoming adversity may have fostered the resiliency they need to adapt to this new reality and succeed academically, both now and in the future.

Although there has been much talk about the growth of online education over the past few years, as of 2017, more than 84% of U.S. college students still were enrolled primarily in courses that met in person rather than online, according to the National Center for Education. That's how the majority of U.S. college students began this 2019-2020 school year – physically populating classrooms where they could interact with professors and peers. When most colleges moved to remote, "online" learning this past March, what happened was not a conversion to "online courses" – rather, for most courses it was a conversion to distance learning by professors not necessarily accustomed to online interactions, teaching students who had chosen to study in person. 

In ordinary times, college students with disabilities must routinely self-advocate to obtain the accommodations they need (and are guaranteed under U.S. Law) for equal access to educational opportunities. Such advocacy even under normal circumstances can be challenging and stressful. Concerns about professors' willingness to follow accommodation plans, perceptions about student abilities, etc. are common concerns of college students with disabilities— but the recent move from in-person classes to so-called "remote" teaching of has magnified these issues and created new ones. For some students, the change to meeting online has eased social anxiety. But for others, anxiety has increased. Many are not comfortable learning online, or simply miss the face-to-face interactions. When campuses began announcing closures, students began to express concerns that their usual accommodations would not be possible in the new remote learning model, especially as staff at disability assistance offices and testing centers were compelled to close testing centers and begin working at home.

Laura James, director of the Center of Educational Accessibility at the University of Arkansas, has had the challenge of continuing accommodations for more than 2,800 students registered with her office. Initially, however, she and her staff spent a significant amount of time reassuring anxious students that their office would still be there to assist them.

"It's almost been like a crisis center in our office since the 20th of March," James said. "We serve students who not only have learning disabilities, but also psychiatric conditions and chronic [physical] conditions, so it's been a pretty stressful time for sure." James said the move to remote instruction was disorienting for everyone. "It's like a move into a new house. Where's my stuff? I don't know what I'm doing!' There's just an overall adjustment for everyone involved, but for students with disabilities, it's even more difficult. It's a longer adjustment period for figuring out what they need to do. Every plan that they may have had in place is now upside down…We worked late on the 20th to get information out to students and faculty basically trying to reassure students that they would still get their accommodations." 

James said some accommodations such as notetaking have not changed much since the COVID-19 crisis began, but that testing accommodations have been severely impacted. Students who need paper and pencil tests or assistive technologies to access testing materials cannot necessarily test in their usual ways. Staff members have been working with faculty and students to develop testing methods that still meet accommodation requirements and are fair.

College students with disabilities at other universities are facing these issues as well, along with challenges related to their specific needs. And while some professors are using video to deliver lectures remotely, some have moved to an asynchronous online format. College parent Trisha Brown describes her son's adjustment:

"My son has ADHD. His classes are almost all online now, very little video, so it's become "work at your own pace." He thrives with structure and has done well attending class in person. Now, "working at your own pace" just means he leaves it until the last minute… Because teachers aren't used to teaching online, they aren't always over-communicating expectations. That means he doesn't know what is expected and has no guardrails/structure to keep on track."

Many students are intensely sad to have traded their in-person college experiences for living at home with parents. One college junior who asked not to be named has had trouble concentrating on her work and found herself sleeping more since she moved to home from her campus apartment. She sought help and has been diagnosed with depression. Others who live in off-campus apartments have stayed, but most still face a relatively solitary life interacting with only roommates.

Zoom and other teleconferencing technologies are being widely used, but as parent Jennifer Orton notes, some students, such as her son, need stronger executive functioning skills in order to navigate the new landscape of remote learning.

Experiences do vary, however. When asked about the switch to remote learning for her son with ADD, dyslexia and dysgraphia, Sue Gryzbowski relates an opposite experience. "My son is rocking the online classes," she reports. "Zoom, recorded lectures, [online] posted assignments, etc. allow him to better leverage his strengths. He is doing very well…"

Still others report mixed results; some students prefer communicating online, especially with professors. One parent explains: "My college student is lucky that his on-line classes pretty much mirror his in-person classes, which has been helpful….He also finds it easier to ask for help from his professors online for some reason I do not understand. He definitely misses the interaction with his peers, though. And chemistry lab is not going well. The virtual labs are challenging; he doesn't feel like he's learning as much."

One freshman "finds many aspects of the unanticipated switch to online delivery of classes challenging." His college has not arranged for his online quizzes to be set for the additional time his accommodations call for, and often tutors have not shown up for online tutoring sessions. It's clear that many college and university faculty and staff have struggled to switch their course delivery methods while also attending to other tasks that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about – social distancing, caring for ill or elderly relatives and supervising out-of-school children at home, many for the remainder of the school year. 

So what can students, parents and college personnel do to ease this transition and increase student success? Communication is key. Students should not hesitate to ask questions – some professors may think students are too unengaged to care about assignments if they never hear from them. If asking questions during class session is too uncomfortable, chat or texting functions within the meeting software can work, as can email. Faculty should do everything possible first to encourage students, and then to make expectations clear by posting instructions in multiple places, and explaining them in a variety of ways, both in writing and verbally when possible. Faculty should also remember that many students have new stresses now – financial concerns, missing friends and even just the stress of living at home with parents. This is not the time to assign extra work or to ungraciously deny extensions on work. 

Parents need to be aware of the stress college students are under these days as well. Most parents are still living in the same house or apartment they inhabited before this pandemic, while the students have been uprooted prematurely from their campus homes. Many students (with and without disabilities) are grieving not only a "lost semester" on campus, but a loss of independence as well – an independence they have worked hard to achieve. Continually asking if work is done is not what college students living independently expect; parents should not actively manage student work unless the student asks for advice or help.

Parents can also encourage students – while none of today's college parents remember the 1918 pandemic, most have lived through more stressful times than their students have. Remembering what may have comforted you following 9/11, or during the Great Recession of 2008, or other trauma may help you to help them as they navigate these changing circumstances. The challenges of adult life are still new and living with parents again (while perhaps a "nice surprise" for Mom and Dad) is somewhat of a setback for them. So being patient with them as they process the changes they are experiencing is important. And while most don't have the resilience that older adults have, some college students with disabilities actually are better equipped to handle this setback than other students – simply because of the other obstacles they have faced in their lives so far. One mother explains how her daughter, who has a spinal muscular atrophy, has been coping with coming home to live and study, just a few months after establishing a new life with a new caregiving team at college. She had recently been cast in a play and was becoming more involved on cam pus when she had to return home. "I think she's more wired for this type of situation than her peers," her mother explains. "She's used to facing adversity and adapting. And she is the most gracious young lady ever. If my mom had to be with me 24/7 when I was 18, I would have been miserable. I just hope things clear up by fall so she can return and begin to thrive all over again." •


Kara Jolliff Gould, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Journalism at the School of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Arkansas. Previously, she taught for more than 20 years at colleges such as Weber State, John Brown University and Pepperdine. She has worked professionally in media in Chicago and Salt Lake City and has published scholarly work in The Journal of Media Education, The Southern Communication Journal, and The Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. She is acquainted with the needs of students with disabilities both as a professor and as a parent.