The myth of inclusive online learning


Students with learning disabilities face steep challenges with very little support

A student sits at a desk in university
Photo via Pixabay

With elementary to post-secondary school classes being moved online, students with learning disabilities are finding themselves stuck at home with little support. While some measures have been put in place to support them, they are far from enough.

At UVic, students are able to receive support through the Centre for Accessible Learning (CAL) as well as through the Society for Students with a Disability (SSD). These groups provide support through providing academic accommodations, subject tutors, alternate text formats which make reading easier, assistive technology such as text-to-speech software, and serve as a space to unwind.

This makes the school lives of students with learning disabilities easier. However, by transferring learning online, many of these resources are either temporarily unavailable, such as some speech-to-text software, or less accessible, such as tutors. Thankfully, CAL is supporting students and has stated that they are able to provide much the same support as in person, however this still doesn’t address one of the biggest problems facing students with disabilities: stigma.

Perhaps the biggest problem that students with learning disabilities face is dealing with the reception from their peers. Students, especially those at post-secondary institutions, may be worried about being picked on or denied projects because instructors or colleagues deem them unable because of their disability. This might be part of the reason why students with disabilities are underrepresented in graduate or Ph.D. programs. Especially if a student does not know they have a disability or does not disclose it, they will not get the support they need — leading them to drop out or barely scrape through their undergrads.

Forcing these students to go online hinders an already fraught process, as they have to grapple with new challenges and mental health struggles that may make them less likely to seek help. In addition, many students may have trouble being self-starters or get distracted easily due to their learning disabilities and thus have a difficult time working from home.

I have seen support for students with disabilities at the elementary and high school levels grow over the last few years. In many schools, they have programs that are being implemented to assist students with writing and reading. 

Unfortunately, this is often overlooked at the university level. Although the supports exist on some levels, they need to be expanded to provide more comprehensive ones. I do not know what this will look like but I have heard from friends and family who feel like they have been marginalized at institutions of higher learning. 

What we need most of all is compassion. Students with learning disabilities need to feel supported and that professors and peers will be patient with them. I know many people with learning disabilities who can perfectly explain concepts through speaking however have a hard time communicating it through writing and vice versa. The high value that academia places on these skills can hurt students as they are written off for not being able to effortlessly reach the high standards expected of them. 

Maybe it’s time to stop suggesting that just because someone struggles with certain aspects of writing or speaking they won’t ever be successful in academia. It may only take a little bit of effort and compassion to help students with learning disabilities become successful.

People with learning disabilities comprise roughly 10 per cent of Canada’s population, yet they seem to be short-changed when it comes to education, particularly at the post-secondary level. Online learning exposes the limits of the systems we have in place to support students with learning disabilities. It’s time for a rethink of the supports we provide because writing off 10 per cent of the population is not the way to go.

I do not personally have a learning disability and I do not in any way claim to speak for those who do. I just know what it is like to have loved ones with learning disabilities — who happen to be some of the smartest people I know — be written off at every step of the way because they struggle with some of the skills on which society puts a premium and deems necessary for someone to be considered “smart.” This needs to change.