Impact on study

An important thing for higher education institutions to understand is students with disabilities or mental health difficulties may face roadblocks to studying, or attending classes. Students with disabilities or difficulties may need support in areas including managing fatigue, anxiety, they may have poor concentration in class or during study times, low mood, or auditory and visual disturbances. Individuals with physical disabilities may also experience fatigue, difficulty getting to class, or have a harder time taking notes, completing assignments on time, or communicating. As a result, inclusive education can help mitigate these concerns, making it possible for students to find success in and outside of the classroom.

Learning differences

As of 2013, over four million individuals have been identified as having “various types and degrees of learning difficulties,” and the majority of those students also “tend to cope with more than one type of learning difficulty”. Many of these difficulties are referred to as “hidden”, meaning they can’t be observed with a physical manifestation of symptoms. However, that does not make them any less real, or the student in any less need of support from their educators or school. Universities need to be providing comprehensive education for staff and faculty, as well as providing support structures in the schools in order to ensure students with disabilities will have their needs met.

Online challenges

While online education has made huge strides in the last two years, there are still areas for improvement to make education more inclusive and accessible. When surveyed 473 disabled students stated that they had found adapting to remote learning and teaching “very difficult”. Therefore, it’s critically important universities ensure the structures and platforms being used for online learning are compatible with all students’ needs to make sure students are receiving an equitable education. One way to make sure this happens is to talk directly to the students themselves. A committee of disabled students is an ideal way to gather feedback and institute changes that work for them.

Zoom fatigue

With everyone seated in front of the keyboard for the last two and a half years, it’s hardly surprising many are suffering from computer screen burnout, or Zoom fatigue. As writer Charlotte Hyde indicates, students with disabilities may be at higher risk for Zoom, or rather, concentration fatigue. Hyde writes, “the rise in the use of video conferencing platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to people feeling fatigued. The phrase “Zoom fatigue” has gained traction, but deaf and disabled people like me already have a term for this — concentration fatigue.” What can be done? Ask the experts. It’s important for universities to reach out to the communities they are serving to not only check in, but to ask and hear how improvements can be made. Once students have given their input, those ideas should be put into action.

What students have to say

Understanding that students are the best at identifying their needs, Minister for Universities Chris Skidmore set up the Disabled Students’ Commission in the UK in 2019. The Commission “examined the student journey from beginning to end, exploring the challenges experienced by students in teaching and learning, living and social life, transitions into and out of higher education, and into the workplace.” Understanding the importance of hearing what students had to say, Skidmore not only met with student groups to hear their perspective, he also surveyed students for feedback, and “held roundtable evidence sessions with disabled students in Parliament.” Hearing students’ voices will help universities make the best informed decisions on how they can continue to create and foster inclusive learning environments.

University support system

After forming the Disabled Students’ Commission, universities in the UK were able to more effectively look at their current practices, and determine the best path forward. The goal of the Commission, and other opportunities for asking students’ input is to “identify and promote effective practice that helps those with disabilities have a positive and successful experience at university.”

Universities must legally make accommodations for students with disabilities. In light of the long term impacts of the COVID-19 virus, this is going to be even more important. Some of these recommended supports include “accommodation adapted for the needs of students with disabilities, professional care staff, and help from volunteers.” There should be staff available on campus and online who are trained in providing disability support services, as well as clear directions on how students can utilize these services.

There are other steps universities can take to make sure students feel accepted, safe, and included. Students who don’t feel accepted on campus are more likely to drop out. “Unfortunately, students with learning disabilities have much higher rates of dropout than their counterparts. An NCES report found that only 34% of these students have completed a four-year degree eight years after their high school graduation.” To help reduce the risk of students leaving school, universities can provide various accommodations based upon individual students’ needs to set them up for success.

Attending university is something that has become increasingly more accessible for students from all over the world, of all capabilities, and experiences. Fortunately, as universities continue to work towards creating more inclusive learning environments, we’re sure to see even more students reaching their full potential and achieving their goals.