Students with learning disabilities face hybrid learning difficulties

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Photo: Zhuoli Zhang

The Office of Student Accessibility Services is currently working remotely.

By Frankie Rowley, Assistant News Editor

The Office of Student Accessibility Services has seen an increase in students requesting accommodations since the pandemic began, as some students with learning disabilities continue to navigate unique struggles while adapting to the online and in-person classroom experience. 

With the implementation of the hybrid learning model last fall, the college crafted new accommodations for students with disabilities who need specific supports under the new plan. New accommodations include requesting that professors wear clear-fronted masks for students with auditory processing-related disabilities, placing microphones in every classroom, and giving students permission to turn off cameras while on Zoom and take a short break, similar to the accommodation for students to take breaks during in-person classes. The onus is on students to request these accommodations, which are not universally offered.

“We started seeing that the need was increased for accommodations for students that we didn’t even know before,” Diane Paxton, director of student accessibility services, said in an interview. “The online learning situation and all the stressors of everything was affecting everyone.” 

Danielle Francois, a senior BFA theater and performance major with ADHD said her experience with Student Accessibility Services has been rocky during the transition from in-person to remote learning. She is in the Emerson Los Angeles program this semester, which is currently remote. 

“This semester is really hard,” Francois said. “I literally just broke down last night because online learning is not my specialty. Emerson doesn’t offer a lot of things to help people that deal with things like this, with disabilities like mine. It’s a bittersweet thing. It’s an ongoing challenge and I’m learning every day. ”

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Francois emphasized the plight she faced year after year trying to obtain accommodation letters from SAS. Francois has had 504 accommodations since high school, meaning she can request things like extended time on exams and assignments, breaks from class, and testing in a location outside of the classroom. Francois said that it took two months for her to receive her accommodations letters in the fall and give them to her professors.

“All four years I’ve been at Emerson it has taken a battle to get my accommodations letters,” Francois said. “It’s been really hard. I have been approved for 504 accommodations since high school [and] have been diagnosed with ADHD since middle school. I thought at least being at Emerson College and having an accommodations office… it might be somewhat easier.”  

Grace Rispoli, a journalism major, also said the transition to online learning, especially when students were initially sent home last March, was a challenge due to her ADHD. 

“Motivation is incredibly hard for me, especially because motivation and attention are two really big difficulties for me,” Rispoli said. “I’m very specific about my learning environments, and being in my high school room was just hard, but I can’t really do work inside; I have to be out of my house. I was actually doing work in my car a lot of times because I just can’t do it in my bedroom.”

The switch to hybrid learning, Rispoli said, helped her focus by a small margin. 

“I would be fully lost if we didn’t have any in-person [classes] at all,” she said. “I need to have relationships with teachers, and that’s really hard to do fully online. I’m glad that I get to interact with teachers in person. I wouldn’t say I’ve necessarily given up on days we’re online, but it’s just overall harder to be engaged in those classes.” 

Ripsoli said that she has accommodations through the college, such as the ability to take breaks from class and extended time on tests and assignments, but the in-class experience hinges on how much professors respect her accommodations. 

“It really depends on the professor,” Rispoli said. “Some are really not very respectful of accommodations in general. If I have a personal relationship with my professor, I’m much more likely to be like, ‘I have ADHD, here’s what I’m struggling with [and] here’s how I’m feeling.’” 

The lack of consistent in-person classes, Rispoli said, makes personal or SAS-mediated communication with her professors all the more crucial.

“I take at least twice, if not three times as long to read a page than a normal person, just because my brain doesn’t pick it up as fast,” she said.  “I could be working nonstop and still be behind and when I don’t have that in-person aspect… it’s really just hard for me to try my hardest on Zoom.” 

Anna Grace, a sophomore marketing major who has dyslexia, said her experience with SAS has been positive. However, she noted there was a miscommunication regarding how her testing accommodations—which includes extended time and an individual who can read the material to her—would be modified for hybrid learning. 

Pre-COVID, Grace took proctored tests at the Writing and Academic Research Center. However, in the fall, she arrived to a dark room and a powered-off computer after scheduling a test there with her advisor. The computer, which Grace had to set up herself, contained the audio files she needed for her exam. Grace said she could have gotten the same environment by taking the test in her dorm room. 

“I wasn’t aware that no one was in the [WARC] to help me out,” Grace said. “I felt like it could have been a little better, but they were really helpful in the end.” 

Grace said the fall semester taught her how to handle hybrid learning, and certain elements of online learning have ended up boding well for her learning style. 

“Being on Zoom while in a lecture is a lot easier because you can screenshot the slides and also listen to [the professor] speak and then go back and refer to it,” Grace said. “In an in-person class, you either get the notes down or you don’t. I value that aspect of being online.”

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