How Remote Learning Options Benefit Students with Disabilities

Published September 2, 2021

In June 2021, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that remote school options would end by the fall. In neighboring New Jersey, Governor Philip Murphy released similar plans to end remote learning and bring students into the classroom. Across the country, school districts issued policies for ending remote instruction and returning exclusively to in-person learning.

For many parents, this announcement was a welcome relief. However, other students and parents worried. Many students with disabilities flourished in remote learning and the resources that come with it.

As state and local legislatures create plans for the 2021-2022 school year – and as the Delta variant spreads across the United States – lawmakers should seriously consider keeping remote learning options available for students of all backgrounds and abilities.

Remote learning breaks down learning barriers

For some students, remote learning was easier and more convenient than in-person instruction. They can listen carefully to educators, participate in group discussions clearly, and were more likely to attend class.

Araceli Ramos, who is legally blind, is pursuing her master’s in history from California State University Long Beach. She normally uses public transportation to get to class, which means taking a two-hour bus ride from her home in Southeast Los Angeles. Remote coursework means Ramos, along with other students, can log on a few minutes before class starts without leaving home.

Other disabled students are discovering that they are less likely to be treated as an “other” by their fellow students or an inconvenience to teachers because of the remote options. They have the same abilities when they log in as their peers and don’t need specific accommodations within the classroom. Even students who would have to miss class because of illness or medical appointments can log on from home or in a waiting room.

Educators are better at accommodating students remotely

Educators are also noticing how students with disabilities miss less and engage with the material on a deeper level because of remote learning options. Julie Van Dam is an associate professor of French at the University of Southern California. She also teaches a class on global narratives of disability. She has noticed that her fellow professors pay more attention to the needs of disabled students because they are logging in remotely.

“I feel that professors are definitely more able to see why accessibility matters,” says Van Dam. “It’s been a very clear reminder or just an awakening to the broad kinds of accessible learning modalities that we have to embrace.”

Because remote learning is so new to most educators, they are working carefully to accommodate different learners and disabled students. As students return to in-person learning, this care and accommodation should continue regardless of how a student is attending class.

Remote learning helps students with disabilities

Before state governments and administrators end remote learning and mandate in-person education, they should consider how online options help disabled students. There are several benefits of continuing remote instruction in 2021 and beyond.

  • Students no longer have to miss class if they aren’t feeling well with the ability to log into class and keep their microphones muted to hear the lesson. This means the attendees are less likely to fall behind.
  • Students don’t have to worry about creating verbal or physical distractions. This decreases the chances of bullying from their peers.
  • Students can ask questions comfortably in Zoom chat or through other video software.
  • Students can pause and replay videos multiple times to make sure they understand the material and heard the instructions correctly.
  • Students can watch recordings after class, freeing up space for necessary time off.

Additionally, it’s unfair to ask immunocompromised students to attend class in person when COVID-19 cases are still high. Two months after his previous announcement, de Blasio insisted that students would not have remote options even though only 60 percent of school employees and 53 percent of students ages 12 to 17 are vaccinated. Even students with strong immune systems might live with relatives who are sick or sensitive to infections.

Remote learning isn’t for everyone

While the virtual classroom has created a welcome environment for many learners, it has held some students back who were unable to focus or participate in remote schooling.

In particular, low-income students had the hardest time attending class remotely last year. A third of low-income students (whose parents have a household income of $25,000 or less) had zero access or limited access to devices for schoolwork, a much higher percentage than their more affluent peers.

Additionally, remote instruction has limited the learning abilities of disabled students who struggled to pay attention and engage with the coursework. A few drawbacks of remote learning include:

  • Students with auditory challenges have a hard time hearing through computer speakers.
  • While many systems can transcribe audio, transcripts aren’t always accurate. 
  • The remote classroom is less structured, which can create difficulties for students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to stay focused. Learning at home also presented other distractions for all kinds of learners.  
  • Students who use educational aids (like learning assistants) can’t get the one-on-one instruction they need in a group video call. 
  • Many educational apps and games aren’t developed for students with disabilities, which means these kids are left out of class activities.

Furthermore, students with intellectual disabilities report higher levels of loneliness because of pandemic isolation. It’s hard to feel included when their peers are engaging in person at school while they learn at home.

Keep remote learning options available

Students of all backgrounds and abilities felt frustrated during this past year of remote learning. However, the online classroom created new opportunities and opened doors for countless learners.

Education never thrives in a one-size-fits-all environment – and it’s often the most vulnerable who are left behind. Instead of mandating that all students return to the classroom, administrators and governing bodies should work to provide remote options for the students who need them. Even small acts, like recording classes for absent students, can significantly benefit the disabled community and people of all learning styles.

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